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Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal now Ray Shero's top priorities

| Monday, July 4, 2011

The Penguins have wiggle room under the salary cap -- $2.1 million, to be exact -- but don't expect them to make many inquiries into the free agent market the rest of this summer.

Next summer is more important.

With two years remaining on the contracts of Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, signing the star centers is general manager Ray Shero's highest priority. He believes the Penguins will be a Stanley Cup contender even without making a splash in free agency this summer, while simultaneously making room for Crosby's and Staal's eventual extensions.

"We have Crosby and Staal coming up in a couple of years," Shero said. "We're set up pretty well."

Negotiations with Crosby and Staal can begin next July.

Shero appears to have given the Penguins, as currently designed, a two-year window to win a championship. Summer of 2013 could see a dramatic face-lift because so many players -- Crosby, Staal, Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy -- become free agents. Chris Kunitz is the only standout to become a free agent next summer.

The Penguins generally want to stay about $1.5 million under the salary cap -- $64.3 million this upcoming season. That means if they want to make a move, it likely would be a role player, such as their moves last summer when they signed Arron Asham and Mike Comrie in August and September, respectively.

After weeks of speculation that the Penguins would sign the star of yesteryear in Jaromir Jagr, the team opted to stand pat, largely because their stars of today -- Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- are expected to return healthy to next season's lineup.

Their returns figure to give the Penguins a bigger boost than anyone in the free agent market could have produced.

"I knew about the Jagr thing," Kennedy said, "but we already do have great players. Getting Sid and Geno back will be so huge for us."

Shero, while being peppered about Jagr last week, made it clear that he's more interested in his own players than those on the open market.

"The key to our team is getting Crosby and Malkin back," Shero said.

Bylsma, the NHL's reigning Jack Adams Award winner, is excited about the prospect of tinkering with his lineup. He could reinstate the three-center model, placing Crosby, Malkin and Staal down the center of the ice and giving teams a nightmare disadvantage.

"We're never chasing a bad matchup," he said.

He also will be tempted to place Malkin and Staal on the same line. The tactic worked during the 2006-07 season but never got off the ground last season because of injuries.

"I don't think you can say 'Malkin as a winger failed' because Malkin as a winger never was tried with Crosby and Staal in the lineup," Bylsma said.

The Penguins are convinced they could have won a Stanley Cup last season had it not been for injuries.

Rather than seek an overhaul, Shero and Bylsma simply want their team healthy.

It may be all the Penguins really need.

Note: The Penguins signed former Atlanta defenseman Boris Valabik to a two-way contract worth $550,000 at the NHL level.

Additional Information:

Projecting 2011 Pens

After speaking with coach Dan Bylsma, the Trib's Rob Rossi projects a likely variation of the Penguins' lineup for next season (player's salary-cap hit):


LW Chris Kunitz ($3.725 M) - C Sidney Crosby ($8.7 M) - RW James Neal ($2.875 M)

LW Pascal Dupuis ($1.5 M) - C Jordan Staal ($4 M) - RW Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 M)

LW Matt Cooke ($1.8 M) - C Mark Letestu ($600,000) - RW Tyler Kennedy ($2 M)

LW Arron Asham ($725,000) - C Craig Adams ($675,000) - RW Steve Sullivan ($1.5 M)

• In the mix: RW Dustin Jeffrey (unsigned RFA); C Joe Vitale ($512,000); RW Nick Johnson ($550,000); LW Eric Tangradi ($845,833)


LD Brooks Orpik ($3.75 M) - RD Kris Letang ($3.5 M)

LD Paul Martin ($3.5 M) - RD Zbynek Michalek ($4 M)

LD Ben Lovejoy ($525,000) - RD Matt Niskanen ($1.5 M)

• In the mix: RD Deryk Engelland ($566,667); RD Robert Bortuzzo ($535,000); LD Simon Despres ($840,000)


No. 1: Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 M)

No. 2: Brent Johnson ($600,000)

Source: Tribune-Review research

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