The Penguins arguably overachieved in 2010-2011 due to the vast majority of injuries but the standard didn’t change for the Penguins brass and that was competing for a Stanley Cup.
After a first round outster, laying out the blueprint for the 2011 off-season now becomes the focus for the Penguins hockey operations staff.
Unlike previous seasons, they have over two months to prepare for free agency.
The Penguins enter the off-season with $54.866 million committed to 16 players for next season: 7 forwards, 7 defensemen and 2 goaltenders. The salary cap is expected to rise to the $62.5 – $63.5 million range. However, the Penguins won’t have a lot of cap space to address their most pressing need of a scoring winger.
Walkout meetings are on Friday for the players and the Penguins brass are at least a few weeks away from formulating a plan to attack their group of pending unrestricted free agents. A group that doesn’t include a Sergei Gonchar but includes several valuable role players.
Among the most pressing issues that must be addressed is where the team envisions Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin fitting in the lineup. This season the plan was for Staal to center the second line and move Evgeni Malkin to wing.
Have the Penguins seen enough from Staal where the team may feel now that he doesn’t have the instincts and offensive skill to be a top-2 line center? If the intention is to go back to the three center model and let Staal do what he does well, it could seal the fate of a valuable player like Max Talbot who really appears to be finding his niche as a third line center in this league.
Last year upgrading the blueline was the top priority and upgrading the winger position will surely be the top priority this off-season.
It’s a little early to be throwing names out there but remember the name Curtis Glencross who sources indicate will be a top target of the Penguins.
The Penguins normally don’t begin serious negotiations with pending unrestricted free agents until June and look for them to address their restricted free agents first.
The top priority will be 24 year old Tyler Kennedy who is arbitration eligible.
Kennedy made $850,000 in 2010-2011 and had a career season, collecting 21 goals. The Penguins will look to avoid arbitration with Kennedy at all costs. Last summer, Clark MacArthur was awarded $2.4 million after a 16 goal season.
Starting with Tyler Kennedy makes the most sense and logical route. The Penguins are going to have to give Kennedy a bump in salary.
The other notable restricted free agent is Dustin Jefrey. Jeffrey might have been playing himself into a one-way contract but underwent major knee surgery in March and his rehab period is at least six months.
Jeffrey is likely to now just receive a tender from the Penguins. The Penguins can’t neccessairly count on Jeffrey being at full strength when the season begins.
The Penguins unrestricted free agents include, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, Mike Rupp, Craig Adams, Arron Asham, Mike Comrie, Alex Kovalev, Chris Conner and Eric Godard.
At this point, the two most likely to return are Mike Rupp and Craig Adams.
The Penguins held exploratory talks with Rupp during the season and there was a strong mutual interest from both sides. A few months ago Rupp I’m told was telling teammates and those close to him that he expects to re-sign for around the same money he made this season ($850,000). His agent may try to squeeze a few extra hundred thousand out of the Penguins but expect Rupp to return.
As for Craig Adams, if the Penguins want him back he will be back. He made $550,000 this season and will cost nothing to resign. Good locker room who could still be valuable in a 12th – 13th forward role as a 34 year old. Keeps himself in excellent shape and age shouldn’t be problem.
Another player with a good chance to return is Pascal Dupuis as long as the price is the right. The Penguins informed the 32 year old winger during the season that they would like to bring Dupuis back.
A family man, Dupuis is said to not have much interest in playing in another city. However, the price is still going to have be right for him to return.
The wildcard of the group is Maxime Talbot. At 27 years old and a proven playoff performer, Talbot has value around the league. Scouts came away singing Talbot’s praise for his work at center during the playoffs and after a regular season that had more downs than up’s, his value is on the rise.
The Penguins held no contract discussions with Talbot during the season. However, the team would still like to retain him if they can.
The other issue as I mention above is whether there’s a long-term fit for Talbot. Evaluators believe Talbot’s best position is center and this is a team with Crosby, Malkin, Staal down the middle with Jeffrey, Vitale in the system and Letestu under contract for two more years at $625,000 per season.
One interesting thing about Talbot, I had some close to him tell he’s “stupid” (in a joking manner) enough to take a below market deal to remain in Pittsburgh. Therefore, still too early to rule out Talbot returning at this point but it’s hard to see the Penguins fitting him in financially, although due to the age difference between Talbot and Dupuis, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Penguins potentially prioritize Talbot over Dupuis.
Arron Asham had a strong playoff run and at least put himself back into the discussion of being re-signed. He is 33 years old and made $700,000.
Right now there’s not a good feel on his situation.
Meanwhile, Mike Comrie and Alex Kovalev will not be under any consideration to return.
Like Asham, not a good feel on Godard’s situation. Enforcers are really becoming an after thought but the Penguins believe in the need for a heavyweight. Bringing him back would be a waste but the Penguins might not feel that way.
In the system, the Penguins have Joe Vitale, Nick Johnson, Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey (if he gets healthy) as options for an NHL spot next season.
On the blueline, team sources call Robert Bortuzzo “NHL” ready but there’s no space at this point.
Top prospect Simon Despres, the Penguins 1st round pick in 2009 will join the organization.