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Shero at work with Pens' potential free agents

| Tuesday, June 15, 2010

That time of year has started for Penguins general manager Ray Shero.

With the NHL free-agent period set to open July 1, Shero said Monday his talks with the Penguins' impending unrestricted free agents will kick into gear this week.

"We're kind of getting started at this point, just like we get started at this point every year," he said.

Shero is aware that of his eight players set for unrestricted status, two are of heated interest among fans — top defenseman Sergei Gonchar and third-line left wing Matt Cooke.

Though Shero's policy is not to discuss contract negotiations during the process, he has held preliminary discussions with representatives for Gonchar and Cooke. Both players have said their preference is to remain with the Penguins.

Gonchar's agent, JP Barry, said there was nothing new to report about his client's future with the Penguins. Cooke's agent, Pat Morris, could not be reached for comment.

Uncertainty regarding the salary-cap ceiling for next season is not a significant factor in talks with any potential free agent, Shero said. He added the deadline for a final cap number is June 30.

The Penguins are at around $45 million for 15 NHL regulars set to return next season. Commissioner Gary Bettman said during the Stanley Cup Final he expects the cap to get about a $2 million boost from its 2009-10 ceiling ($56.8 million).

The Penguins eligible for unrestricted status include four defensemen and four wingers who combined for a $16.7 million cap hit last season.

The upcoming free-agent class is considered defense-heavy and loaded with proven veterans such as Gonchar. The crop of wingers — always of interest for Penguins fans given the club's long-term deals with centerpiece centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal — is considered the weakest since the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

Notes: The Penguins re-signed defenseman Steve Wagner to a one-year contract. He would make $500,000 on the two-way contract if he plays in the NHL. Wagner was acquired Feb. 11 from St. Louis in exchange for defenseman Nate Guenin. ... Shero on defenseman Brooks Orpik, who underwent sports hernia surgery last Friday: "We knew about it near the end of the (regular) season. It was one of those things that wasn't great for him, but with injuries in the playoffs, you've got to play through it. He'll be ready for training camp."

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