GM Ray Shero’s primary goal this off-season was to add two impact defensemen as the Penguins went into free agency with the mindset that they were willing to spend up to $9 million in an attempt to revamp their blueline.
After striking out on trying to re-sign Sergei Gonchar or reaching a deal with Dan Hamhuis, Shero made an early splash just hours into free agency.
The Penguins first struck a deal with defenseman Zbynek Michalek to a 5 year contract worth $20 million that includes a limited no trade clause.
The contract runs through the 2014-15 season, and has an average annual value of $4 million dollars over the term of the contract.
Michalek was a primary target of the Penguins once free agency opened up at 12:00 p.m. today and the first player they called, Pens GM Ray Shero later said.
Michalek, 27, has played six NHL seasons, the last five with the Phoenix Coyotes, totaling 27 goals, 88 assists and 115 points in 415 games. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound blueliner led the NHL in blocked shots in 2008-09 with 271.
Michalek posted 17 points (3G-14A) in 72 games for the Coyotes in 2009-10. He added two assists in seven postseason games for Phoenix.
Michalek is a player the Penguins believe can play a shutdown type role and log 23-25 minutes per game. He does not play a physical game by any means but has great defensive-zone instincts and is an avid shot blocker.
Offensively, the Penguins also tabbed him as a good fit in their up-tempo system due to Michalek’s ability in the tranisition game. Never going to be a player that puts up 30+ points but moves the puck up very well which is something head coach Dan Bylsma values highly.
After striking out on Hamhuis and Gonchar and facing uncertainty on whether they could lock up Paul Martin, Pittsburgh had to pay market value to sign Michalek who receives a salary jump from $1.5 million to $4 million per season.
Michalek is an upgrade over Mark Eaton and Jordan Leopold but $4 million a season is a steep price to pay.
One executive i spoke with loved the signing of Michalek when it came to what the Penguins lacked but believed the Penguins over-paid and if they could do things over, would have found a way to keep Rob Scuderi in the mix last summer.
However, anyone connected with the Penguins I spoke with this afternoon raved about Michalek’s upside and believe he still hasn’t peaked as a player. The Penguins believe they won big with this signing.
The Penguins biggest splash of the day came about an hour later, when the team signed defenseman Paul Martin to a 5 year deal worth $25 million. Martin’s contract runs through the 2014-15 season, and has an average annual value of $5 million dollars over the term of the contract.
Martin, 29, upgrades the Penguins defensive unit immediately. He was regarded as the top two-way defenseman of a strong free agent class and is among the most under-rated defensemen in the game. Martin was New Jersey’s Sergei Gonchar in the kind of impact he has on games.
Martin played six seasons with New Jersey after the Devils selected him in the second round (62nd overall) of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Martin has 26 goals, 137 assists, 163 points and a plus-55 rating in 400 career games, and 16 points (2G-14A) in 42 postseason contests.
Martin (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) notched two goals, 11 points and a plus-10 rating in 2009-10 despite missing 59 games with a broken forearm. He returned to finish the season, and made five postseason appearances.
Martin was selected to play for Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, but missed the tournament due to injury. He represented his country in the 2004 World Championships, 2004 World Cup and 2001 World Junior Championships.
The Minneapolis, Minnesota native played three collegiate seasons at the University of Minnesota. Martin helped the Golden Gophers to consecutive NCAA Championship titles in 2002 and 2003, and a WCHA Playoff Championship in 2003. He notched 20 goals, 77 assists and 97 points during his college career.
An interesting dynamic is that the Penguins now have $16.25 million committed Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek for the next four years. Orpik, and Letang each have four years remaining on their deal.
Pittsburgh has a deep group of defensemen in their system headlined by top prospects Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo. Both are about only a year away from the NHL.
Despres projects as an impact defenseman and Bortuzzo has a high ceiling.
The Penguins off-setted the loss of Sergei Gonchar by going defensive with the additions of Martin and Michalek.
Gonchar signed just minutes into free agency, agreeing to a three year – $16.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators. The 36 year old was eyeing a three year deal and moved on the Senators offer quickly.
Gonchar released a statement on the Senators website: “I’m very happy to be there because I’m going to play in Canada, which is pretty special for me,” he said. “I believe Ottawa has a pretty good team. … We played against them last year in the playoffs and it’s not easy to play against that team.”
As constructed, the Penguins top-6 currently sets up with Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Alex Goligoski and Ben Lovejoy.
Lovejoy has a two-way contract, along with Steve Wagner and Deryk Engelland who will battle for a depth spot.
I’m told the Penguins would like to add another veteran defenseman on the cheap but face difficulties due to their cap situation.
The Penguins have lost 50-to-60+ points from their blueline in the loss of Gonchar but the team has improved defensively for the short and long-term which was their primary goal. In the eyes of the Penguins, today was a big win for the team.