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Penguins have plenty of work ahead of them

| Sunday, June 21, 2009

As you might have heard, the Penguins are Stanley Cup champions. Unfortunately, they won't have long to savor the moment.

The NHL entry draft is this weekend at Montreal, and many big-name players are expected to move — likely to some Eastern Conference teams with the Penguins in their sights.

The free-agent period opens in 10 days, and as Penguins fans learned last summer the makeup of a team can change dramatically after July 1.

As general manager Ray Shero said this week, "This difficult part comes next, because everybody has emotions, and this organization has a deep connection to players that went on this journey."

Seven players active for Game 7 of the Cup Final can become unrestricted free agents, including veteran leader Bill Guerin and rock-steady defenseman Rob Scuderi. Also, the Penguins want to secure the long-term services of defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang, each of whom is entering final contract years.

So, Shero has his hands full.

The Cup is here, but how Shero handles these next few weeks will go a long way toward determining if it comes back next summer.


Based off conversations with NHL personnel, Tribune-Review Penguins beat reporter Rob Rossi projects the future for the club's key unrestricted free agents:


Position: RW

Age: 32

2008-09 cap cost: $600,000

Rossi says: He goes. As was the case with C Adam Hall last summer, the Penguins cannot offer long term to role players. Adams will seek a multi-year offer from another club.


Position: D

Age: 36

2008-09 cap cost: $2,500,000

Rossi says: He goes. A luxury as a seventh defenseman this past season, Boucher has no spot with the Penguins unless he decides to play for near the veteran minimum, which is unlikely.


Position: LW

Age: 30

2008-09 cap cost: $2,250,000

Rossi says: He probably stays. Reports that the Penguins have already offered a three-year contract are false. They prefer another one-year deal, but would give two if his cap hit remained near what it was last season.


Position: G

Age: 31

2008-09 cap cost: $1,100,000

Rossi says: He goes. Starter Marc-Andre Fleury will count $5 million against the cap each of the next six seasons. The days of million-dollar backups are over for the Penguins, and prospect John Curry is likely ready for an NHL role.


Position: D

Age: 34

2008-09 cap cost: $2,075,000

Rossi says: He probably goes. However, if Gill is willing to take a considerable salary cut — say, about $1 million — the Penguins would be interested in his services for another year. He would project as a fifth or sixth defenseman next season.


Position: RW

Age: 38

2008-09 cap cost: $4,500,000

Rossi says: He stays. Though, the Penguins cannot afford anywhere near $4 million, and only want a one-year deal. They are banking on Guerin wanting to win. He knows the best financial offer they can make given the cap. The puck is on his stick.


Position: RW

Age: 34

2008-09 cap cost: $3,500,000

Rossi says: He goes. Satan's Hollywood ending to a tumultuous season probably will convince a few NHL clubs to give him a look. If not, he can play in Europe for better money and leave North America with his name on the Cup.


Position: D

Age: 30

2008-09 cap cost: $712,500

Rossi says: He goes. Another solid postseason has Scuderi in line for a significant raise. Hey, Toronto D Jeff Finger costs $3.5 million against the cap. Scuderi is better, but the Penguins have organization depth at his position and will seek extensions for Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang.


Position: RW

Age: 32

2008-09 cap cost: $2,500,000

Rossi says: He goes. Sykora has his Cup win, and his positive influence on Penguins such as C Evgeni Malkin will be felt in Pittsburgh for years. Still, his limited action in the playoffs and a late-season goal slump has him off the Penguins' radar.


Position: C

Age: 28

2008-09 cap cost: $650,000

Rossi says: He stays. The Penguins could use a checking-line center with Max Talbot a strong candidate for a top-six forward spot. They could likely retain Zigomanis at their term and price.

Five things to consider

It seems as though everybody is still talking about the Penguins' Stanley Cup victory, even guys that know something about silver trophies.

"I'm so excited that the boys brought the Cup back where it belongs," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told the Tribune-Review via e-mail this week. "It just shows that Pittsburgh is really the city of champs.

"What an amazing series. Their backs were against the wall more than once, and every time they pulled it off. I'm proud to say I'm a fan! It couldn't happen to a better owner in Mario (Lemieux), so I'm happy for him, as well."

Big Ben was busy during most of the Penguins' regular season, but Tribune-Review beat reporter Rob Rossi was with the Cup champs from Day 1 of training camp. These are his five lasting impressions from a silver season:


The Penguins' GM easily could have stuck with coach Michel Therrien, whom he signed to a three-year contract before the season, and written off the 2008-09 campaign to an extended Cup Final hangover. Firing Therrien and replacing him with Dan Bylsma, a first-year AHL coach, looks like a stroke of genius now, but it was a risk on Feb. 15 — a big, big risk.


He scored six goals and recorded 19 points in 25 regular-season games after missing the opening 56 with a left-shoulder injury. The Penguins went 17-4-4 in those contests, and their struggling power play gained momentum entering the playoffs, where it clicked it at 20.6 percent compared to 17.2 in the regular-season. Without "Sarge," the Cup charge never happens.


Nobody will speculate the Penguins are wrong to commit $21.4 million in cap space to Cs Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal over the next four seasons. Not now, anyway. Those players were the Penguins' best in the second (Crosby), third (Malkin) and fourth (Staal) playoff rounds. They also were the club's top three forwards in average ice time during the regular season.


Sure, it's popular to now declare Fleury an elite goalie. Winning the Cup, including Game 7 of the Final on the road, will change perception of a player. In reality, Fleury had proved himself worth his $5 million annual salary before that historic win June 12 at Joe Louis Arena. It was his 53rd start in 55 games, including all 24 playoff contests. The Penguins went 35-14-4 in those starts.


Had Hossa accepted any of the Penguins' multi-year offers last summer, they would not have been able to keep Malkin and Staal, or D Brooks Orpik, and probably faced a shorter-term deal with Fleury. Instead, those four are under contract for the next four seasons. Now Crosby and the Penguins have a dynastic vibe going. Chances are Hossa will have to go through the group he jilted to get near the Cup.

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