Pens make Hossa their priority

| Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Penguins have made signing right wing Marian Hossa to a long-term contract their No. 1 priority, according to several players, agents and team officials who spoke to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the condition of anonymity.

All other offseason moves will be determined by the Penguins' success or failure in this pursuit of Hossa, who scored 12 goals and recorded 26 points in 20 Stanley Cup playoff games skating alongside star center Sidney Crosby.

During season-ending meetings with general manager Ray Shero on June 6, several Penguins players were told the team would push hard to reach terms with Hossa, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Shero declined comment Friday.

The Penguins elected yesterday to file for salary arbitration with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, denying him the chance to become a restricted free agent on July 1 and guaranteeing he will play in Pittsburgh next season.

The decision allows the Penguins to temporarily place on the backburner talks with Fleury about a long-term extension and focus solely on a new contract for Hossa.

Hossa, 29, is believed to be seeking a deal for five years or more. He expects to command no less than $8 million in annual salary on the open market. However, he said after the Stanley Cup final that he would "take less to play on a good team."

The Penguins, a Cup finalist, plan to test that claim. Their offer is likely to be worth nearly $50 million over seven years - a marginal raise on his 2007-08 salary of $7 million.

Hossa was acquired by the Penguins Feb. 26 along with forward Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta for forwards Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, top prospect Angelo Esposito and a 2008 first-round pick.

The Penguins are expected to impose a deadline for Hossa to accept their offer, possibly after next weekend's entry draft in Ottawa. Their efforts to sign other potential unrestricted free agents - specifically defenseman Brooks Orpik and left wing Ryan Malone - would be affected by that decision.

A player likely affected by Hossa's decision would be center Jordan Staal, who is eligible to sign an extension on July 1. He is entering the final season of a three-year entry level deal.

Indications are that talks of Staal's potential extension could last into the upcoming season. He will count $2.2 million against the salary cap in 2008-09.

Center Evgeni Malkin, set to count $3.8 million against the cap next season, is in a situation similar to the one facing Staal.

Malkin said Thursday at the NHL Awards Show in Toronto that he expects to sign a five- or six-year extension "soon" after July 1. The Penguins' focus on a deal for Hossa should not affect Malkin's possible extension.

An MVP finalist after leading the Penguins with 47 goals and 106 points, Malkin added he would accept an annual salary less than the $8.7 million due Crosby each of next five seasons.

Crosby signed an extension last summer that will pay him $43.5 million through the 2012-13 season.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during the Cup final he believed the salary cap would increase by at least $3 million for the upcoming season. The current cap stands at $50.3 million, and the Penguins are committed to about $34 million in total players' salary for 2008-09.

Twelve players from their playoff roster can become unrestricted free agents July 1. Hossa is the Penguins' prime target, followed by Orpik, who earned slightly less than $1 million last season.

Orpik, praised by team officials and coaches and opponents during the Penguins' playoff run, told the Penguins he would accept less than market value for a deal of at least five seasons. Several agents speculate he will command above $4 million annually on the open market.

Malone and the Penguins are believed to be far apart on a new contract. He is expected to lean toward testing the free-agent market, where the Columbus Blue Jackets will likely make a play for his services - possibly with an offer near $5 million annually over five years.

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