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Penguins get bargains on premium players

| Saturday, July 5, 2008

There is nothing fraudulent or treacherous about it.

The decision by several Penguins players to sign long-term contracts at less than their perceived market value cannot be considered collusion.

But it is good fortune for general manager Ray Shero, who over the past 12 months has secured the services of five core players -- none older than 27 -- at an annual cap hit that will max out over four seasons at $30.15 million.

"We've talked about building this hockey team over the past few years with these players, but I don't know when I sit down with Evgeni Malkin what he's going to tell me," Shero said Thursday. "I can have his projection in terms of salary, but I've got to hear from him that he wants to be here in Pittsburgh playing with Sidney Crosby and the rest of these guys.

"If not, he's not going to be a happy guy, and all these plans go a different way."

Malkin, 21, was happy Wednesday to sign a five-year extension worth $43.5 million, an exact match of the extension signed by Crosby, 20, last July. Also on Wednesday, defenseman Brooks Orpik, 27, inked a six-year contract worth $22.5 million.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, 23, signed a seven-year deal worth $35 million Thursday to cap a 12-month stretch that started with defenseman Ryan Whitney, 25, agreeing to a six-year contract worth $24 million on July 1, 2007.

Shero's plan since replacing Craig Patrick as general manager on May 25, 2006, was to preserve over the long haul the Penguins' touted core of young players.

That plan is playing out -- though negotiations with center Jordan Staal, 19, still loom as he enters the final season of his entry-level deal -- with measurable success.

"(The Penguins have) done a great job of identifying their core players, which is not as easy as it sounds," said agent Allan Walsh, who represents Fleury. "And they've done a very good job of ensuring that core will stay together for years to come, and that's a tough thing to do with a salary cap."

The salary cap, which has increased every year since the NHL returned from the canceled 2004-05 season, stands at $56.7 million. If it does not rise next summer, the Penguins would have 46.8 percent of their cap space available to supplement two superstar centers, a franchise goaltender and a pair of defensemen who provide balance - Whitney has recorded 99 points the past two seasons, and Orpik has paced the team in hits the past three.

Compare that to Tampa Bay, which entered last season with 52.7 percent of its cap space tied to three forwards and a defenseman.

Only two of those forwards, center Vincent Lecavalier and right wing Martin St. Louis, remain with the team. Center Brad Richards was traded to Dallas in February, and defenseman Dan Boyle was dealt to San Jose on Friday.

Goaltender Nikolaki Khabubulin was not re-signed after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004. Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards and Boyle were all awarded lavish long-term contracts.

Crosby and Co. have not led the Penguins to the Cup. But they showed tremendous promise in falling just two wins short last season, and Shero believes they will finish the task at some point before Crosby's contract expires in 2013.

Right wing Marian Hossa might not agree. He declined three long-term Penguins offers at more than $7 million annually and instead signed Wednesday with the Detroit Red Wings for one year at $7.45 million because he said they provide him "the best chance to win the Stanley Cup."

Fleury holds no ill-will toward Hossa -- "Everybody's different," he said -- but Orpik spoke for the Penguins' core players by acknowledging the examples set by Crosby and Malkin, each of whom likely would have commanded allowable maximum offers on the open market.

"They took less to be here," Orpik said. "I'm not saying everybody should, but that's a pretty good standard when those two guys sacrifice to help the team.

"We've all been together for a while. We all want to be here for a long time, because this thing is going to be pretty good. So why can't all of us help out a little bit?"

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