Intriguing group of defensemen set to become UFA’s on July 1.
The Penguins enter the off-season with a top priority of rebuilding their defense as they only have 3 defenseman signed for the 2010-2011 season. With approximately $13 million available in cap space, the Penguins will allocate at $5-6 million per season in contracts to fill out their blueline.
With Sergei Gonchar’s $5 million a year salary coming off the books, the opportunity will be there for Pittsburgh to dish out $3-to-$4 million per season to a defenseman and fill the rest of their blueline on the cheap.
Based on contact with team sources, Pittsburgh will likely explore two options.
1. Sign a defenseman in the $3.5-$4 million range (Example: Gonchar or Hamhuis) — fill other spots with the likes of Ben Lovejoy, prospect, veteran defenseman or two. (all players making well under $1 million per season.
2. Spread the money through 3-to-4 players: For example, re-sign Jordan Leopold, Mark Eaton to contracts in the range of $1.75 – $2.25 million per season and opt against putting upwards of $3.5 million into one defenseman.
On the Free Agent Market
Multiple team sources continue to indicate that Sergei Gonchar remains a top priority for the Penguins but just not at a cap hit of $5 million per season. The Penguins will look to get creative and bring Gonchar back. Pittsburgh is believed to be willing to go as high as $4.25 million per season on a two year deal to retain Gonchar, however, it remains unlikely that Gonchar will be signed before July 1st.
With a strong group of defensemen set to test free agency, Pittsburgh will have an ample opportunity to get younger and add a shutdown defenseman that they have coveted since Rob Scuderi left.
This years group of potential UFA defensemen are headlined by New Jersey’s Paul Martin and Ottawa’s Anton Volchenkov. The thought around the league is that if Pittsburgh is willing go upwards of $4 million per season to bring back Gonchar, they would be better suited to go young and invest that kind of money into a Paul Martin or Anton Volchenkov.
Martin is seeking $4-$5 million per season, while Volchenkov declined a multi-year offer believed to be worth $3.5 million per season from the Senators.
If the Penguins enter free agency without investing any kind of serious money into their blueline, they are highly expected to look into both defensemen.
Martin and Volcenkov won’t be the only highly sought defenseman on the market.
The Penguins absolutely love Nashville’s Dan Hamhuis along with a number of other teams. The team is believed to have made a strong play for the defensive defenseman prior to the trade deadline. The price though was too high at the time.
Hamhuis, 27, has declined multiple offers from the Predators in recent months and his agent Wade Arnott is expected to go into free agency seeking $4-$5 million per season for his client.
With the Volchenkov, Hamhuis and Martin looking to command $4 million plus, a name to keep on eye on who is a cheaper but intriguing option is Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek.
Assuming Michalek’s makes it to free agency, which is highly expected, multiple team sources tell me he will be on the Penguins radar.
Michalek, 27, (6-2, 212 lbs) is regarded by some as the most under-rated defenseman set to enter the market. A player the Penguins really like and made only $1.5 million in 2009-2010.
Michalek led the Coyotes with 156 blocked shots and averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game. He was a plus-5 during the regular season but struggled in the playoffs (minus-4 in 7 GP).
Not an overly physical player, however, reminds some scouts of a potential Rob Scuderi replacement in his abilities defensively.
Michalek is intriguing from the standpoint that he is much more affordable than the likes of Hamhuis and in the eyes of evaluators I’ve been in contact with, would be an upgrade over a Mark Eaton or Jordan Leopold.