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Challenges await Pens' next general manager

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 10:09 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Penguins general manager Ray Shero.

Ray Shero's replacement as Penguins general manager faces some significant challenges, as would have Shero had he not been fired Friday by ownership.

Shero always knew this past season was the transition one to the second half of the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era. The new general manager inherits that transition, and from a salary-cap situation there are significant challenges.

Those exist partly because the Penguins have not drafted any forwards — aside from Beau Bennett — who are ready to make a significant impact in the NHL.

Forwards drafted by Shero since 2006 have scored 173 NHL goals — and only 143 for the Penguins.

Jordan Staal, Shero's first-ever draft pick, was responsible for 120 of those goals. He was traded in July 2012.

Bennett has six goals, and he is the only one of the forwards from Shero's drafts projected to play for the Penguins next season.

For next season, the Penguins have 14 players committed to about $55 million of a salary cap that projects to top out at $68 to $69 million — still not as high as the cap from two years ago. A roster maxes at 23 players.

The Penguins' brand is scoring, goals are scored by skilled players, and skill costs cap space in the NHL.

Franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and scoring defenseman Kris Letang will count $25.5 million against the 2014-15 salary cap. The Penguins will commit another $15 million to defenseman Paul Martin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and winger James Neal.

That equates to six players soaking up around 58.7 percent of projected cap space.

That will not work, and Shero knew it — and so will the new general manager.

The Penguins are in a tough spot with their roster. They need to look short and long term and make hard decisions.

Moving Neal for a package of more parts would appear to be the easiest solution. His average cap hit of $5 million should prove attractive to clubs, as are the 20 goals (minimum) he has scored in each NHL season.

Neal, 26, is a proven scorer who is under contract for four more seasons. The Penguins might be crazy to consider moving him, but he — unlike Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Martin and Fleury — is the only big-ticket player who does not hold a full- or limited-movement clause. His does not kick in until the 2015-16 season.

The Penguins can trade Neal to any club.

They cannot trade Crosby or Malkin (full no-movement clauses). Martin and Fleury have limited control of where they can be traded, but they are on expiring contracts next season.

Letang can be moved to any team before July 1, and then he gets to annually submit to management a list of 12 teams for which he would accept a trade.

In Letang, a new general manager will inherit a minutes-eating defenseman who is 27 and averaged a point-per-game in his last (relatively) healthy season. However, Letang also has missed at least 27 percent of games each of the past three seasons — and, this past one, he was out 10 weeks because of a stroke.

His trade value is a complete unknown. Still, trading him, even at less than full value, could benefit the Penguins.

The new general manager needs cap space more than almost anything, and the prospect system left behind by Shero is blessed with significant defensive depth.

Shero's replacement must set up Phase 2 of the Crosby/Malkin era while not completely wasting the final years of their 20s. Crosby will turn 27 this summer, Malkin 28.

Neither Mario Lemieux nor Wayne Gretzky won the Stanley Cup after their respective 28th birthdays — though, they didn't play on the same team.

They also did not perform as poorly as Crosby and Malkin have in their primes, at least in the playoffs. In their past four losing playoff series, Crosby and Malkin have combined to score 12 goals — but only six against Montreal (2010), Boston (2013) and New York (2014).

“We wake up every day with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, so we wake up in a pretty good place,” majority co-owner Ron Burkle said.

Of course, Burkle also said he regretted not making a change in direction last season.

By failing to act, he allowed Shero to commit about $11 million in annual cap space over these next three seasons to wingers Chris Kuntiz, Pascal Dupuis and defenseman Rob Scuderi. Each player will be 35 by October.

That just adds to an already heavy load to lift for the new general manager.

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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