What a fabulous season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite the disappointment of falling two-games short of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. In a season marred by lengthy injuries to key players, the Penguins found ways to overcome and finish the season just 2-points behind the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference race. Key players stepped up at key times to cover roster injuries to Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Marc Eaton, Max Talbot, and Gary Roberts to name a few. Ray Shero made key trades at the deadline to bolster the lineup with Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis and Hal Gill. The resilient Penguins ultimately went on to win the Eastern Conference Title and force Game 6 in the Stanley Cup Finals against the formidable Detroit Red Wings after going down 2-0. Through it all, a very young, talented team gained invaluable experience and maturity that will serve them well into the future, both individually and as a team. It was truly a great year for Penguins’ hockey. So as the off-season sets in, what roster challenges lie ahead?
Penguins’ General Manager Ray Shero has his work cut out for him as he tries to retain as much of his talent as possible within the league-imposed Salary Cap, which is projected to be $56M for next season. Even if Shero can negotiate with the players and find a way to bring all the talent back within the Salary Cap, it is uncertain whether the he will be afforded the resources necessary to spend up to the full cap amount. This season, the Penguins spent $40.6M, well under the $50.3M cap. If they were to use the full salary cap, the Penguins would have to absorb a 38% payroll increase at a time that they are also financing a new arena. For a team that has had to dealt with the spectre of bankruptcy, this could well be mission impossible. On the other hand, the team sold out every game this season and played 11 sold-out games at home in the post-season, and is undoubtedly one of the best prospects in the NHL for the next few seasons.
First and foremost, Ray Shero will likely look to lock up Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury will become a restricted free agent on July 1st, and the Penguins will want to tie him up before any other offers come in. Then they will turn their efforts towards a long list of unrestricted free agents. The Penguins have 12-players heading to unrestricted free agency on July 1st. The Penguins management will have to prioritize their key needs and focus on them first, as I expect some of these players will be heading out of Pittsburgh over the summer. Lastly, the Penguins will likely try and lock up Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal who are entering the final year of their entry level contracts. Here is the breakdown of where things stand heading into free agency on July 1st:
Restricted Free Agents on July 1st:
- Marc-Andre Fleury: Despite a lengthy in-season injury, Fleury came back and proved he is an elite goaltender, and was phenomenal in the post-season. He should be the #1 priority for the Penguins who will look to get him on contract before his July 1st restricted free agency. He made $1.6M this season, and is a must keep.
Unrestricted Free Agents on July 1st:
- Marian Hossa: Picked up in a blockbuster deal at the trade deadline to play on Crosby’s wing, it is possible that we just started to see the magic between the two as the post-season ended. He improved his stock by showing he can deliver in the post-season. The Penguins want to keep Marian Hossa, but will likely be outbid in free agency. Whether he stays or goes will likely be up to Marian Hossa and his desire to stay with this exciting young team. He made $7M this season.
- Gary Roberts: After a tough season marred by serious injury, 42-year old Gary Roberts may opt to retire. He has been the veteran leader that the Penguins have asked him to be. He made $2.5M this season.
- Mark Eaton: Injury has kept Mark Eaton off the Penguins’ roster and will likely affect his open market value. If he can stay healthy, he will be a solid defensive contributor alongside Sergei Gonchar. He made $1.6M this season.
- Ryan Malone: Proved his worth as a power forward in this league and in so doing may have priced himself out of the Penguins’ market for next season. The native local hero will likely be loath to leave this team and the city of Pittsburgh, but he may opt to do so depending upon what the open market has to offer. He made $1.45M this season.
- Georges Laraque: A big presence on the 4th line who showed that he can contribute along the boards, as well as in the boxing ring. He made $1.3M this season.
- Jarkko Ruutu: A gritty contender and crowd favorite for Pittsburgh who made some key contributions throughout the season. He will likely draw interest from other teams in free agency. He made $1.15M this season.
- Brooks Orpik: Had a tremendous season on defense for the Penguins, vastly increasing his stock on the open market. He will be difficult to retain. He made $1.075M this season.
- Pascal Dupuis: Came to Pittsburgh in the deal with Marian Hossa, and was a nice surprise in terms of speed and energy. He made $880K this season.
- Kris Beech: Largely anonymous in just 5-games this season, troubled with injury. He made $585K this season.
- Adam Hall: Proved a solid contributor throughout the season and played very well in the post-season. He made $525K this season.
- Jeff Taffe: Solid role player who added the depth that the Penguins needed during the injury-riddled season. He made $500K this season.
- Ty Conklin: Who wouldn’t like to keep Ty Conklin in the lineup after his phenomenal stand-in job this season while Fleury was injured. With his stock back up, he may be picked up in free agency for more than the Penguins can afford. He made $500K this season.
On-Contract Through Next Season (~$29.97M):
- Sidney Crosby: Signed through 2013 at an arguably bargain price of $8.7 million per season.
- Sergei Gonchar: Signed through 2010 at $5M per season.
- Ryan Whitney: Signed through 2013 at $4M per season.
- Petr Sykora: Signed through 2009 at $2.5M.
- Darryl Sydor: Signed through 2009 at $2.5M.
- Hal Gill: Signed through 2009 at $2.1M.
- Evgeni Malkin: Aside from his late playoff slump, Evgeni Malkin significantly increased his stock this season by blooming while Sidney Crosby was sidelined. Malkin has one more year on his entry-level contract at $985K, and could eclipse Crosby’s $8.7M annual salary in an extension deal, that could get inked this summer.
- Jordan Staal: At just 19 and with another year on his entry level contract at $850K, the Penguins will want to lock him into a longer term deal ASAP. For Staal, it may make more sense to wait until next summer to see if he can increase his stock over the next season.
- Kris Letang: Signed through 2010 at $835K per season.
- Rob Scuderi: Signed through 2009 at $725K.
- Maxime Talbot: Signed through next season at $700K.
- Tyler Kennedy: Signed through next season at $550K.
- Dany Sabourin: Signed through 2009 at $525K.
In summary, the Penguins have ~$30M locked up in existing signed contracts for next season, leaving at most ~$26M in salary cap room. From that, the Penguins could conceiveably spend ~$4.5M on Marc-Andre Fleury and ~$9M on Marian Hossa, leaving just ~$12.5M to spread across the remainder of the lineup. This would be just enough to cover the remaining free agents at their current year’s salary. This would give no ability to re-sign Ryan Malone at open market value (likely ~$3M+) or Brooks Orpik at open market value (likely ~$3M+). If Gary Roberts retires, that would free up some room, but you would have to determine how to backfill him on the roster. My guess is that the Penguins will retain one, but not both, of Malone and Orpik. As July 1st draws near, contract deals will start to emerge and we will get a better picture of what the team may give up over the summer, and what some players may be willing to do to stay on a team that will continue to be a cup contender in the coming years.