NHL Free Agents 2012: Which Pittsburgh Penguin Free Agents Stay and Go?

Eron NoreContributor IIIJuly 13, 2011

NHL Free Agents 2012: Which Pittsburgh Penguin Free Agents Stay and Go?

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    For all intents and purposes, the Pittsburgh Penguins are done with the Free Agency period for 2011. The guys you see or do not see on the roster, make up the version of the team for the upcoming season.

    If you are like me, you no doubt have already played the 2011-12 season out in your mind (great to see Crosby lift the Cup again huh?) and are thinking about next offseaon's Free Agent class.

    There are not a large group of Free Agent's, but some will require tough decisions and could have a real impact on the makeup of this team.

    For all contract information and salary cap numbers, I am using the fine work from Cap Geek. They break it all down, so if you are every curious on a situation for any team and the Cap, try them out first.

    According to that site, after the 2011-12 season Chris Kunitz, Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham, and Brent Johnson are Unrestricted Free Agents. James Neal, Eric Tangradi, and Matt Niskanen will be Restricted Free Agents.

    There are no guarantees that the NHL Salary Cap will rise heading in to the 2012-13 Season, though it does seem largely possible. On the surface, that makes signing Free Agents easier, but as we witnessed this past offseason teams can offer more money or years as happened with Max Talbot and Mike Rupp.

    Another thing to keep in mind is the indication by Josh Yohe of Trib Total Media that GM Ray Shero's main priority will be opening up the deals of both Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal next summer to sign them to long-term extensions.

    It is very likely that Sid and Jordan may take less than full market value, but you cannot expect that of either of them. They both have a right to make as much money as someone is willing to pay them.

    Luckily, from a Penguins fans' standpoint, these guys have shown themselves time and time again to be committed to the Penguins, the city of Pittsburgh, and making sure that the team has a shot at the Stanley Cup each and every season they suit up.

    With all of that being said, who will stay and who will go? Only time will tell. But until July 1, 2012 there is not anything wrong with a little speculation on our parts.

    After all, there still is a long time between now and the first drop of the puck in Vancouver October 5, 2011. Also, let us hope for labor peace that allows for Free Agency next summer in the first place! On to the slides!

Restricted Free Agent: Eric Tangradi

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    Eric Tangradi was acquired along with Chris Kunitz in the Ryan Whitney deal. He is 6'4", 221 lbs. and everything you could want in an NHL power forward.

    The problem is, while he was once celebrated as the steal of the trade that brought him here, he has had some difficulty producing. Part of that has been injuries, part of it trouble finding his scoring touch, and part of it being relegated to work on the bottom lines as opposed to running wild as a top six forward.

    The 2011-12 season is going to be a crucial one for Eric. He has been invited to the Penguins 2011 Prospect Development Camp despite spending time with the NHL Penguins last season and appearing in one Playoff game.

    You can read more on my thoughts about the key invitees to the Prospect Camp here.

    At this point, much is unknown about Tangradi's development. He could spend time in the AHL or be anywhere from a second to fourth line player in the NHL this season.

    To maximize his potential, it is my belief that he needs to work on the second line with Malkin and whoever else is there, be it Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy, Pascal Dupuis, etc.

    Since Tangradi is restricted, as long as he does not have some type of character issue that makes the team look bad or angers his coaches, he should be back in the fold past this season.

Unrestricted Free Agent: Steve Sullivan

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    Since Steve Sullivan has yet to play a game in a Penguins uniform, it is admittedly a bit difficult to judge whether or not he will be signed here. There are some question marks surrounding Sullivan and injuries, but generally speaking, when Shero likes a guy the fanbase will give him a fair shot.

    Again, Steve Sullivan could light the world on fire for the team in the 2011-12, or he could flop. Nobody knows which it will be.

    Since that is the case, let us agree that in order to be re-signed Sullivan will need to play his role effectively, chip in timely goals, and want to be here long.

    Remember, part of the reason Sullivan could be signing here is to re-establish his worth in the NHL. Maybe one year is all that is in the cards from both team and player's perspective.

    If I had to bet a dollar on it, I would lean toward Sullivan not re-signing.

Restricted Free Agent: Matt Niskanen

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    When Penguins fans learned that in addition to James Neal, the Penguins would be getting a defenseman named Matt Niskanen for largely unpopular (mostly unfair) defenseman Alex Goligoski, the reaction was that Ray Shero must have held Dallas up with a gun.

    Then as time went on, Niskanen replaced Goligoski as the whipping boy on the Penguins defense. This is a proud tradition, passed on by the likes of Ryan Whitey and Sergei Gonchar's first season here and his last playoff series with the Pens.

    I do not like to think of anything as a certainty when it comes to NHL roster moves, but there do not seem to be many scenarios that lead to Niskanen returning to the Penguins past the upcoming season.

    It would take movement of one and possibly two defenseman from the current NHL roster, which is not very likely.

    When you factor in that prospect Simon Despres is getting closer to an NHL roster spot every day and, well, it has been nice knowing Nisky.

    One thing that is evident to me though, is that when Niskanen is in the lineup, he could use a veteran presence to calm him down. Often he was paired with Ben Lovejoy last season.

    Nothing against Lovejoy, but both were finding their way with the team's blue line core. Perhaps some time with Zbynek Michalek or Paul Martin would settle Niskanen down and let him develop.

    Even that would be too late to save his career here as players like Goligoski and Whitney surely would attest.

Unrestricted Free Agent: Arron Asham

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    As the 2011 NHL Free Agency period approached, it seemed that Arron Asham was Plan C. Maybe even Plan D. Or worse.

    Through the strange winds of fate, guys like Max Talbot and Mike Rupp went to other divisional foes but not before Asham was signed to a one-year deal.

