Minor pieces will be added to complement Pens' high-salaried core
Blow up the Penguins.
Indeed, general manager Ray Shero heard that suggestion.
He has taken a different approach: Bring back the Penguins.
“But I don't see us coming back as the same team,” Shero said.
There is truth in that statement.
Second-year players Beau Bennett (top-six winger) and Simon Despres (top-four defenseman) will take on greater roles next season. Two new wingers could flank center Brandon Sutter on the third line. Assistant coach Todd Reirden may assimilate a couple of different defensemen into his top six. The penalty kill could consist of as many unfamiliar faces as well-worn ones.
The NHL turns over its calendar Friday with the start of its free-agent season at noon. Shero projects to have about $4 million in salary-cap space — excluding offers tendered to restricted free agents — to flesh out the Penguins' squad. He has 19 players under contract, though winger Steve MacIntyre ($625,000 cap hit) is ticketed for a spot with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL.
Precedent is for Shero to keep around $1 million in cap space free for potential in-season roster moves, so his options on the free-agent market should not prove plentiful.
Shero's roster is stocked with proven players, ones that helped the Penguins win multiple playoff rounds for the first time since the Stanley Cup win in 2009.
“Our season ended in disappointment,” left winger Chris Kunitz said. “But we did some good things. We started to learn how to win in the playoffs again. That's something we needed to do. It had been a while, and that is why you hope to get another shot with this group.”
The Penguins opened the postseason as prohibitive Cup favorites and finished it with only two goals in a four-game sweep at the hands of Boston. Shero's reaction was to extend coach Dan Bylsma and his staff, then re-sign center Evgeni Malkin, Kunitz, defenseman Kris Letang and right winger Pascal Dupuis to multiyear deals — Kunitz, at three years, is shortest — that total $160.55 million and will after next season combine to count $24.35 million against the cap.
Letang said he never understood public calls for Shero to trade him for a handful less expensive players or let Dupuis walk as an unrestricted free agent.
“If you change just to change, because we didn't win enough, what does that accomplish?” Letang said. “New every year doesn't work. Look at Chicago.”
The Blackhawks, strapped by the salary cap, underwent significant changes after winning the Cup in 2010. They won it again in June, but only after committing to move forward last summer with their core and complimentary players, even after a second consecutive disheartening postseason.
Shero's decision to resist change for the sake of change was based on several factors:
He knew replacements, either by free-agent signings or trades, would prove more costly than raises for his own players.
He liked the potential mix going forward, with younger players naturally finding their roles in the lineup.
His best players — captain Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Letang — are in their primes, with Malkin, soon to be 27, the eldest.
In four years, when the contracts of Dupuis and Kunitz are set to expire and Bennett and Despres will be helping to bring along another batch of younger Penguins, Shero's “Big Three” should still be producing at a very high level.
Crosby, Malkin and Letang are elite right now, though, and Shero has decided provide them proven support.
“Everybody in life faces decisions,” Letang said. “Ray decided to bet on us. I think it's the right one. We know the system, the coaches, and each other. We know what we have to do. We have to win again.
“But look at this team. Do you think we can't? I will bet on us.”