Thanks to the work of Pittsburgh Penguins' General Manager Ray Shero on the opening day of Free Agency on Thursday, a similar scene to this article's photo could be occurring in June of one of the next few seasons. Next year's edition of the Penguins will have quite a different look, but as far as this writer is concerned, a much better look.
Going into Thursday, Ray Shero's plan by all appearances was to re-sign top defenseman and powerplay quarterback Sergei Gonchar and to sign Dan Hamhuis, whose negotiating rights were acquired from the Nashville Predators for a 3rd-round draft pick. That changed though when the Ottawa Senators signed Gonchar to a three year, $16.5 million contract with a no trade clause. The Penguins had offered him two years, $10 million to stay.
As hard as it was, letting Gonchar go was the correct move. He is not getting any younger (36) and has been injured often over the past few seasons. This is not to belittle his great contributions to the team over the past five seasons, but it was time to move on.
Next season, it may look like Ottawa made a good investment, but as for the next two seasons, all bets are off. As for Dan Hamhuis, he signed with the Vancouver Canucks, and judging from Ray Shero's quotes from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, never entered serious negotiations with the Penguins. It is believed his desire was to play close to his home in British Columbia, but his path to a Stanley Cup will be much harder in Vancouver than Pittsburgh, as the Western Conference is hyper-competitive. The team also lost defensemen Jordan Leopold, and more importantly, Mark Eaton.
Luckily for the Penguins, an excellent Plan B was in place in case the above scenario occurred. The first part was Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek, signed to a five year, $20 million contract. Michalek is widely reputed to be a solid, stay at home type defenseman who is good on the penalty kill, which is just what the doctor ordered for this team. He was the Coyotes' top priority to resign, which gives us a clue as to his value. A quick scan of Coyotes blogs reveals the fans aren't too happy about his departure either. These are good signs as far as this writer is concerned.
The second part was the signing of New Jersey Devils defenseman Paul Martin, who was regarded as the best two-way defenseman available in free agency. His contract was also a five year deal, worth $25 million. Martin has been at least +20 the past two seasons.
Playing with Martin Brodeur undoubtedly figures into that, but playing with Marc-Andre Fleury should produce similar results. Don't jump for joy just yet though, as the Devils managed to sign a great defenseman in Anton Volchenkov. With winger Matt Cooker re-signing earlier in the week, it is safe to say that the Penguins' team defense and penalty killing will be improved from this past season.
The bottom line for the Penguins is that the salary cap giveth and the salary cap taketh way.
The cap has given us four seasons of great to extraordinary hockey and a Stanley Cup championship. But the cap has taken away players like Ryan Malone, Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill, Marian Hossa, Sergei Gonchar, and possibly Bill Guerin.
With this year's probable departure of Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky, new opportunities will open up for young players in the organization. Dustin Jeffrey, Mark Letestu, Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson, Ben Lovejoy, and Deryk Engelland will all have a shot to make the team next year. This will bring even more excitement to the team and test what the Penguins have in terms of young talent and how their player development system is working.