    Asham did not make much of an impression during the regular season. He spent a decent amount of time with various injuries, including a concussion.

    The playoffs, however, proved to be Asham's time to shine. He had three goals in the seven game series with the Tampa Bay Lightning and was one of few players to have "life" each and every shift.

    In the 2011-12 season, Asham will be counted on to provide grit similar to how guys like Talbot and Rupp did. If he can bring that playoff level intensity he had at the end of last season, this year will bode well for him.

    If he does that, it would likely signal the end of his days in Pittsburgh. In fact, it is tough to see many scenarios where Asham is back in the Burgh for 2012-13.

    He is approaching his mid-30's and as the Penguins have proved, they believe grit players are a dime a dozen. This does not lessen the impact Asham can have on the 2011-12 season though. It seems likely his role will be one of the most important on the team that doesn't relate to tangible statistics.

Unrestricted Free Agent: Brent Johnson

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    It does not seem possible to write anything about Brent Johnson without mentioning the melees he was involved in against the New York Islanders. I was in the building when he fought Rick DiPietro, and it was probably one of the cooler things I've ever witnessed live.

    If nothing else, Johnson will be remember for re-igniting a rivalry with the Isles. But he is so much more than that.

    For starters, he is a very capable NHL goalie. Johnny appeared in 23 games last season, posting a .922 save percentage and a 2.17 goals against average.

    To put that in perspective, he had a better goals against average and save percentage than Marc-Andre Fleury. His most valuable trait is the fact that he willing serves as a backup and provides a friendly competition with MAF.

    Johnson's play during Fleury's early season struggles helped keep the team afloat. Once Fleury found his game again, Johnson went back to the bench without so much as one gripe about it. True team guys like that are rare.

    There will be a few questions past this season that impact Johnson's career here. Will he accept a reasonable salary from a team standpoint? If not, is the team willing to place the backup role in young Brad Thiessen's hands?

    Each of these are difficult to answer because the team surely will not want to spend too much on a backup goalie, yet if Fleury were to be injured for any length of time after this season, would a rookie netminder keep the Stanley Cup dreams alive?

    This one is too close to call. One year out, I say Thiessen is the backup in 2012-13. Sorry, Johnny!

Restricted Free Agent: James Neal

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    When James Neal was acquired from the Dallas Stars for Alex Goligoski, there could have been a parade in the streets. Not just because fan punching bag "Gogo" was gone, but because the Pens traded for a legitimate scoring winger.

    Fast forward 20 regular season games and seven playoff games and Neal scored two goals. But as NCAA Football analyst Lee Corso would say, "not so fast my friend!"

    Yes, Neal struggled with his numbers. But given the lineups at the time, he was forced to do things that do not cater to his game.

    For example, Neal spent a lot of time carrying and lugging the puck due to a lack of playmakers in the lineup. It seems that the best situation for Neal is to have a playmaker do that stuff, then find him as he slips in to an open space and unleashes his cannon of a wrist-shot.

    The possibility of that happening a lot is only a few months away. Early talk is that he will switch positions to right wing and play on a line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz to start the season.

    Call it a hunch, but I think Crosby will not only find some room for Neal, but find him with some unreal passes as well. All Neal has to do is finish the job and play his game.

    Based on Neal's age (he will turn 24 in September) and his status as an RFA, he will be back in a Penguins uniform for at least a few more years.

Unrestricted Free Agent: Chris Kunitz

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    If you are the type of person that looks ahead to the Penguins' free agent class of 2012, let me commend you on your dedication. This type of speculation is not for the weak or passive fans. Making it this far, proves you are the real deal.

    When it comes to these free agents, the most important and challenging one will be left winger Chris Kunitz. As mentioned earlier, he was acquired along with Eric Tangradi for defenseman Ryan Whitney.

    Where do you start with Kunitz? I guess the beginning is the best place. He compliments Sidney Crosby well by using his physical style to open up lots of room.

    What Pens fan does not remember his near murder of Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timmonen at the start of the 2009 Playoff Series between the teams? That was a "tone setter" to be sure.

    But as I have become accustomed to saying during games, "hits aren't goals." In 136 regular season games, Kunitz has 43 of them. Goals, of course.

    In the 43 playoff games he has with the team, only six goals netted. It was not until last season that Kunitz stood out as a consistent scorer.

    Last season, unfortunately like the season before it, witnessed Kunitz miss time due to injury. In the past two seasons, Chris has missed 48 games due to injury. That is a concern.

    Is it just a byproduct of his physical play? Or is it a tendency to get injured?

    "Kunie" will count $3.725 million against the cap in the 2011-12 season. If he has a strong season with no health concerns and nice looking statistics, what exactly will he want in terms of salary and length of contract?

    It seems that Shero saves contracts of more than two years for the players that he considers to be integral to the team, or too good of a bargain to worry about every few years. Is Chris Kunitz in that category of players?

    Many people talk "hometown discount" when it comes to free agents to be. It does not seem to happen that often though, and there is no real evidence that Kunitz would make such a sacrifice.

    Times like this is when I am glad to not be an NHL general manager. The case can be made for letting Kunitz walk just as easy as it could for signing him.

    Not to get completely ridiculous, but as of this moment, the Penguins have seven players under contract for the 2013-14 season (two season from now).

    It seems very likely that a re-tooling of the players around Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, and a handful of others will take place heading in to that season.

    Will Chris Kunitz be around then? If I had to bet on it, I would say no. But since this is so far away, there's plenty of time to kick the can around and tell each other what we think.

    Feel free to leave a comment on this one and let me know your thoughts. After all, we have a full year to let this one grow.