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Penguins face prospect of revamping defense

Penguins/NHL Videos

Tuesday, March 2, 2010
 

Sergei Gonchar isn't on the trading block, and general manager Ray Shero isn't looking to move any defenseman off the Penguins' roster between now and the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

However, developments Monday point toward Gonchar likely playing out the season and testing the free-agent market July 1 - and possibly leaving the Penguins for a long-term contract elsewhere.

There is no other way to read two bits of news from yesterday: That talks between Shero and Gonchar's agent JP Barry are on hiatus until after the season, and the acquisition of puck-moving defenseman Jordan Leopold from Florida for a 2010 second-round draft pick.

Also, consider these words from coach Dan Bylsma regarding Leopold, who is in the final year of his contract.

"His coaches played him against the top line this year," he said, acknowledging that Leopold was often assigned to defend against Washington superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin, who torched the Penguins for nine goals in a seven-game playoff series last spring. "To get a guy who skates like he skates, a guy who goes back for pucks and who has the ability to join the rush - that's a unique opportunity, whether it's in the summertime or now."

Those are all roles currently assigned to Gonchar.

Those are also roles the Penguins believe young defensemen Alex Goligoski, 24, and Kris Letang, 23, could handle next season - especially Letang, long considered by management as the heir apparent to Gonchar as the club's top two-way defenseman.

Leopold, 29, leaves the Penguins with eight NHL-tested defensemen but only two under contract for next season (Brooks Orpik and Goligoski). Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Martin Skoula are all slated to become unrestricted free agents; Letang can field offers July 1 as a restricted free agent.

Bylsma dressed seven defensemen in eight playoff games last season and said he would consider that unconventional strategy again. Shero said he believes at least eight NHL-quality defensemen are needed for success in the postseason.

He also will not willingly engage clubs such as Philadelphia and Boston in a bidding war for scoring-line winger Raffi Torres of Columbus.

"I'm not really that interested in trading players off our team, because I'm trying to strengthen our team, not weaken it," Shero said, noting a seller's market of five teams.

"And if you're a buyer, there's not a lot of pickings."

Improving the defense was Shero's top priority, and Leopold's strengths - skating and puck movement - mesh well with Bylsma's preference for the Penguins to possess the puck and aggressively challenge on offense.

Leopold's experience as a key component on Calgary's 2004 Cup finalist squad was also a selling point.

The Penguins have tried to sell Gonchar on taking a so-called hometown discount to finish his career in Pittsburgh, but he isn't buying - at least not on short-term deal, which the club prefers. Barry told the Tribune-Review yesterday that term was a sticking point on two different proposals he presented to Shero during the Olympic break.

Gonchar, 35, is in the final year of a five-season contract that counts $5 million annually against the NHL salary cap, which is expected to increase only slightly next season from its current $56.8 million.

The Penguins are within about $350,000 of the cap after the acquisition of Leopold, whose $1.7 million hit will be prorated over their final 20 regular-season games. With their remaining cap space, the Penguins could acquire a player whose average annual cap hit is about $1.8 million, but the club must keep enough room to recall AHL prospects in case of short-term injury to regulars or the need to rest returning Olympians Crosby, Malkin, Orpik and Gonchar.

Gonchar has said he wants to finish his career with the Penguins, but he has not said he will accept less than anticipated market value - as Crosby and Malkin did for contract extensions in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Though 36 by July 1, Gonchar is among a group of marquee veterans at his position who are slated to become unrestricted. That group that includes Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer, New Jersey's Paul Martin and Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov.

The bounty of potential unrestricted free-agent defensemen is likely to weaken the market for restricted players such as Letang, who would like a long-term deal in the $4 million range comparable to what center Jordan Staal signed in 2009.

The Penguins, who play Buffalo tonight at Mellon Arena, could turn their attention to negotiations with Letang's agent, Kent Hughes. Talks between Shero and Hughes have stalled since November, and the team is attempting to reach a deal with Letang that mirrors the one signed by Goligoski last summer.

Goligoski is in the first season of a three-year contract that counts $1.83 million annually against the cap.

Shero has not ruled out making another move by Wednesday but reiterated he is comfortable with his group of forwards.

By all indications, he feels the same way about playing future games at Consol Energy Center without the Penguins' "Sarge."

Talk of the hockey world

Crosby's gold-medal winning goal Sunday was the talk of the hockey world. A sample of the impression he made:

"When the U.S. tied it, I looked at my son -- we were watching the game at my house -- and said, 'Well, it's up to Sid to save us now.' I probably wasn't the only Canadian watching the game thinking that way."

-- Matt Cooke, Penguins winger

"I texted all my friends as soon as (Team USA forward Zach) Parise tied it: 'This is a perfect moment for Sid. Sid is going to make it.' And he did. Mentally, you think: 'This is perfect for me. I know I can get this. I know I can be a hero.' It was like all the pressure on his shoulders was motivation."

-- Max Talbot, Penguins forward and Stanley Cup Game 7 hero

"When he took a step off the wall and had (Team USA defenseman Brian) Rafalski behind him -- it was over. I saw it happen and was like, 'It's over, it's going in.' That was my feeling."

-- Dan Bylsma, Penguins coach

"Oh yeah, I'm (happy for him). He's my teammate. He's the best player in the league."

-- Evgeni Malkin, Penguins center and Team Russia star

"He's got a little bit of destiny to him. ... It's just another monumental moment in his career. What is he, 22 still• He's a special, special guy. Kind of like Gretzky."

