By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
June 6, 2011
This is a difficult off-season for Penguins General Manager Ray Shero.
Shero is likely considering two plans for 2011-12: One with Sidney Crosby, one without. The plans are so different, though, that Shero must commit to one. Given salary cap ramifications, Shero must assume Crosby will play.
Crosby has been cleared to work out. That’s a long way from being cleared for contact. But there’s not much hitting in July and August.
If Crosby’s problems reoccur, the Penguins will again be forced to scramble. That’s going to be tougher the second time around, even with Evgeni Malkin. Adrenaline isn’t bottomless.
Malkin is fine. His rehab after knee surgery has gone phenomenally. Had the Penguins progressed to the conference finals, Malkin might have played.
Malkin reportedly has a new mental outlook. A refreshed attitude. Good, because the Penguins need 100 points from Malkin. No less, preferably more. Malkin must be the player he was in the 2009 playoffs but not since.
Malkin’s father, Vladimir, told a Russian publication, “Evgeni is seriously focused. I am not even sure he will vacation somewhere. He wants to approach the start of the NHL season in top form.” Sources close to Malkin say his goal for the upcoming campaign is the NHL scoring title.
Malkin will be ready for training camp. Dustin Jeffrey — assuming he signs; he’s a restricted free agent — won’t be. He’ll be ready for hockey activity by the start of October, maybe back in the lineup by November.
So, up front, the Penguins have — for certain - Malkin, Matt Cooke, Nick Johnson, Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu, James Neal, Jordan Staal and Eric Tangradi. That isn’t much. Johnson will be a low-paid fourth-liner. Tangradi has to play. That’s good. Give him decent linemates and some rhythm.
Where does Shero go from there? He has $55 million committed to 17 players. Depending where the cap falls, he can spend about $5 mil more.
Tyler Kennedy wants too much. Max Talbot will get more elsewhere. Pascal Dupuis and Craig Adams seem 50/50. Mike Rupp will return.
There just aren’t many quality forwards available in free agency, and certainly no sleepers at an affordable price.
A relatively big trade wouldn’t be shocking. The Penguins have depth on defense, especially with Simon Despres, the team’s first-round draft choice in 2009, ready for prime time. Perhaps Shero moves Paul Martin, who makes about a million per year too much and disappointed this past season.
What if Malkin underachieves again? What if Staal’s production stays flat? I’ve always been told Shero won’t trade a center. But never is a long time. If any center moves to wing, it should be Staal. When Staal had a career-high 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07, he played wing, Malkin center.
It will be sad when Talbot leaves, but don’t get too attached to players. Then-GM Craig Patrick showed brass when he traded Paul Coffey and Mark Recchi from the team that won the Stanley Cup in 1991. Patrick lost the trade in terms of raw talent, but Rick Tocchet and Kjell Samuelsson were better fits. The Penguins won again in ‘92.
You’ve got to think about trades and signings in terms of fit. That’s the biggest challenge facing Shero: Developing or signing wingers who mesh well, thus achieving beyond their talent level.
The Penguins can negotiate a new contract with Crosby as of July 1, 2012. The NHL CBA expires thereabouts. There’s talk the new CBA may have a maximum salary, one less than the $8.7 mil Crosby currently makes. It would behoove the Penguins and Crosby to strike an extremely lengthy, extremely lucrative deal before a new CBA forces a pay cut.
One wonders: If Crosby would max out at a certain figure anywhere he plays, would Pittsburgh still be his first choice?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).