Analysis: How the Pens can win it all next season

| Sunday, May 16, 2010

Three centers. One Stanley Cup.

Four years into general manager Ray Shero's plan to provide Pittsburgh hockey fans with a perennial contender, there is a numbers crunch.

It's more than the $21.4 million in salary-cap space the Penguins have committed to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (each at $8.7 million) and Jordan Staal ($4 million) each of the next three seasons.

That trio has powered the Penguins to 38 playoff wins and one Cup title.

However, the Penguins are also a one-and-done title team. Crosby, Malkin and Staal, who played injured, combined for four goals in a second-round loss to the Canadiens.

One-and-done doesn't sit well with an ownership that spent to the salary-cap ceiling. Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle want to win again next season and for seasons to follow.

There are three steps Shero can take this offseason to get the Penguins back to where they once belonged.

Field offers for Malkin

Crosby and Malkin will be more dominant with a young, skilled wing to grow with.

However, given the cap constraints, the only way to land that wing is to move one of them for a package that would upgrade the roster and replenish a system that lacks impact forwards beyond top prospect Eric Tangradi.

Staal's development as a Selke Trophy candidate for his defensive work and offensive upside -- at 21, he has produced three 20-goal seasons as a third-liner -- gives the Penguins the option of trading Crosby or Malkin. Staal is a prototype No. 2 center and an emerging dressing-room leader.

The Penguins won't trade Crosby, who aside from being team captain is the franchise's face. Malkin, already a scoring champion and playoff MVP at 23, is the guy to shop.

Shero should start making calls to his contemporaries, and his first words should be: "Make me an offer for Malkin." It must include a top-line wing, a top-pairing defenseman, two roster players and either two top prospects or two first-round picks.

To give up Geno, the Penguins must get the world in return. If they get it, their Cup window won't be limited to three seasons, as it will be with the three-center plan.

Let Gonchar walk

The Penguins likely will begin next season within about $1 million of the cap ceiling. That serves to emphasize how spot-on Shero must be with his roster moves.

Signing a 36-year-old defenseman to a multi-year deal at an average cap hit of more than $4 million -- let alone the $5 million Gonchar believes he will command -- is a huge risk.

Shero should not take that risk, especially with a bountiful crop of defensemen on the free-agent market. He should:

» Re-sign defenseman Mark Eaton, who like Gonchar can test free agency July 1, to keep at least four regulars from this season. Another two-year deal at $2 million annually should work, and that would tie $11.083 million in cap space to Eaton, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski.

» Re-sign top prospect Ben Lovejoy, who would command a cap hit of no more than the $800,000 veteran Jay McKee counted for last season.

» Pursue Nashville's Dan Hamhuis, who at 27 can be offered a cap-friendly long-term deal. Offer him a $1.25 million bump to $3.25 million annually over four years. Sell him on joining a Cup contender. Let him learn from Orpik and grow into a blue-line anchor.

Go with newbies

Though their nucleus is young, the playoff-tested Penguins could use an infusion of prospects who do not view regular-season games at, say, Atlanta as opportunities to take a deep breath during the crushing 82-game grind.

Tangradi, a true power forward in the making, should be in the NHL by November if he's healthy. Lovejoy must play, and if a defenseman can't be had on the market, Deryk Engelland should garner top-six consideration. Also, it's time to find out about forwards Nick Johnson and Dustin Jeffrey.

If the young players don't work out, a deadline-period trade can be made. Going into the season with discount-priced veterans was not the wise move this season and won't be next season.

Shero and coach Dan Bylsma, who directed many of the franchise's prospects at AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, should open regular roster spots for prospects. They might struggle for a couple of months, but if they progress at the NHL level -- and a teacher-coach such as Bylsma should help that process -- the Penguins will be better suited for a late-season surge into the playoffs.

Once they get there, Crosby, Staal and, yes, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, can take over -- even without Malkin and Gonchar.

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