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Playoff letdown masks Penguins' potential

| Friday, May 14, 2010

The former Stanley Cup champions will gather Friday morning at Mellon Arena, the final time an NHL team will convene at the to-be-replaced Igloo. By mid-afternoon, general manager Ray Shero will have the majority of his offseason plan in place.

That plan is to reinsert the Penguins into the Cup conversation after their stunning, second-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

However, a question must be asked: Are the Penguins really out of the conversation for next season and beyond?

A strong case can be made that they are not. Their nucleus is under contract for three more seasons, and it now includes defenseman Kris Letang, who signed a four-year extension at $3.5 million annually late in the regular season.

Add Letang to defenseman Brooks Orpik; centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal; and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury — six players who will take up $29.65 million in salary-cap space through 2012-13.

That base is as firm of a foundation as any that exists in the NHL. It helped the Penguins to the Final in 2008 and the Cup last season.

Still, these playoffs proved that a great group of building-block players guarantees nothing. Shero must find answers to several questions that can be fairly asked of the Penguins after their playoff ouster.

Can the defense survive without its Sarge?

Sergei Gonchar is unlikely to return for a sixth season with the Penguins, who cannot afford to keep him at his current cap cost ($5 million).

Despite Letang's extension, the Penguins do not consider him Gonchar's heir apparent as the No. 1 defenseman. Not yet, anyway — although Letang's nine playoff goals the past two years point to a big-game seed that could grow with added responsibility.

Letang and Alex Goligoski combined for 64 regular-season points, only 14 more than Gonchar, who averaged 60 in his four mostly healthy seasons with the Penguins.

Subtracting Gonchar's offense and dressing-room leadership, praised by leaders Crosby and Orpik, will hurt the Penguins.

What will prevent them from contending for the Cup next season is failing to find a stay-at-home defenseman who can deny opposing forwards the prime scoring chances that Montreal's Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta enjoyed while scoring 12 goals in Round 2.

They cannot afford Gonchar and that type of defenseman, who would command more than Orpik ($3.75 million). The clear need is not the defenseman who has served as the unit's leader for the past five years.

Are the wings good enough?

If the objective is to provide Crosby and Malkin, two former scoring champions, with 40-goal caliber wings, the answer is a decided "no."

The objective should be to retain third-line left wing Matt Cooke, who is seeking at least a three-year deal. Given his age (32 in September), the Penguins may not want to offer that.

They shouldn't let terms cost them Cooke, whose 15 goals/30 points/plus-17 rating and chemistry with Staal are worth that cost.

Staal, only 21 but coming off his fourth season, can be expected to challenge the 30-goal plateau, which would make up for lack of big-marker totals by first- and second-line wings. That assumes Malkin, who scored a career-low 28 goals, returns to the 40-goal scorer he must be to command an $8.7 million cap hit.

Crosby and Malkin should score 40 goals no matter their linemates, but Shero must find for them a wing who will be around at least two seasons --preferably one willing to play with grit and speed.

Finding those wings at a discount — no more than $5 million between them — will prove Shero's greatest challenge.

Do the goalie and coach measure up?

Some questions are so absurd that they don't need to be dignified with an answer.

Consider just one number when judging Dan Bylsma and Marc-Andre Fleury: one. That is the number of Cup titles on each man's resume, which makes it the measure of a championship-caliber coach/player.

Bylsma and Fleury are easy targets for disappointed fans, but those fans are misinformed. Coaching and goaltending didn't cost the Penguins the Cup this season.

A great offseason by Shero could give his coach and goalie a chance to win the Cup next year.

Free to go

A glance at the Penguins slated for unrestricted free agency July 1:

Player (Salary-cap hit) Role

Sergei Gonchar ($5 million) Top-pair defenseman

Alexei Ponikarovsky ($2.108 million) Second-line wing

Bill Guerin ($2 million) Top-line wing

Mark Eaton ($2 million) Second-pair defenseman

Ruslan Fedotenko ($1.8 million) Second-line wing

Jordan Leopold ($1.78 million) Third-pair defenseman

Matt Cooke ($1.2 million) Third-line wing

Jay McKee ($800,000) Extra defenseman

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