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Penguins bolster defense in Day 1 of free agency

| Friday, July 2, 2010

Sergei Gonchar required almost an entire season to feel comfortable with the Penguins.

It took the team only a matter of minutes to identify, sign and feel comfortable with his replacements.

One of the most noteworthy summer days in team history occurred Thursday when Gonchar, so heavily relied upon during the Penguins' return to hockey's elite, bolted to Ottawa for a three-year, $16.5 million deal.

With Gonchar gone and defenseman Dan Hamhuis looking unlikely to sign with the Penguins -- as expected, he inked a six-year deal with Vancouver later in the day -- Penguins GM Ray Shero responded with an impressive Plan B, jolting the Eastern Conference by immediately signing two of the open market's finest available defensemen in Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

"When I look at the defensemen on this roster," Martin said of his new squad, "I am very, very impressed."

His new GM is pleased, as well.

"I think we did really well," Shero said. "We're pretty thrilled."

A number of unrestricted free agents remain in limbo. Shero has not ruled out the possibility of signing Bill Guerin or Mark Eaton, with Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ruslan Fedotenko and Jay McKee appearing far less likely to receive an offer from the Penguins.

Defenseman Jordan Leopold inked a three-year deal with Buffalo late Thursday afternoon.

Shero's first phone call yesterday was to Michalek's camp. The defensive-minded, physical 27-year-old soon agreed to a 5-year, $20 million deal.

"We've always been so impressed with him," Shero said. "He's an under-the-radar guy."

Michalek only seriously considered offers from the Penguins and Phoenix, where he emerged as a shutdown defender during his five seasons with the Coyotes.

"It was kind of a no-brainer for me," Michalek said. "Let's be honest, the situation in Phoenix is unstable. Getting a chance to come here, with a new arena, a team that's always contending for a championship, having Mario Lemieux as my owner and getting to play with (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin ... it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me."

Martin, 29, is very familiar with the Penguins after playing the past five seasons with New Jersey. He wasn't, however, quite as familiar with the Penguins' financial situation as he thought.

After seeing Michalek sign with the Penguins and knowing that Hamhuis, whose rights were acquired from Philadelphia last Friday, was still possibly in the fold, Martin had essentially crossed the Penguins off his list.

"I didn't think there was any way they were going to make me an offer after seeing how the day was shaping up," Martin said.

Shero, though, ultimately and correctly concluded that Hamhuis was intent on playing in his native British Columbia.

And so, the Penguins GM offered Martin a five-year, $25 million proposal.

"I couldn't turn down the chance to play there," Martin said. "I was talking with the Penguins, Devils, and a couple of other teams, but to play in Pittsburgh is just so great. I know how great the crowd always was at Mellon Arena, and I can't wait to feel the atmosphere at the new barn."

Martin already feels comfortable with his new team. He frequently works out in his hometown of Minneapolis with another Minnesota native, new teammate Alex Goligoski.

Also, Martin has fielded phone calls from former New Jersey teammate Mike Rupp, who assured him that playing in Pittsburgh was a wise move.

"It just seems like a perfect fit," Martin said.

Although the Penguins seem thrilled with their acquisitions -- and they are being praised league-wide as having perhaps the best day of any team -- losing Gonchar was not Shero's goal. In fact, the Penguins GM made a late pitch to the veteran defenseman Wednesday in the form of a text message.

But it simply wasn't to be. Gonchar was adamant about receiving a three-year contract, and Shero wouldn't budge from his two-year proposal.

"It was really difficult," Shero said. "I had offered two years. That's all we were going to. He wanted three or more. I understand his position. No hard feelings. It was just business."

Despite losing one of the finest offensive defensemen of his generation, business seems awfully good for the Penguins these days.

"I think this is a great team with a really good looking blue line," Michalek said. "Martin is a great player. We know why we were signed there. We were signed to help win a Stanley Cup, and that's what we'll try to do."

Note: The Penguins finished 5th out of 122 professional sports teams in ESPN The Magazine's annual Ultimate Franchise rankings and ranked 1st in the category that considers players' relations with fans.

The newest Penguins

Paul Martin

Position : Defenseman

Shoots : Left

Age : 29

Height/weight : 6-1, 200

Hometown : Minneapolis, Minn.

New deal : 5 years, $25 million

Career stats : 400 games played, 26 goals, 137 assists, 263 points, 114 PIM, plus-55

Skinny : One the league's finest two-way defensemen, Martin is a slick puck mover who likely will see time on top power play unit. Solid defensively and an outstanding skater, he's a plus-51 in his past 146 games.

Zbynek Michalek

Position : Defenseman

Shoots : Right

Age : 27

Height/Weight : 6-2, 210

Hometown : Jindrichuv Hradec, Czech Republic

New deal : 5 years, $20 million

Career stats : 415 games played, 27 goals, 88 assists, 115 points, 192 PIM, minus-22

Skinny : A rugged, defensive defenseman, Michalek is considered by many among the league's most underrated performers. He led the NHL in blocked shots two years ago with 271 and is viewed as a terrific penalty killer with evolving, respectable offensive skills.

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