Kovacevic: Will Penguins ever prioritize youth?

| Sunday, June 30, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

Call it golden timing, call it great irony, but it shouldn't escape notice that on the same day Ray Shero kept the Penguins' scouts idle for three hours and 58 minutes at the NHL Draft, he also set aside $58 million for No. 58, agreeing with Kris Letang on the tentative framework of a new eight-year contract.

Yeah, even at the one event all year that's focused on the future, this franchise was still about the now.

It's always about the now.

Understand, please, that's not a criticism of a Letang extension. Far from it. He's 26, he's a legit Norris Trophy finalist, a rare talent, a relentless worker and a vital part of the Penguins' core now and into the future. It's a big price, with an annual cap hit of $7.25 million, but a fair one compared to his elite peers.

But what comes next?

When does all that cost, in money and picks and cap room, come due?

When do the Penguins return to being a team on the rise as opposed to one in the NHL's rear-view mirror?

Ask me, and it had better be right now.

Set aside the immediate implications. It's easy to see that a Letang extension essentially shows Pascal Dupuis the door. Maybe Matt Cooke, too. So cast ahead, instead, to 2014-15, when the Evgeni Malkin and Letang extensions would take effect. Once you subtract Malkin ($9.5 million), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million), Letang ($7.25 million), Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 million), Paul Martin ($5 million), James Neal ($5 million) and Chris Kunitz ($3.85 million) from the ledger, there's only $25.7 million left for the other 18 players under a projected cap of $70 million.

That'll buy you a whole lot of Joe Vitale.

Sure, it'll be sad if Dupuis and Cooke go, and it'll make the Penguins a weaker team. But the trajectory of this organization has to change sometime, and this window is it.

Crosby, Malkin and Letang could be together for eight years, accounting for a cap hit of roughly $25 million on players all older than 25, all of whom have missed significant time to injury, all with varying degrees of concussion history.

That doesn't worry you?

Making matters more ominous, scouting director Jay Heinbuck's recent drafts have been duds. Other than first-rounders Beau Bennett and Simon Despres, the only player close to contributing at the NHL level from the past six classes is a single spare-part defenseman, Robert Bortuzzo.

That's ridiculous.

It's on Shero, too. Nothing stops him from adding picks at the same pace he sends them out. Might mean swapping Tyler Kennedy for a second-rounder, then trading up to No. 44 overall, as Shero did Sunday to spare his scouts waiting until the third round. Might mean applying heat to some vets, as top pick Tristan Jarry is sure to do with Fleury in goal. But it's better to do anything than, say, dump off Ben Lovejoy to the Ducks for a fifth-rounder only to see him this week sign a three-year, $3.3 million deal to stay there.

More youth is needed.

For that matter, more usage of youth is needed.

It's wonderful that Dan Bylsma declared after the playoffs that Bennett will be a top-six forward and Despres a top-four defensemen next season. It's just too bad pretty much everyone else saw they could have been that this past season. And if they had been, Shero might not have felt moved to pad the roster.

Look, I loved getting Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray and didn't care about age. No regrets there. The Penguins had a team they felt could win the Cup, and Shero went for broke.

But therein lie the problems:

1. They didn't win the Cup.

2. They already were the NHL's oldest team, then raised their average age to 29.5 with those trades.

3. They essentially did go for broke, at least in the future tense, by sending out Sunday's first-rounder and the first-rounder two years ago, Joe Morrow. That's a blow to any system, no matter the core.

That's why, much as it's nice to keep Letang, I also would have been fine had Shero traded Letang for prospects and/or picks and applying all that money elsewhere.

Maybe some other day.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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