On Thursday morning, the news broke that the Pittsburgh Penguins would not be bringing Bill Guerin back to their lineup for the 2010-2011 season.
I read this news on Twitter and watched my feed explode with disappointment from the other Penguins fans that I follow. Most people wondered why he couldn’t be brought back for one more year, expressing their dismay at Ray Shero. And trust me, if you’re a Penguins fan, you hardly ever disagree with Shero.
But I rest my case.
I read everyone’s reactions to the news, and I did understand where they were coming from, but I just could not feel all that disappointed about this.
It’s not that I think Guerin is a bad guy or a poor player. It’s just that, as I tried to sleep at 1:30 a.m. on Friday night, I formed an opinion about why Shero did this (yes, I dream up article topics when I’m trying to sleep).
It wasn’t because he thinks Guerin is a bad guy or a terrible player. After all, he did help the team to a Stanley Cup in 2009, and without him, the trophy win may have been impossible. I’m sure Shero thinks highly of Billy G and everything he brought to the team.
Rather, I think that Shero’s choice to not bring Guerin back signals that this is the start of a youth movement for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It is time for the younger guys to really show us what they have.
A quick look at the current roster tells us that the oldest players who will return for 2010-2011 are Brent Johnson and Craig Adams, both of whom are aged 33.
Guerin, who will turn 40 in November, is officially an unrestricted free agent who is looking for a new home before training camps open in a few weeks. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who turned 36 in April, will be spending the next three years (and maybe the last three years) of his career with the Ottawa Senators.
One of the reasons that Pens fans felt Guerin should have been brought back to Pittsburgh was for his leadership experience and veteran tenure in the NHL. His career has spanned 18 years, and he won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995 long before he came to the Penguins.
However, I think that argument is officially null and void.
Sidney Crosby was appointed the captain of the Penguins at age 19, still holds the position at age 23, and will probably be the captain until he retires or leaves Pittsburgh via free agency. He has done a great job at becoming the new face of the Penguins after Mario Lemeiux’s retirement. He is as composed and patient as can be, yet he has a burning desire to lead the Penguins to victory in each and every game.
Let’s look at some of the players who were alternate captains at some point or another this year. Evgeni Malkin is 24 years old and has a Stanley Cup in addition to a Conn Smythe, a Calder Memorial Trophy, and a Hart Memorial Trophy. His three individual awards show how important he is to the Penguins.
Brooks Orpik is 29 years old. He has an Olympic silver medal and is not afraid to speak his mind to the media when the team is struggling. He may not be as decorated as Crosby or Malkin, but he also brings it every game with his physical play.
Jordan Staal is 21 years old and will turn 22 just before training camp opens. He has already served two stints as an alternate captain and has played in every regular season game for the last three years. He even came back into the playoffs against Montreal this year after he was cut in the foot by P.K. Subban’s skate. That just shows how dedicated he is to the hockey player’s mentality of playing through the pain.
As you can see, the Penguins have several younger players stepping up as team leaders. I am not trying to argue that Guerin was a good or a bad leader. It just shows that these players are now experienced enough as professionals to be good examples for their teammates and guide the team through adversity.
There is also the issue of younger players in the minors who may be ready to contribute to the Penguins this season.
Chris Conner is 26 years old and has previously played with the Dallas Stars. However, he shined brightly in a call-up to Pittsburgh this year and scored two goals to help the Penguins to a victory over the New York Rangers. He also had 56 points in 59 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
Mark Letestu is 25 years old and made his NHL debut this past season. He has been improving his AHL point totals every year, going from 18 points in 2007-2008 to 65 points in 2009-2010. He scored his first NHL goal this year, and although that was his only point in 10 games with Pittsburgh, he is one of the most underrated prospects in the system and deserves another look.
Eric Tangradi is the Penguins’ top prospect headed in to the new season. He is 21 years old and had 39 points in 65 games with Wilkes-Barre last year. He did not have any points in a one-game call-up to Pittsburgh, but many talk about his size and speedy skating to point out why he needed to be in the NHL yesterday.
Many Pens fans want to give the younger guys a chance rather than see Guerin return, and I couldn't agree more. I watch the Baby Penguins every year and many of these guys have earned a chance to crack the Pittsburgh lineup permanently. Why would you keep them languishing when they should be in the NHL? It's not worth it to let Guerin take a roster spot from one of those guys.
Shero brought in seven new free agents this offseason. Their average age is 28 years old, with Arron Asham being the oldest at 32 years old and Brett Sterling and Corey Potter being the youngest at 26. To me, this says Shero is going in the direction of experienced, but not almost over the hill.
Shero is one of the best general managers in the league when it comes to working with the salary cap. He does not want to overpay for a player who is already starting to slow down. While no one knows what kind of salary demands Guerin had, it is probably a safer bet to lock up Zbynek Michalek (27 years old) for five years at $4 million rather than sign Guerin for another $2 million and see his production decline.
To close out, I know some of you will comment and say that Guerin still puts up points and that he will always be remembered as a valuable member of the Penguins. And if you want to say that, I am fine with it.
However, when it comes to hockey, age is more than just a number. It affects a player’s production level, can make them more injury prone, and can be a detriment to the salary cap. That is likely what led Shero to telling Guerin it was time for him and the Penguins to go their separate ways.
It is time for the youth to take over in Pittsburgh.