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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

If either Sergei Gonchar or Dan Hamhuis want to play for the Penguins, each veteran defenseman is likely short on hours to make that happen.

The NHL free-agent period that opens at noon Thursday is a world of unknowns, and the Penguins are going after defensemen who will help upgrade the current corps.

That won't change.

The players they wanted were Gonchar and Hamhuis, hence months of contract discussions with the former and a trade last weekend to acquire exclusive negotiating rights with the latter.

However, if Gonchar and Hamhuis opt to test the market — an increasingly likely scenario after Tuesday night arrived without progress on deals for either player — the Penguins will have moved on with a plan to pursue other available free-agent defensemen by Thursday morning.

This free-agent crop is top heavy with potential impact defensemen, a group for which Gonchar and Hamhuis rate among the top options. Those two players are also the best options for the Penguins, too. Each is top-pairing quality with two-way skills — Gonchar geared more to offense and Hamhuis to defense.

Still, the Penguins already have identified other potential free agents who could fill the roles targeted for each player. Tampering rules prevent general manager Ray Shero from identifying names of defensemen on his wish list, but the agents for players on that list will be phoned by about 12:05 a.m. tomorrow — guaranteed.

The Penguins will land a couple of those names, too. Their situation is too inviting for most targeted players to pass up. Consider the sales pitch several within the franchise have made to Hamhuis, who heard the Penguins are:

• Contractually tied for the next three seasons to the league's top group of centers (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal) and a Stanley Cup-winning goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury).

• Run by ownership committed to spending at the salary cap; a modern management structure; and a progressive-thinking coaching staff.

• Set to open a state-of-the-art arena, Consol Energy Center, that will feature unrivaled players amenities and a fourth straight season of sellouts.

Maybe Gonchar, 36, and Hamhuis, 27, figure more is available on the open market. By hitting that market, though, they'll risk losing out on what the Penguins can offer.

Shero won't treat either player like he did former winger Marian Hossa in the 2008 offseason.

Then, following a run to the Final that afforded only a couple of weeks for offseason planning, Shero made a flexible offer to Hossa. There existed a presumption Hossa would sign on, but he hadn't by the eve of free agency or July 1.

Hossa waited until July 2 to sign a one-year deal with Detroit, and by then the Penguins has missed out on a full 24 hours to seriously negotiate with other available wingers.

Of course, the wingers they signed that offseason (Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko to one-year deals, Matt Cooke for two years) all contributed to the Cup win that next postseason.

Still, Shero surely learned a lesson: Focusing in on one player at this time of year is gamble.

It is one Shero, a reputably fast learner and strong dealmaker, won't take again.

The Penguins' project around $11 million can be spent on free agents starting tomorrow. They will spend a considerable percentage on improving the defense corps with or without Gonchar and Hamhuis.

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