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Pens likely to stay with 3-center model

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

As Penguins general manager Ray Shero and his hockey operations staff take these next several weeks to evaluate what happened in a third straight Stanley Cup playoff series loss, they are tasked with overcoming a harsh reality:

The biggest free-agent moves in Shero's six years on the job — signing now-embattled defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to five-year deals in July 2010 worth, in all, $45 million — are less of a problem than a prospect pipeline that, if not dry, lacks plentiful waters.

Shero probably cannot commit to abandoning the once-playoff successful “Big Three” formula of centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal because there are barely prospects worthy of playing with them, let alone replacing one of them, on the horizon.

Staal is the only player of 16 drafted by the Penguins from 2006-08 to establish himself as an NHL regular with the club. He is one of just five players drafted over that span to have played in more than five games with the Penguins.

Seven prospects selected during that three-year period are no longer within the organization, though once-touted Angelo Esposito and Luca Caputi were traded to upgrade the NHL roster.

The Detroit Red Wings, who picked in the bottom five from 2006-08, also have produced only five players from those drafts who have played in more than five games with the team, along with just one regular.

The Penguins, though, lack considerably in drafting and developing compared to three other Atlantic Division teams that reached the playoffs this season. From the 2006-08 drafts, the Philadelphia Flyers have placed eight players in at least five games and three as regulars; the New York Rangers are at seven and four; the New Jersey Devils seven and two.

The Penguins were without picks in Rounds 1-3 of the 2008 draft because of trades for veterans who helped them advance to the 2008 Cup Final against Detroit and win the Cup a year later against the Red Wings. Still, their limited success in identifying and developing prospects from the 2006-08 drafts has proven costly, and they can't use picking late in rounds as an excuse.

The Penguins picked high in 2006 and near the middle in 2007. Of 13 prospects selected in those years, only Staal and defenseman Brian Strait played in this postseason against the Flyers. Defenseman Nick D'Agostino is the only Penguins player selected in 2008 — he was their last pick that year — who is considered a top-10 prospect in the organization.

Of the Penguins' top-10 prospects, only three are forwards — none drafted before 2010 and all three at least a year from reaching the NHL, and that presumes quick AHL development from wingers Beau Bennett and Tom Kuhnhackl, Bennett rating the most plum prospect up front.

D'Agostino joins Strait (2006) and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (2007) as the only top-10 prospects not chosen in drafts before 2010. Strait and Bortuzzo are each waiver eligible starting next season.

Also, five of the top six prospects are defensemen, a position at which the Penguins have committed $16.25 million to four players (Martin, Michalek, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang) over the next two seasons. All but Letang will be at least 30 by then. At 27 and given his projected progression, pending health, he could command double his $3.5 million cap hit to retain.

With Staal, Crosby, Letang and two-time scoring champion Malkin due new contracts and raises in the next two years, the Penguins are left with almost no choice but to stick with the model of paying for premium talent and hoping that talent can carry them in the playoffs.

Of course, a shrewd move of Martin's contract, or trading top defensive prospects such as Joe Morrow, Simon Despres or Scott Harrington, could change the Penguins' landscape.

Still, a move away from the “Big Three” center formant probably isn't in the offing because of the limited impact made by players picked in Shero's first three drafts.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rrossi@tribweb.com or 412-380-5635.

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