-- Steve Yzerman, Team Canada executive director and Crosby's boyhood idol

"He's part of our team. He's our captain. We won the Cup together. He's done a lot for this franchise, this team. I think it is great thing for him... for his confidence; and another it's thing on his resume -- as if he needs something else."

-- Ray Shero, Penguins general manager and Team USA contributor

"When he first got it -- and it happened so quick that the puck on his stick I wasn't trying to think about it -- I just couldn't believe it. He scored the winning goal for Canada in the gold-medal game. He's scored some big ones, but this one ... it's hard to compare to anything. It was a surreal moment. The first thing I said to him was, 'Congrats.' Then I grabbed him and said, 'I love you.' "

-- Troy Crosby, father

Digit

22 -- Millions of Canadians, roughly 23 of Canada's population, who watched Crosby score the Olympic-winner. The 16.6 million average rating made the gold-medal game the most-watched program in Canada history.

And here they go ...

Beat reporter Rob Rossi looks at the Penguins' remaining games (with date, opponent and record, and start time, beginning tonight with a tough test against Buffalo at Mellon Arena:

This week

Today -- Sabres (33-18-9, 75 pts.) 7:30 p.m.

Thursday -- at Rangers (28-27-7, 63 pts.) 7 p.m.

Saturday -- Stars (28-21-12, 68 pts.) 1 p.m.

›If they play, two standout Olympic goalies (Ryan Miller and Henrik Lundqvist) could deny the Penguins a fast start before two rarities -- a visit by Dallas and a Saturday matinee at home.

March 7-13

March 7 -- Bruins (27-22-11, 65 pts.) 3 p.m.

March 11 -- at Hurricanes (24-30-7, 55 pts.) 7 p.m.

March 12 -- at Devils (37-21-3, 77 pts.) 7 p.m.

Don't expect an easy run-up to the first of two division showdowns at New Jersey, against whom the Penguins are 0-4-0. Overtime and a shootout were needed to win two of four against Carolina and Boston.

March 14-20

March 14 -- at Lightning (26-24-11, 63 pts.) 5 p.m.

March 17 -- at Devils (37-21-3, 77 pts.) 7 p.m.

March 18 -- at Bruins (27-22-11, 65 pts.) 7 p.m.

March 20 -- Hurricanes (24-30-7, 55 pts.) 1 p.m.

Goals are likely to be at a premium, as winger Bill Guerin is the only Penguin to score in three regulation losses at Boston, New Jersey and Tampa Bay.

March 21-27

March 22 -- at Red Wings (28-21-12, 68 pts.) 7 p.m.

March 24 -- at Capitals (41-13-8, 90 pts.) 7 p.m.

March 27 -- Flyers (32-25-3, 67 pts.) 1 p.m.

Look for the captain to lead a charge on this tour of 2009 playoff foes. Sidney Crosby has scored eight goals in as many games against these opponents.

March 28-April 3

March 28 -- Maple Leafs (19-31-11, 49 pts.) 5 p.m.

March 31 -- Lightning (26-24-11, 63 pts.) 7:30 p.m.

April 3 -- Thrashers (26-24-10, 62 pts.) 1 p.m.

On this potentially final great opportunity to solidify a grip on home-ice advantage in the first round, the Penguins can expect more help from Evgeni Malkin, who has assisted on eight of 25 goals in seven games against these teams.

April 4-11

April 6 -- Capitals (41-13-8, 90 pts.) 7:30 p.m.

April 8 -- Islanders (25-29-8, 58 pts.) 7:30 p.m.

April 10 -- at Thrashers (26-24-10, 62 pts.) 7 p.m.

April 11 -- at Islanders (25-29-8, 58 pts.) 5 p.m.

The Penguins (18-10-3) have not been dominant at home this season, but they'll look to send a postseason message to likely top Eastern Conference seed Washington before facing the Islanders in the last regular-season game at Mellon Arena.

» Sources: NHL.com, sports.yahoo.com

Additional Information:

Jordan Leopold

Position : Defense

Height, weight: 6-foot-1, 200 pounds

Shot : Left

Age : 29

Statistics : 7 goals, 11 assists, 18 points and a minus-7 rating in 61 games with Florida (current); 36 goals, 91 assists, 127 points and a minus-22 rating in 416 games with Florida, Calgary and Colorado (career).

Notable : Second-round choice (44th overall) by Anaheim in 1999 NHL entry draft. ... 2002 Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey's top player (Minnesota, 2002). ... Recorded 10 assists for Calgary on Flames' run to 2004 Stanley Cup Final. ... Has been traded five times.

Contract status : Can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

He said it : 'I'm more of a puck-moving defenseman. I'm the guy that gets the puck to the those guys that can do something with it. I know my job is to move the puck quickly. It's not anything pretty.'

Additional Information:

Are you kidding me?

Center Sidney Crosby's overtime goal to win the Olympic gold medal for Canada on Sunday only added to his personal dominance against Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. The Penguins are 8-3-1 against the Sabres when both players are in the lineup.

Crosby's statistics

Games : 12

Goals : 7

Assists : 10

Points : 17

Not to rub salt in the eye of Miller, who was named the Olympic tournament MVP for leading the United States to silver, but Crosby has decided three games with an overtime goal and two shootout markers -- including, most memorably, the shootout winner at the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo.

Source: Pittsburgh Penguins media relations

 

 

 
 


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