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Analysis: Penguins patch-up to be costly

| Sunday, June 24, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this April 20, 2012 photo, Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter (20) plays against Detroit Red Wings left wing Jiri Hudler (26), of Czech Republic, during the Predators' 2-1 win in Game 5 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series in Nashville, Tenn. Penguins general manager Ray Shero engaged in talks this weekend about potentially acquiring Suter. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New Jersey Devils' Zach Parise waits for action to resume during his 500th career NHL hockey game, in the second period against the New York Islanders, Tuesday, April 3, 2012, in Newark, N.J. The Devils won, 3-1. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

It wasn't difficult to tell this would be a summer of significant change for the long-patient Penguins. It required no more than a glance at Ray Shero's face in the hot moments after the team he built was pummeled out of the playoffs in Philadelphia.

“Looking back, it was very disappointing how we lost,” Shero said Saturday after the NHL Draft at Consol Energy Center.

Thus, pretty much everything would be on the table.

Shero talked of getting Marc-Andre Fleury some help. Fleury visibly suffered after he logged a heavy load of 67 regular-season games.

Shero didn't rule out changing as much as half of his defense, which rated somewhere between awful and abysmal against the Flyers.

Even the “three-center model,” the Penguins' forward foundation of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, no longer would be sacred.

Change would mean change.

Shero began at the most important position by acquiring Tomas Vokoun not only to back up Fleury but also to push him. The split of games would be 50-30, at least. That cost $2 million, more than it seemed the Penguins could afford at the time.

That money became academic, of course, with the mega-trade Friday night of Staal to Carolina and the dumping of defenseman Zbynek Michalek to Phoenix. Just like that, the salary cap space was all the way up to about $15 million.

“It was a by-product of the moves we made, but we still consider ourselves a good, strong team … with more cap space,” Shero said.

Now it's suddenly safe for Shero to aim high. And that's probably good because the holes the Penguins need to fill, though not many, are the kind that will cost plenty.

In descending order:

1. Winger for Crosby

Sure, that's the oldest plea of this team's fan base, but it also happens to hold true. Crosby spent this past season with Pascal Dupuis and Steve Sullivan. Dupuis found a new level, but Sullivan, if he returns, will be 38 and well past his prime.

Buzz was intense through this draft that Shero's primary goal in clearing cap space was to make a run at Zach Parise, New Jersey's 31-goal winger and the most coveted prize when free agency opens July 1. Making that projection all the more compelling: Crosby and Parise are close friends.

How much would the Penguins want this?

This is what coach Dan Bylsma said yesterday on the topic of an ideal winger for Crosby: “You look for the speed, the aggressiveness, the attack on the puck, the confidence to play with a star like that … You're not necessarily looking for an All-Star guy, though that would be a good thing.”

Having Crosby, Parise and Dupuis skate together would give the Penguins a No. 1 line in more than name only. They'd be a legitimate threat to be even more potent than Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. Opposing coaches would agonize over matchups.

2. Help for Letang

An elite offensive defenseman, preferably left-handed, to pair with Kris Letang just might supersede the winger.

This would cost almost as much, but the Penguins love the potential payoff. Letang would benefit from a similar-style partner in the same way Nashville used Shea Weber and Ryan Suter or how Winnipeg used Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom.

Moreover, Brooks Orpik could be assigned more of a stay-at-home partner to free him up for big hits. The defense lacked physical play in the playoffs. An unbridled Orpik is their best bet to fix that.

Shero is aiming high in this area, too, having talked over the weekend with Nashville about Suter and with Phoenix about Keith Yandle.

If an outside acquisition doesn't happen, expect management to look longer and harder than usual at their young defensemen: Simon Despres, Joe Morrow and Scott Harrington all have strong pedigrees.

3. Trade Martin

Best way for the Penguins to secure both of the above wishes is to subtract the ineffective Paul Martin from their blue line, as well as his $5 million from their books. Shero would welcome this, though he doesn't consider it a must.

4. Size on the wings

This one ranks much lower than the others, but Shero surely noticed how Stanley Cup finalists Los Angeles and New Jersey benefited from big wingers to create a torrid forecheck.

The Penguins have Neal at 6-foot-3, Dupuis at 6-foot-1 and no one else on the top three lines taller than 6 feet. Shero acknowledged he has some “decisions to make” regarding potential holdovers Sullivan, Arron Asham and Richard Park, even as he acknowledged a wish for more size: “We'll look at the size of our forward group.”

5. Change strategies

Perhaps the most glaring hole exposed by the Flyers was to the playbook of Bylsma and his staff. Especially the historically inept penalty-killing, which allowed 12 goals on 23 Philadelphia chances.

Oddly, the Staal trade might help here. He was on the ice for 10 of those 12 goals, and Penguins coaches privately were dismayed by his performance. By contrast, they are effusive in describing the short-handed skills of Brandon Sutter, whom they acquired in the Staal trade.

“Brandon Sutter is going to have an extremely important role on our team,” Bylsma said. “And the penalty-killing will be a big part of that.”

A one-player switch won't be enough, though. The staff is thought to be working on a more aggressive penalty-killing plan as well as more varied forechecks, breakouts and other facets that had become predictable.

Change might not always be good, but it's clear the Penguins no longer see it as optional.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

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