For general manager Shero, Penguins, some difficult decisions ahead
Ray Shero holds the match.
The foundation of those great days for hockey dating to the 2009 Stanley Cup championship is cracked, perhaps so worn structurally that razing is required.
Shero never has known an offseason like the one before him.
Five years ago, his offseason task was to re-sign Marian Hossa and keep together the nucleus of a Stanley Cup finalist. Two years later, Shero took on transforming his defense corps by signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Last summer, he chased top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
His Penguins were just swept from the Eastern Conference final. They scored two goals.
For an organization with an unmistakable brand built over 29 years — goals, scorers, excitement — a series loss such as the one the Bruins handed the Penguins is particularly punishing.
The Penguins — owned by Mario Lemieux, led by Sidney Crosby — could not score with a berth in the Cup Final at stake.
Shero, a finalist for General Manager of the Year because of his in-season moves, cannot waste a minute licking his wounds after his club that was favored to regain the Cup collapsed before having a chance to play for it.
The NHL Entry Draft, where big trades are often made (see: Jordan Staal), is June 30. After that is a window — provided by the new labor agreement — to speak with potential free agents. Then there is the free-agent frenzy July 5.
Before that, though, Shero must make some tough calls.
Dan Bylsma is the only coach to lead the Penguins to the Cup over the past 21 years. He also is the only coach to oversee a Penguins sweep from a playoff series in 34 years.
He is a lame duck, with only next year remaining on his contract. His future is Shero's first decision, and ownership is adamant that Shero will make the final call.
Shero's last public comments about Bylsma suggested he is pleased with his bench boss.
Bylsma was not told his future depended on the result of the Eastern Conference final.
The fastest coach to 200 wins and a favorite to lead Team USA at the 2014 Olympics, Bylsma could balk at forced changes to his staff, especially hand-picked assistants Tony Granato and Todd Reirden. He also might not fancy a one-year extension.
Shero has yet to lead a coaching search since taking over the Penguins in 2006. He inherited Michel Therrien, extended him in July 2008 after the Penguins' first Final appearance and replaced Therrien with Bylsma in February 2009.
Bylsma, two years removed from winning the Jack Adams Award (top coach), is the franchise leader with 36 playoff wins. His clubs are 20-21 since the Cup win in 2009, losing four series to lower-seeded opponents and going 6-7 in Games 1 and 2 that were played at home.
During the Cup Final years, the Penguins went 10-0 in Games 1 and 2 played at home.
Shero said in January he wanted to reach long-term extensions with center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, who each have one year left on their contracts. Those deals can be signed beginning July 5.
Malkin, 26, is a two-time scoring champion and an MVP of the regular season and playoffs. However, he is coming off an injury-plagued (concussion, shoulder) season and one in which he scored only nine goals.
He is one of two players — the other is fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin of Washington — to temporarily supplant Crosby as the widely acknowledged “best in the world” of this era.
Ownership has authorized Shero to spend what is necessary to keep Malkin and Crosby. Shero told Crosby last summer during extension negotiations that Malkin might become the Penguins' highest-paid player with his next contract.
A maximum deal for Malkin, currently an $8.7 million cap hit, would run eight years and cost $102.88 million — a $12.86 million cap hit.
He does not want to play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, even though he has a history with that league's Metallurg Magnitogorsk club in Malkin's hometown. The pressure of playing at home and difficult KHL travel are factors for Malkin, even though a potential $15 million tax-free annual salary is enticing.
Malkin told the Tribune-Review that he wants — and, more important, expects — to agree on an extension with the Penguins this summer.
Malkin has not said whether he will provide a hometown discount, as others, notably Crosby, have when signing long-term deals. Nor has he said whether he wants to sign a lengthy deal. Also, he will demand a no-movement clause.
Letang, 26, is a Norris Trophy (top defenseman) finalist for the first time. He will make $3.5 million next season.
Ottawa inked an extension — six years and $39 million, a $6.5 million annual cap hit — with defenseman Erik Karlsson last summer before he won the Norris Trophy.
Letang has expressed a desire to stay with the Penguins. He wants at least to double his annual salary and seeks a no-movement clause.
The Penguins' prospect pool is deepest, including on the top end, at defense.
Last summer, facing a one-and-done situation with Staal, Shero took a stab at keeping his first draft pick. When Staal rejected the Penguins' best offer — 10 years and about $57 million — Shero moved him to Carolina for a package that included a first-round pick (Derrick Pouliot), center Brandon Sutter and on-the-way defenseman Brian Dumoulin.
Letang would command an even greater return.
The Penguins have spent to the salary cap since 2008.
