The NHL offseason is heating up with the entry draft and start of free agency fast approaching. Pen’s GM Ray Shero is gearing up for contract talks with several key players and perusing the lists of (un)restricted free agents for possible fits. Here is a uniformed, but hopefully logical, stab in the dark at how I could see the end product turning out on several of these topics.
As it stands, the Penguins have approximately $45.1M wrapped up in 11 forwards, three defensemen and two goalies. This allotment leaves room on the roster for two forwards and four defensemen. With the salary cap expected to rise $2M to $58.8M, Shero has about $13.7M to play with.
For those who cringe at the prospect of signing two top line forwards as well as half of the defense, please see the Chicago Blackhawks. I believe, and this is from memory, that they will have a salary cap of about $55M (after bonuses) and have already committed $57M to 14 players. Think Stan Bowman is having mixed emotions about Dale Tallon right now?
Shero’s greatest task will be to decide how and where to allocate these funds. One problem that he faces is the lack of top line wingers. Kunitz is the only winger under contract who projects as such. Dupuis and Talbot have both been competent in spot duty alongside Malkin or Crosby, but no one will confuse them for potent goal-scoring wingers. Instead, the Penguins are infused with an excess of third/fourth line forwards.
Still, the Penguins were fifth in the league in scoring last season and won the Stanley Cup the year before: all with relatively the same crop of wingers. Most people rightfully trace the Penguins disappointing end to the season to poor defensive play in front of Fleury, so expect that to be the first position that Shero addresses.
The overall majority of Pen’s followers believe that Sergei Gonchar will be leaving via free agency. I also expect this to be the case. A guy of Gonchar’s age is almost assuredly looking for security in his next contract. Being that he is over the age of 35, teams cannot offer him a long term contract to reduce the yearly cap number and then expect him to retire just a couple of years into it. Whoever signs him is stuck with him for the duration: be it a 50+ point or injury plagued season.
At this stage of his career he is a defensive liability who will continue to have problems staying healthy. Even if his contract demands were to come down to $4M a year, it’s still too much to pay for a power play specialist who is limited in other roles. I think it’s time for the Pens to give Goligoski and Letang top PP minutes. Even if they falter, there is always the option of moving Malkin to the point again. There is enough talent on the roster, and money, that Bylsma can find a way to make it work.
Mark Eaton is a guy that Shero will probably make an effort to keep. He is a solid, reliable defensive defenseman whose offensive skills are a bit underestimated in my mind. He’s a decent skater who showed that he is capable of escaping the forecheck and making the first pass out of the zone. At 33, he’s not going to receive a big contract, but another year or two at about his same salary ($2M) is a manageable figure if he’ll accept.
Considering the Penguins blue line was exposed for its lack of physicality last season, this should be the first position that we see Shero commit significant money to a free agent. As much as everyone wants to see Anton Volchenkov in a Penguins sweater, for $5M a year it’s not going to happen. There are, however, other solid defensive defensemen. They may lack the overall hitting prowess of Volchenkov, but will command significantly less money.
Dan Hamsuis, Paul Martin, Willie Mitchell and Zbynek Michalek are all guys that Shero could make a run at. Also, I don’t know about anyone else, but I would love to see Shero make an offer to Niklas Hjalmarsson of the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s a 23 year old, restricted free agent who played significant minutes during the Hawks’ Stanley Cup run. Any offer under $3,013,434.00 would only demand a second round pick in recompense, and chances are Chicago wouldn’t be able to match that offer. Of course, there will be a lot of other teams with the same thought on their minds.
I expect the remaining two defensive openings to go to Wilkes-Barre players. The cap doesn’t allow teams the luxury of turning over roster spots to proven veterans every year. Young guys will continue to have to be promoted from within at cap friendly salaries.
Ben Lovejoy didn’t look out of place in the NHL last season. He was responsible in his own end and had a good first pass. The seventh man could be a rotation of AHL players like Engelland, Bortuzzo and Strait. Simon Despres would also be available for 10 games before he’d have to be sent back to Juniors.
