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Insider Only In with the New? 2/3 of the Penguins puzzle is clear going into the off-season

As the Penguins head into the off-season two thirds of the puzzle is clear. They are set in goal between Marc Andre Fleury, Brent Johnson, and Brad Thiessen {RFA}. On the blueline, four of their top six defensemen are under contract (Letang, Orpik, Martin, Michalek).
Meanwhile, former first round pick Simon Despres is in the system and will probably be at Wilkes-Barre next year. The team also feels there is still room for improvement out of Ben Lovejoy, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and others in the minors.
But the forwards right now are a jumbled bunch of pieces which need to be sorted out to complete the puzzle.

Right now no one knows if the vast majority of the forwards will be healthy, playing in the same position, playing in the minors, or even with the Penguins at all next year.
Let’s start with what we do know. Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz will be back. Kunitz will be a top two line winger. Staal will maintain his role as a number two or three center, and a top flight penalty killer
We can also pretty much assume Alex Kovalev won’t return.
Aside from that though… the Penguin forwards are nothing but question marks. The two biggest of which are Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin. Crosby admitted Friday that he is still not symptom free from his concussion related issues.
And he also stated that he had set back recently while trying to train his way back into shape during the Tampa series. Crosby insisted he’ll be ready for training camp. But at this point, is anything really a certainty when it come’s to Sid’s health?
As for Malkin, he revealed Friday that a target date was in place for him to possibly return to action during the Eastern Conference Finals. So obviously his injured knee is progressing nicely. He plans on staying in Pittsburgh for two more weeks. Then he’ll go to Moscow to train with conditioning coach Mike Kadar for a while.
But when he comes back to camp, where will he play? Malkin told the media he wants to go back to playing center, but would leave the decision up to the coaches. Head coach Dan Bylsma hedged a little bit on that topic. “I would be more apt to say Malkin would play wing with Staal. But there may also be three centermen. And things like that may happen in the same game. But there may be more frequency where Jordan would play with Geno on the wing.”
Bylsma went so far as to say he’d like to see the Penguins’ big three of Staal, Crosby, and Malkin mirror what Tampa does with its big three of Stamkos, Lecavalier, and St. Louis. The Lightning tend to be very open with deploying those three in various ways and on various lines throughout any given game.
Also coming into play is the status of Matt Cooke and the status of Tyler Kennedy. Those two have joined Staal to be Pittsburgh’s most consistent line combination over the past three seasons. However Kennedy is a restricted free agent. And Cooke was thought to be on the way out after his suspension earlier this season.
But Bylsma spoke highly of Kennedy as the team cleaned out its lockers, playfully begging reporters not to share his praise of the winger to his agent for fear of driving up the client’s price. And Shero said of Cooke: “Every indication is that Matt will be back with us next year.”
So expect that line combo to stay in tact at least at times during next season. James Neal will also be back. But who knows what the Penguins will get out of him. The good news is, the shootout returns next regular season, so Neal may be able to at least contribute there.
And Mark Letestu got a new contract this year. But he didn’t look the same after his midseason knee injury. So where does he fit in? And can Eric Tangradi finally emerge as the top four winger Ray Shero thought he would be when he was acquired from Anaheim in 2009? Tangradi’s development has been slowed by inconsistency and injury over the years.
After that, it gets really dicey. Dustin Jeffery is a restricted free agent. Then the following Penguins are all unrestricted: Nick Johnson, Chris Connor, Mike Comrie, Arron asham, Craig Adams, Mike Rupp, Max Talbot, Eric Godard and Pascal Dupuis. Currently Pittsburgh has 12 players totaling about 13 million dollars worth of salary cap money about to hit the free agent market.
In other words, no one is utterly irreplaceable… but the Pens don’t want to see any of them leave either. Bylsma gushed about Nick Johnson the most. “He looks like an NHL player. He has the skill, size, and shot. The other players on the team think he is an NHL player.”
Godard may be on the way out, even though he is beloved by his teammates. Engelland has the enforcer role covered. Expect the club to keep either Talbot or Dupuis. But not both, even though both outwardly claim they want to stay. And both might be priced out of Pittsburgh’s range.
They each make over a million dollars a year {Talbot $1.05MM, Dupuis $1.4MM} as it is. If both leave, then the Penguins may be able to keep Asham, Rupp, and Adams. But they may not want to do so. That would free up cap space and open roles for Letestu, Johnson, Tangradi, and Jeffery. I’d look for Rupp and Adams to return unless they get much better offers. And Asham may go elsewhere despite the fact that he bailed out the team at times versus Tampa.
“The magic date is July 1,” said Shero on the potential of free agency for all these players. “But I’d like to have an idea before then as to what we are going to do.”
Well here’s an idea Shero probably won’t like. But he is probably thinking it already: Say goodbye to some of those six veteran forwards. The likes of Talbot, Dupuis, Rupp, Adams, Godard, and Asham largely make up the character and guts of that lockeroom.
But if the Pens keep half of those guys, the other half can be replaced in their roles by a combination of Letestu, Jeffery, Johnson, Tangradi and some of the other guys from Wilkes Barre who flashed at times during 2011.
And those guys may even score more often and cost less against the cap. Maybe so much so, that a decent second line scoring winger (translation, another Petr Sykora) could be plucked off of somebody else’s roster.
The Penguins are going to lose some guys they’ve won a cup with. And that’s a cold reality. But they also need to warm to the idea of giving some new players a chance to win another.

About The Author

Tim Benz

TIOPS Columnist

Tim Benz can be heard on the Pittsburgh Steelers Radio Network post game show and M-F 10-1 on TribLive Radio

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