They have only five players signed for the 2014-15 season and could use an infusion of talent that is ready, or near ready and under contract for several years, to contribute at the NHL.
The Cup club
A thin free-agent market will not benefit winger Pascal Dupuis so much as his performance at a discount rate over the past two seasons.
Among the NHL leaders with 39 even-strength goals over that span, Dupuis, 34, is an unrestricted free agent.
He has signed twice before with the Penguins, and he again wants multiple years. A dedicated family man, he prefers to keep the roots he has built since arriving in Pittsburgh in February 2008.
He also happens to be one of Crosby's two preferred linemates and perhaps the most respected player among the Penguins.
He appeared devastated after the Penguins' 1-0 loss to Boston on Friday. His look — head buried, tearing up — resembled that of Staal (last year) and Ryan Malone (2008) after their eventual last games as a Penguin.
Dupuis knows that a far bigger payday awaits on the open market than the $1.5 million he made this season. He also knows the Penguins need to shed salary.
Shero rarely gives contracts of more than two years to players past age 30, though he did for left winger Matt Cooke, 34.
As is the case with Dupuis, Cooke's representatives already have discussed a new deal with Shero.
Unlike with Dupuis, Shero has told Cooke's representatives that Cooke will not get another three-year deal from the Penguins.
Cooke wants that third year. He also figures to command more than the $1.8 million he made on his last deal.
Forward Craig Adams, 36, would prefer a two-year contract. His last one with the Penguins lasted that long.
Adams, Dupuis and Cooke are members of a penalty kill that returned to form in the playoffs, clicking at a 92.3 percent rate.
Right winger Tyler Kennedy was in and out of the lineup during the postseason.
A restricted free agent, Kennedy is also 26, and despite scoring only 17 goals the past two seasons, he is a tradable asset. His $2 million salary is likely to get a slight bump, and the Penguins are equally likely to not want to provide it for a player without a future —in Pittsburgh, anyway — as a top-six forward.
The best case for Kennedy sticking around is that Shero is dealing with five forwards that are unrestricted free agents.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik, 32, and left winger Chris Kunitz, 33, are entering the final year of their contracts. Extensions for them will wait until after the summer, if they are to come at all, given the combination of the players' ages and physical styles.
An extension is on the horizon for Sutter. The Penguins will control his rights even though his deal has one year left, so there is no rush to do something over the summer.
The new guys
Wingers Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow left captaincies and the only franchises they had known to join the Penguins this season. Morrow arrived first, but Iginla might stay longest.
Both are unrestricted free agents.
Shero loves Iginla, though not the way Bylsma used him — at the off wing and not with Crosby.
Iginla, 35, commanded a $7 million cap hit on his last deal. The Penguins cannot afford half of that on a one-year deal, but a multiyear contract could work if Iginla is interested in staying.
He is, but he will need assurances in the form of a no-movement clause. Iginla has sold his house in Calgary and has not missed a chance to praise of the Penguins organization.
Morrow, 34, was a mostly third- and fourth-liner with the Penguins. He could take up that role again in Dallas, where his family lives.
Defenseman Douglas Murray, 33, might return, pending the coaching situation. A stay-at-home hitter with skating limitations, he is not an ideal fit for Bylsma's puck-moving preference.
The buyout option
The labor deal provides Shero with an option, albeit not a pleasant one.
He can, but is not mandated to, use two compliance buyouts before the start of the 2014-15 season. Those allow him to eliminate the salary cap hit of up to two players by paying them to become unrestricted free agents.
The buyouts do not come with a cap penalty. This is part of the NHL's transition to a lower salary cap.
Take, for example, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Replaced as a starter during the playoffs, he has two years remaining on a contract that counts $5 million annually against the salary cap. The Penguins could cut that cap hit immediately by paying Fleury about $7 million over four years.
If he and the club desired, Fleury, 28, would not be able to re-sign with the Penguins at a lower rate for at least one year.
Shero, known for his personal touch with players, has not offered an opinion on the compliance buyout option.
He also has not indicated Fleury is finished as a Penguin.
The trade market for goalies is rough. Vancouver could not move Roberto Luongo, a former Vezina Trophy (top goalie) winner. Los Angeles failed to trade Jonathan Bernier, a backup viewed as ready to start.
Buffalo's Ryan Miller could join a congested market of goalies that clubs are looking to move — and he would move to the top of that group.
Fleury has one thing on each of those three: He has won the Cup.
He also is adored by teammates, close with Crosby and — in the past, anyway — effective in the postseason when the Penguins' system is more defensive. His best playoffs, statistically, came five years ago.
The 2008 Cup run sparked an era of championships and contention.
The flameouts since 2009, and the circumstances of this summer, could spark something much different.
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