Analysis: Penguins now positioned for many Stanley Cup runs
By Rob Rossi, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, July 2, 2010
Rob Rossi is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Penguins beat writer and can be reached at 412-380-5635 or via e-mail.
The cost of turning potential free-agency defeat into possible Stanley Cup victories was $9 million annual.
General manager Ray Shero spent shrewdly for the Penguins on Thursday, adding a couple of young defensemen on five-year deals and losing players who were less ideal fits for various reasons.
Zbynek Michalek, 27, will do what Rob Scuderi did for the 2008 and 2009 Cup Finalist Penguins (block shots, take away open space near the goal, smartly move the puck), only with sharper offensive skills and a better upside. He'll cost $4 million against the salary cap.
Paul Martin, 29, is a sure two-way player who skates smoothly, passes crisply and instinctively thinks offensively while adhering to sound defensive principles. He'll cost $5 million against the cap.
These two players were targeted by many teams. Shero didn't settle; he surveyed the scene and made aggressive moves to vastly improve the franchise.
Consider that a big win for the Penguins. The NHL free-agent season was less than half-an-hour old yesterday and they already appeared beaten.
Top defenseman Sergei Gonchar was off to the Ottawa Senators on a three-year contract that totaled $16.5 million.
Dan Hamhuis, the cornerstone defensemen with whom Shero had been speaking since acquiring his rights from Philadelphia for a 2011 third-round pick last Friday, had not committed to re-signing. Instead, he was working toward an eventual six-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks that totaled $27 million.
Even deadline-period acquisition Jordan Leopold eventually left in favor of three years with the Buffalo Sabres.
So Shero turned to Plan B, and it was A-plus for these reasons:
» Signing younger defensemen afforded the Penguins an opportunity to offer long-term deals. This kept the average annual salaries of Michalek and Martin lower, thus working in favor of future salary cap totals against which will count new and richer deals for The Big Three centers.
» With scarce projected cap space next season (around $2 million) for NHL-tested wingers, centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have no choice but to assume significant leadership roles. Time is perfect, because entering season No. 5, they're ready. Malkin and Staal also are ready to score more goals, produce more points and achieve a level of offensive consistency that rivals that of captain Sidney Crosby. They'll need to find that consistency with forward prospects being grafted into the lineup.
» The Penguins' top four on defense will rival any in the NHL. Michalek and Orpik are capable of filling shutdown roles, and Martin and Letang merit two-way responsibilities with a focus on puck movement. The puck shouldn't be in the defensive zone long, and shooters won't enjoy much space to fire upon goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The franchise investment in Fleury is inescapable ($5 million annual for the next five seasons). He's a proven championship goalie when playing behind a stout defense, and the Penguins are stouter today than they were at any time since lifting the Cup on June 12, 2009.
» The flexibility of this roster is enviable. The oldest of the Penguins' five NHL-tested defensemen is a full year from 31, and none are past their primes. Orpik, Michalek and Martin possess limited movement clauses, but that wouldn't prevent Shero from moving either player if the deal was right. Any of these defensemen could be moved without little difficulty for potential impact forwards in future years. The Penguins are deepest at the prospect level on defense, and those players can now develop at a natural pace. Workable options are the way of successful season-by-season life in the NHL, and Shero has secured those options at the one position every team covets.
Pens' spending plan
A positional breakdown of how the Penguins, as currently constructed, will spend their money next season against the $59.4 million NHL salary cap:
Forwards: 12 players; $32,020,833 combined cap hit
Defensemen: 6 players; $18,608,333 combined cap hit
Goaltenders: 2 players; $5,600,000 combined cap hit
Total: 20 players; $56,229,166 combined cap hit
Notable: Winger Eric Tangradi ($845,833) and defenseman Ben Lovejoy ($525,000) are projected to make opening-night roster.