It is another short off-season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, although this summer is much better than last for the players and their fans. A year ago, the team was licking the wounds of a Stanley Cup championship lost and the loss of a not so insignificant portion of their roster to other teams at season’s end. This summer, the players are enjoying the fruits of their labor as the Stanley Cup Champions and celebrating their day with Lord Stanley’s Cup, reflecting upon their accomplishments with their families, friends and home town fans. What a difference a year makes! It will only be a brief pause for celebration, however, as the next season will soon be upon us and the Penguins will have to return to the business of competing for the prize once again.
It has been an eventful summer so far, as Ray Shero has masterfully navigated the challenges of the NHL salary cap with a handful of players who have sacrified pay for the chance to stay with a championship team. First, Shero retained the services of veteran stalwart Bill Guerin for another year at less than half of his 2008/09 $4.5M salary. Guerin agreed to a $2M contract in lieu of testing the free agency market or considering retirement. It turns out that playing on a line with Sidney Crosby, voted the NHL’s best player for the 3rd year in a row by ESPN fans, is worth the cut in pay. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was one of the big reasons I wanted to stay,” Guerin said of No. 87. “It’s so much fun to play with him.” At the same time, Shero pulled the trigger on a 2-year deal with Craig Adams, signing him at $550K per year (slightly below his $600K salary last season). Shortly after signing Guerin and Adams, Shero again pulled off the seemingly improbable by signing Ruslan Fedotenko to a 1-year contract worth $1.8M, a $400K pay cut over last season. “I think it says a lot about Bill Guerin, Craig Adams, and Ruslan Fedotenko to want to come back here and be part of this group,” general manager Ray Shero said. And as a fan of the game, I have to agree. It says something very special about this team, and even more so about the championship spirit of these players. These are the kinds of players you want on your team.
In the loss column, the Penguins will play next season without the services of Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill and Mathieu Garon. Scuderi signed a three-year deal worth $13.6 million with the Los Angeles Kings, a price tag that the Penguins couldn’t match under the realities of the current salary cap. Hal Gill signed a 2-year contract worth $4.5M with the Montreal Canadiens. Finally, Mathieu Garon signed a two-year contract to back up Columbus goalie Steve Mason for more money. The Penguins responded to the losses on the blueline by signing free agent Jay McKee to a 1-year, $800K contract. The Penguins snatched McKee up at a significant bargain after he was bought out of the final year of his $4.5M annual contract with the St Louis Blues. Earning $2.67M next season from his buyout, McKee could justify the modest salary from the Penguins for a chance to regain his prestige and worth on a championship team. It was a win-win signing for the Penguins, who see a lot of upside potential in McKee, especially at such a bargain price. Known for his shot-blocking ability, McKee fell out of favor with the Blues who were in need of a quicker puck-moving defensemen. A first round pick by the Buffalo Sabres in 1995, McKee anchored the team’s defense in their 1999 run to the Stanley Cup finals. The Penguins will likely rely on the services of Alex Goligoski and John Curry to pick up the slack left by the Gill and Garon deprtures.
The Penguins have also picked up rugged forward Mike Rupp from the New Jersey Devils for a 2-year stint. At 6′ 5″ and 230 pounds, Rupp adds some more grit to a team that already included the services of Eric Godard. While we don’t expect Godard to be moved, Rupp could unseat him as the team’s most feared enforcer. Rupp will earn $800K this coming season and $850K in the following year. The Penguins also signed Dallas Stars right winger Chris Connor to a 1-year deal to add depth to the organization.
The Penguins will open the 2009/10 season on Friday, October 2, against the New York Rangers. It will be the final NHL season opener for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Mellon Arena’s 48-year history as they will play the following season in their new arena. The third Stanley Cup champions banner will be raised to ceiling of the Mellon Arena rafters during the season opener, in what is likely to be a night of mixed emotions in the old igloo.