The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a four year playoff run that any franchise in the National Hockey League would take; 1st round loss (06-07), Stanley Cup appearance (07-08), Stanley Cup Title (08-09), 2nd round loss (09-10).
With a great young core in place, led by the games best player in Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh is likely not done challenging for Stanley Cups. However, there is some serious tinkering that needs to be done personnel wise and the Penguins need to become better defensively, which could involve personnel changes and a change in the Penguins defensive style under head coach Dan Bylsma.
The luxury the Penguins had during their two Stanley Cup runs (07-08, 08-09) is that the majority of their core players were still on their rookie contracts.
They no longer have that luxury when it comes to their cap situation and questions remain whether the Penguins can fill enough holes in other areas to be a championship caliber team. From November through May, the Penguins did not play or resemble a bonafide Cup contender.
In 2007-2008, Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin were all on their rookie contracts and Marc Andre Fleury was in the final year of a two-year deal worth $2.59 million.
In 2008-2009, Crosby’s cap hit went up to $8.7 million, Fleury ($5 million) and Brooks Orpik’s cap hit rose to $3.75 million but Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin were still in the final year of their rookie deals which gave Pittsburgh enough cap space to make the needed moves prior to the trade deadline, which helped lead to a Stanley Cup Title.
In shaping up the roster for the 2009-2010 season, Penguins GM Ray Shero had limited cap space due an enourmous jump in cap hits for a number of core players and that will remain the case for Shero moving forward.
The Penguins enter this off-season with $37.5 million committed to what management considers to be their core players (Crosby $8.7, Malkin $8.7, Fleury $5 million, Staal $4 million, Orpik $3.75 million, Kunitz $3.75 million, Letang $3.5 million) and a total of $45.1 million committed to 15 players for next season.
With the salary cap projected to be in the $58 million range, that leaves Pittsburgh with approximately $12 million to spend to re-sign their own players and free agents. It should be noted that management prefers to be about $1 million under the cap to open the season.
Two major weaknesses for the Penguins in their playoff downfall was their top-2 line winger situation and their defensive system/personnel.
Replacing a Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill with a Scuderi and Gill is not going to happen in the salary cap era but the Penguins made a strategic decision to move in the direction of adding mobile style defensemen and got away from a team defense type of system that they possessed in 2008-2009.
Defensively the Penguins coaching staff needs to comitt to more of a team defensive system and the Penguins have to seriously consider going away from their current model of needing to have a number of mobile defenseman in their top-6.
With three of their top-6 defensemen set to become free agents, the opportunity will be there for the Penguins to completely overhaul their group of defensemen and possibly their system, if they see it as a problem that others do.
Word out of the organization is that the Penguins feel they have enough wiggle room to retain or add another $4-$5 million a year player and use the remaining $6-$7 million to fill other holes as the Penguins have a solid group of role players in place and players in the minors such as a Mark Letestu who are ready to fill a 3rd and 4th line role near the league minimum in salary.
The mystery at this point is which direction the Penguins will go; Winger or defense?
With two of the best centers in the game, there is still a serious need of upgrading their wingers and when the Canadiens limited Malkin and Crosby, it showed that the Penguins don’t have any wingers who can elevate the play of the Penguins two stars.
The 2010 free agency market for wingers is thin and the Penguins don’t have the cap space to be a player for Patrick Marleau or Ilya Kovalchuk.
One avenue the Penguins should and are likely to explore is the trade market. Three potential targets with cap hits that fit into the Penguins structure and who are expected to be shopped leading up to the draft……….

Tampa Bay’s Ryan Malone (Cap Hit: $4.5 million), Martin St. Louis (Cap Hit: $5.2 million) and Edmonton’s Alex Hemsky (Cap Hit: $4 million) are the three biggest names being speculated at this point.
The Oilers have made no secret of their interest in moving Hemsky, while there continues to be rampant speculation that St. Louis and Malone want out of Tampa Bay and would welcome a trade to a contender.
Another name to keep an eye on after the post-season that would be a player of interest for Pittsburgh is San Jose’s Ryane Clowe. Clowe, 26, is signed through 2012-2013 with a cap hit of $3.6 million.
With the Sharks needing to sign Marleau and Joe Pavelski, there is talk among league executives that San Jose will look to move Clowe for the second straight year at the draft.
The Penguins are hopeful that Eric Tangradi will be able to fill a top-6 role but the Penguins need more improvement throughout.
Even if Billy Guerin returns for a much lower cap hit, the Penguins can’t count on another 21 goal season from him. As much heat Guerin takes from the fans, the Penguins got a lot of him this season and are going to have to replace his production.
Pascal Dupuis will have to prove whether or not his 18 goal season was a fluke and the odds are not strong that he can repeat that performance.
The Penguins head into the off-season with serious question marks regarding their winger situation and it’s going to be costly and difficult to add an impact winger. However, it needs to be a No. 1 priority.
What was disappointing with the Alexei Ponikarovsky trade is that Pittsburgh had the opportunity for the next couple seasons to have Tangradi and Luca Caputi develop into a top-6 role with a cap hit under $1 million per season.
Tangradi is signed for the next two seasons with a cap hit around $850,000.