NHL insider: Penguins' Shero seems ready to move Letang

| Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 10:45 p.m.

Ray Shero starts every conversation about a player's future the same way: He asks whether that player wants to stay with the Penguins.

Defenseman Kris Letang recently answered “yes,” but that does not mean he will stay.

Letang could play hockey with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for a long time if he is agreeable to an annual salary around $6 million and a limited-movement clause.

Those are the projected terms for keeping Letang, at least on the Penguins' end.

Letang has other ideas about his worth, but that is only one reason general belief within the Penguins is that he is on the way out.

No club should willingly hand over more than $6 million annually to a defenseman who has yet to establish himself among his peers as a dominant goal scorer or power-play quarterback.

Shero has grown in many ways since taking over the Penguins' hockey operations in May 2006. Most notably, he has grown into a decisive, confident decision-maker.

Three years ago, he finalized a quick deal with Paul Martin while the Penguins' top free-agent defensive target, Dan Hamhuis, stalled as a team-imposed deadline to sign approached.

Last summer, Shero had a 10-year contract ready for center Jordan Staal, who rejected the offer. Staal was traded within a few days.

This past March, with the annual trade deadline a couple of weeks away, Shero acquired wingers Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla and defenseman Douglas Murray before the Penguins' chief Eastern Conference challengers made any moves. That Morrow, Iginla and Murray did not help the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final does not diminish the boldness of Shero's actions.

Shero has become the man who wastes no time carrying out his plans.

More proof came last week in the form of contract extensions for coach Dan Bylsma and his staff and the eight-year deal for Malkin. Shero wanted those issues off the table before he turned toward other matters — specifically, trying to keep winger Pascal Dupuis from becoming a free agent on July 5 and Letang's future.

Discussion with Dupuis' agent, Allan Walsh, started this week.

Letang's agent, Kent Hughes, had yet to hear from Shero as of Tuesday.

That is no accident.

Shero is fairly confident Letang has become a must-move player.

That is true because Letang is not the consensus best defenseman on the Penguins, at least in the eyes of management and coaches.

That is true because the Penguins are deepest on defense among top prospects, including a couple of first-round picks from last summer (Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta).

That is true even though terms of Malkin's new contract will provide the Penguins with more cap room to keep good players around him and Crosby — if the cap increases annually under this labor contract, as it did during the last one.

The Penguins are set up for Letang to count around $6 million against the cap and to continue paying Crosby ($8.7 million), Malkin ($9.5 million), right winger James Neal, Martin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 million apiece). Evidence of that was their offer to Staal, who would have counted about $5.75 million annually against the cap had he stayed — and that was with Letang taking up $3.5 million in space.

Letang, 26, a first-time Norris Trophy (top defenseman) finalist, aims to at least double his current salary on any new deal. He was the only NHL defenseman to average a point per game during the regular season. He is in his prime.

Sergei Gonchar, 39, recently signed a two-year contract with Dallas that will pay him $5 million annually. Mark Streit, 35, has agreed to a four-year contract with Philadelphia that will pay him $5.25 million annually.

Letang can become an unrestricted free agent in July 2014. He is the loaded sports car on a market full with owners looking for a hot ride.

He wants a no-movement clause, and that is another reason his fate as a future former Penguin likely is sealed.

Only Crosby and Malkin will receive the no-movement treatment from the Penguins.

Letang, clearly, is not on their level. Shero all but said so last week. He referred to Malkin and Crosby as “franchise players” and called Letang a “very good defenseman.”

Spoken like a man who had already decided to move on.

It is an easy decision, actually.

A year ago, Shero convinced Carolina — the only club with which Staal was willing to sign a new deal — to hand over its first-round pick, a top-level prospect and Brandon Sutter, the defensive-minded center Shero mandated be part of any Staal trade.

There are 30 general managers, and they will meet Wednesday in Boston.

Shero will be a popular guy, and the conversations promptly will begin about a certain player's future.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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