Starkey: Pens' new GM should raise Kane
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The Penguins don't need rebuilding. Just a significant retooling.
The new general manager will inherit a club that racked up 109 points despite massive injuries. He will start with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. He will have Olli Maatta and Kris Letang and plenty of young defensemen in the pipeline.
He will face a dilemma, as well. One that requires immediate attention: What does he do with the Penguins' three $5 million men: Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, right winger James Neal and defenseman Paul Martin?
Martin and Fleury are entering the final years of their contracts. Neal is a chronic playoff disappointment who has no say on trade destinations.
I'm sure the new guy won't be calling for advice, so I'll offer mine unsolicited:
• Let Fleury play out his deal.
• Try to trade Neal to the Winnipeg Jets for Evander Kane.
• Trade Martin for more help up front.
Let's start with Fleury. There's a notion that he was lights-out fabulous in the playoffs and re-established himself as an elite goaltender.
That's going a bit far.
Fleury finally won a playoff series, his first since the first round in 2010. He stabilized instead of imploding, which should in part be credited to departed GM Ray Shero. It was Shero, after all, who hired the right goalie coach and insisted Fleury see a sports psychologist. How much that had to do with Fleury's improved postseason is conjecture, but it obviously didn't hurt.
The goalie we saw this year was more in control. Instead of constantly morphing into Marc-Andre Flustered, he was mostly composed. He avoided the tragicomic meltdowns (besides Game 4 at Columbus) that had marred many of his recent playoff ventures.
But let's not mistake Fleury's commendable playoff for a rejuvenation worthy of a contract extension. He turns 30 next season. Do you fully trust that his postseason issues are solved? Would you sink three or more years and millions more dollars into him?
This is a difficult question because while Fleury is not among the handful of elite goalies in the league, he's better than a lot. I'd keep him and make him play out a contract year. See what happens when he's fighting for his future. If he plays himself out of Pittsburgh, wonderful. That would mean the Penguins had a long playoff run.
Hot prospect Tristan Jarry is next in line. He's only 19. If he's still two years away, then bridge the gap between Fleury and Jarry with a veteran signing. Plenty of goalies would win games with this team.
I've used these numbers before, but they're worth repeating. If we throw out Fleury's worst post-Cup season (2009-10) and his backup's worst season (Brent Johnson's injury-plagued disaster of 2011-12), this is what we get:
• Fleury: 140-63-14 (win percentage: 64.5), .916 save percentage, 2.36 goals-against average
• Primary backups: 48-21-6 (win percentage: 64.0), .915 save percentage, 2.49 GAA.
It's not like anybody could win games here. But many goalies could.
Now to Neal. Whatever the negatives are, he's an elite sniper. He's only 26. If you're going to deal him, you need a top-two winger in return. Kane would be just the man.
It's a match made in hockey heaven.
Each has four years left on his contract — Neal for $5 million annually, Kane for slightly more than that. Mario Lemieux wants a butt-kicker for Crosby. Kane, 22, is that guy. He would provide youth, speed, talent (66 goals in the past three years, despite injuries) and some real punch on Crosby's left wing.
A knockout punch, actually. You probably remember him putting Matt Cooke to sleep a few years ago.
The Penguins then could move Chris Kunitz to Malkin's left or even look to trade Kunitz, who will turn 35 in training camp.
Martin had such a great season and playoff that he'd be hard to part with. But that also puts his value at an all-time high (he has a limited no-trade clause). He turns 34 next season. Youth on defense is an organizational strong suit. The Penguins might as well use it.
The best move would be to parlay Martin into increased depth up front and try to sign Matt Niskanen.
Letang constantly is mentioned as a trade candidate. But you have to wonder who would take on his lengthy and exorbitant contract, given his recent medical history?
I've got some other ideas. A Rob Scuderi buyout, for example. Those can wait.
The new GM will have his hands full.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.
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