Overall, I expect Shero to spend about $7M in replenishing his defensive corps, leaving $6.7M in cap space. Obviously, being the prudent GM that he is, Shero will set some of that number aside for call ups, acquisitions (remember Craig Adams?), and potential deadline trades. Therefore, expect the number to be used for the forward group to be around $5.5-6M.
Note: I will be making these predictions under the assumption that Eric Tangradi is playing alongside Malkin or Crosby next season. He looked like he belonged during his one game call up and it seemed that as the game wore on Bylsma put him on the ice more and more often. Even when the Islanders pressed late in the game and into OT, Bylsma still had enough confidence in Tangradi to send him out. I think that he will have to play his way off the roster in training camp for management to send him back to Wilkes-Barre. He will count $.875M against the salary cap.
Now comes the fun part. The first two things that should be on Shero’s plate are: offer Cooke a two-year contract at $1.5M and let fellow GMs know that Eric Goddard is on the market (reasoning explained later).
If Cooke accepts:
The next thing I’m doing is throwing an offer out to Frolov for one year at $4M. He’ll probably refuse, but he had a down season and he was even benched at times by coach Terry Murray. Maybe he’ll take a one-year deal in an effort to boost his market value (or he’ll bolt to the KHL). Nevertheless it’s worth a try.
Suddenly the Pen’s wingers become a powerhouse. I would then offer Guerin a one-year, $1M deal. If this scenario occurs, the Pens forward group looks like the following: Crosby-Kunitz-Guerin; Malkin-Frolov-Tangradi; Staal-Cooke, Kennedy, and then three of Adams-Talbot-Dupuis-Rupp.
Frolov doesn’t accept:
Offer Lee Stempniak 2+ years at $3.5M. Bill Guerin offered the same, one-year, $1M contract.
There is still, of course, the possibility that Cooke rejects the above offer. He absolutely shouldn’t make $2M and if that’s what he asks, he’s gone. In this case, I would offer Colby Armstrong a two or three year deal at $2.5M. If Armstrong also doesn’t work out, Raffi Torres is a similar player who would command about the same amount. Under this scenario, I would also offer Ray Whitney or Teemu Selanne a one-year contract at $2M.
Failing Whitney and Selanne, Bill Guerin would be the fallback. Under this scenario, there is still money to offer a contract up to $2.5M: Torres, Armstrong, Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Tanguay or Ponikarovsky are all possibilities.
I kind of like the thought of signing both Cooke ($1.5M) and Armstrong ($2.5M). Couple this with Selanne or Whitney at $2M and that puts some grit and skill on the top two lines while keeping the third line of Staal-Cooke-Kennedy together. There are lots of other teams that will be bidding for the services of Stempniak, Frolov and Whitney; it’s quite possible that all three will price themselves out of the Penguins range, so it might turn out that the best Shero can do is settle for similar players in Cooke and Armstrong. Colby is at least more capable than Fedotenko.
The thing that should be approached with skepticism is having more than one of Guerin, Whitney, Selanne and Kariya on the roster. Guerin and Whitney showed their age at the end of last season, as did Kariya and Selanne who have also battled injuries in recent years. If the Pens are to make another deep run, depending on more than one grey-hair as a scoring winger sounds like a dangerous gamble to me. However, I still expect one of them to be on the roster next season.
The Pens currently have three returning top six players. Their third line is all but fixed (with the return of Matt Cooke). Thus, they are left with five fourth line players. Dupuis and Talbot are obviously candidates to fill in on the top two lines, but operating under the assumption that Tangradi gets promoted, Guerin/Whitney/Selanne/Kariya signs, and the Pens acquire another top four winger via free agency, that keeps Dupuis and Talbot on the fourth line.
The club won’t carry 14 forwards and unless they want to send one of those five to the AHL and risk losing them for no compensation through waivers, it would make sense to try to trade one. Goddard is the odd man out in my opinion. He played 45 games last season, averaged around four minutes a game and fought eight times. He also averaged a minor penalty for about every five minutes of play. That’s downright ridiculous. Given his limited role and the fact that he doesn’t even play in the playoffs, I think he needs to go. Guys like Mike Rupp and Ben Lovejoy are capable of picking up the “protection mantle” that Goddard wore for 4:11 per night.