2011 NHL Free Agency: More Questions Than Answers for Pittsburgh Penguins

James ConleyContributor IIIMay 20, 2011

2011 NHL Free Agency: More Questions Than Answers for Pittsburgh Penguins

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    As the Pittsburgh Penguins try to build for another run at the Stanley Cup, they'll be met with uncertainty in a number of key areas.

    General Manager Ray Shero has more than a few roster spots to fill before the beginning of training camp. He also has a number of pending free agents to try to lure back to Pittsburgh or cut ties with before July 1.

    Of those players on the roster at the end of last year, only eight are signed into next season. The only right winger among them is Eric Tangradi, who may have spent the entire previous season in AHL Wilkes-Barre, if not for injury.

    According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, the Penguins have 17 players signed next season and $55 million committed to them. Unless the salary cap increases from its current $59.4 million ceiling, the Penguins will have less than $5 million to fill four starting roster spots—to speak nothing of bench players.

    Of course, there remains the lingering questions of the long-term health of players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Dustin Jeffrey, three centers who endured a severe concussion and a pair of knee surgeries, respectively.

    The NHL entry draft is set to take place June 24, and the team will have to decide what kind of player to take with the 23rd overall pick. The power play is also in need of attention, as well as the possible exit of Tony Granato, who should get more than a few looks as a potential head coaching candidate over the summer.

    Ray Shero has more questions to address than we can ask in a day. We'll stop at 10 and just five for tonight.

    The second half of the 10-pack comes Friday.

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RFA Tyler Kennedy

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    The Penguins are going to have a rough time resigning Tyler Kennedy.

    Kennedy, one of three 20-goal scorers to have spent the entire 2010-11 season with the Penguins, is due a nice payday after making only $725,000 in each year of his last deal.

    Among the other names to score 21 goals during the regular season: Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Kris Versteeg, James van Riemsdyk and Patrik Elias.

    Eric Tangradi is Pittsburgh's only right winger signed into next season. Kennedy provides familiarity and a newfound scoring touch at the position, but his payday might be too much for the cap-strapped team to handle.

    Kennedy struggled early this year but turned things on during the second half. He potted the majority of his goals with both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby out of the lineup.

    Notably, he found his touch after spending an optional morning skate session talking at length with coach Dan Bylsma. Kennedy reportedly had an hour-long, one-on-one conversation with the coach. They performed no drills, and Kennedy scored in his next game, the beginning of his goal-scoring tour.

    No one else attended the optional skate.

Sidney Crosby's Health

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    No news is old news when it comes to the Pittsburgh captain.

    The Penguins need Sidney Crosby to get healthy in order to be successful. A healthy Evgeni Malkin may have gotten them past the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the team no doubt needs their captain to challenge for another championship.

    Crosby is currently on vacation. He hasn't been seen by doctors since the middle of the Tampa series, and his status has remained the same since.

    Until the team says otherwise, Crosby is resting.

    If you subscribe to the conspiracy theories surrounding Crosby's concussion, know that his status for next season remains sealed in a manila folder, buried deep under Area 51, surrounded by concrete.

Evgeni Malkin's Line

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    For the talk surrounding Sidney Crosby, the team needs its other big center to make a return to form in 2011-12.

    Evgeni Malkin scored 113 points in 82 games during the 2008-09 season, good enough to capture the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer.

    In two injury-shortened seasons since, Malkin has 114 points in 110 games played.

    Geno's scoring percentage went from 1.38 points per game in 2008-09 to 1.04 points per game from 2009-2011.

    Malkin played all 82 games in the seasons in which he scored 100 or more points (2007-08 and 2008-09), but played only 110 of 164 possible games in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.

    Other than injury, the difference lies in his linemates.

    Malkin amassed most of his points with Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora on his wings. In 2008-09, Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot played on his line for parts of the regular season and the entire playoffs, and experienced some of the best stretches of their respective careers over that time.

    Since that year, Malkin hasn't played on a consistent line for an entire season. Names like Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky were little help in getting Malkin back at a decent pace.

    Preseason discussions last summer centered on putting Malkin on Jordan Staal's wing, but Malkin has shown he's much more comfortable at his natural position.

    If Geno remains at center and not on Staal's wing, he'll be sure to have either Chris Kunitz or James Neal on his wing, neither a bad option.

    He might also benefit from having Eric Tangradi on his line, a low-budget, big-body winger who could provide the net-front presence Malkin has missed since Malone's departure for Tampa Bay.

    Malkin can't endure a third consecutive season of linemate uncertainty. The team owes him better.

Max Talbot and Pascal Dupuis

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    Maxime Talbot and Pascal Dupuis are key role players on this team. They bring versatility, speed and grit, each a trait necessary if a player wishes to remain in the NHL under Dan Bylsma's direction.

    Talbot and Dupuis are among the Penguins' list of unrestricted free agents. Talbot had a rough regular season, totaling only seven goals and 21 points in 82 games (he was one of two players to appear in all 82 regular season games).

    Talbot played better toward the end of the year, and managed to co-lead the team in playoff points with four (goal, three assists) in seven games.

    Dupuis was a complementary piece in the trade that brought Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh from Atlanta but has become a reliable role player since.

    Dupuis has been a fixture on Crosby's line in each of the last two seasons, but was able to move to the third line when Crosby went down and represented himself nicely.

    In spite of the total lack of offense in seven playoff games, the speedster trio of Conner-Talbot-Dupuis was the Penguins' best line.

    Talbot made $1.05 million last year. Unless another club is willing to overpay for a .26 points per game player, Talbot may lean on his fan appeal and locker room popularity and remain in Pittsburgh. Dupuis, making $1.4 million last year, may not make much more elsewhere.

    The team has disclosed no information on contract talks with either player.

Will James Neal Break Out?

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    James Neal was the star acquisition of the deal that sent Alex Goligoski to Dallas, and was meant to provide a much needed scoring punch on the wings of the top two lines.

    To say he struggled is an understatement. Neal recorded two points in seven playoff games and six in 20 regular season games. He scored only two goals, and both of fluky variety.

    If scoring chances were an individually maintained stat (or one I could find), he may have had more in 27 games with Pittsburgh than anyone who started the season on the roster.

    Still, Neal was counted on to provide scoring in the absence of the big guns, and like everyone else, failed to do so.

    If Neal earned any doubters following his abbreviated stint with the team this season, he'll have a chance to silence them next year.

    Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin need left wingers. Chris Kunitz has been a fixture on Crosby's wing for two seasons, and may remain there even with Neal on the team.

    If Neal plays sidecar to Malkin, it may be a breakout season for both players. Malkin hasn't had a sniper on his wing since Petr Sykora in 2008, and Neal is accustomed to playing with a world class center. In two-plus years in Dallas, he played alongside Brad Richards, one of the best passing centers in the game.

    He'll also have a chance to break out on a power-play unit that should field names like Malkin, Crosby and Letang, with Kunitz, Tangradi and Staal also seeing time.

    Neal was brought to Pittsburgh to play wing along the two elite centers, and the full value of the trade won't be known until he gets the chance to do so.