As free agency opens, Penguins aim to keep young core intact

| Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Penguins could miss the net on the first day of free agency, but that does not mean they will fail to score.

The free-agency floodgates open at noon today. Ten players from the Penguins' Stanley Cup final roster - notably star right wing Marian Hossa and defenseman Brooks Orpik - could be washed away in waters that figure to be filled with inflated offers from interested suitors.

The best-kept secret in the NHL is that the Penguins will awake Wednesday as Stanley Cup contenders no matter what happens over the historically wild opening 12 hours of the signing period.

Centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, defenseman Ryan Whitney and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury should see to that.

"Those kids in Pittsburgh are so good despite being so young," Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Kronwall said during the Cup final. "If their management can keep those kids together, many great days are ahead. You can see it in how fast they learn and how well they play already."

Crosby and Whitney are under contract for the next five seasons.

Malkin's agent, JP Barry, reiterated over the weekend that talks with the Penguins about a multi-year contract extension - likely a five-year deal worth at least $42.5 million - are progressing.

Both Barry and general manager Ray Shero have said an extension for Malkin - an MVP finalist at the age of 21 this past season - should come no later than next week.

Shero is also engaged in talks with representatives for Fleury concerning a new contract. Fleury is slated for an arbitration hearing no sooner than July 20, and Shero has said signing him to a long-term deal remains a priority.

Staal, who has scored 41 goals in 163 regular-season games before his 20th birthday, is also being targeted for a lengthy extension. Like Malkin, he is eligible for restricted free agency on July 1, 2009.

Early dialogue with Staal's camp has been positive, though neither side feels great pressure to ink an extension soon.

If Shero is able to lock up Fleury, Malkin and Staal before training camp in mid-September - no impossibility - his summer will have been deemed by many pundits a success, even if Hossa and Orpik join Pittsburgh-born left wing Ryan Malone on a fast train out of town.

"There is a point, by the virtue of winning with great players, that they move on," agent Rich Curran said prior to the Cup final. "(The Penguins) have to make some choices."

Actually, Hossa probably made some choices for them.

The Penguins want to keep him. But they will not increase their offer, believed to be slightly more than $7 million annually over five years.

Hossa declined that proposal on June 21, presumably because he expects to command more on the open market. Indications are the Vancouver Canucks, Boston Bruins and possibly the Montreal Canadiens are willing to spend $8 million annually for his stellar two-way services.

Hossa's departure - likely, though the Penguins believe they remain atop his list of potential employers - would leave Crosby lacking a proven winger.

It also would severely weaken the Penguins' scoring depth. They traded Malone and left wing Gary Roberts to Tampa Bay on Saturday.

Of course, Staal scored 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07 playing mostly left wing on a line with Malkin, and the Penguins are committed to about $34.5 million in team payroll next season.

The NHL and its Players' Association announced last week a team payroll upper limit of $56.7 million, and Penguins ownership is believed to have told Shero he can spend as near to the so-called salary cap as he wishes.

So, the Penguins will be in play for some players today.

One of them will be Orpik, a rugged defenseman who has expressed a desire to return. Serious talks with his agent, Lewis Gross, have been ongoing for more than a week.

Gross did not return calls Monday.

As for unrestricted possibilities, the Penguins likely will attempt to find value similar to what they landed last summer with right wing Petr Sykora, who signed a two-year deal worth $2.5 million annually.

Sykora (28 goals, 63 points) is the player whose profile likely most fits the Penguins' free agency model for this and future summers.

Shero's plan remains to maintain the core - even if he loses Hossa, Orpik and Malone.

"A lot of the guys you hear talked about in Pittsburgh are can't-miss-kids," agent Paul Krepelka, who represents Whitney and Staal, said in May. "With that core, there is a belief among most of us that Pittsburgh will be competitive for a while."

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