SHERO BACK IN ACTION
Penguins GM RAY SHERO resumed his normal routine this week after dealing last week with the death of his mother. He has about a six-week window to negotiate with any of the Penguins’ potential free agents.
A reminder: the free-agent season opens July 1.
The following players who filled regular roles during the regular season and playoffs are slated to become unrestricted free agents: Ds SERGEI GONCHAR, MARK EATON, JORDAN LEOPOLD and JAY MCKEE; LWs RUSLAN FEDOTENKO and MATT COOKE; RWs ALEXEI PONIKAROVSKY and BILL GUERIN.
= I’m told that Gonchar remains the top priority. Shero is expected to resume talks with Gonchar’s agent, JP BARRY, this week. The sides discussed potential deals a couple of times during the regular season, and an agreement was reached in early March to delay talks until after the Penguins’ playoff run.
Term (contract years) is a believed sticking point. Gonchar would like at least a three-year deal, and he has not publicly indicated a willingness to provide the so-called hometown discount as nearly all members of the Penguins’ nucleus have on long-term deals.
The one player who wanted to stay but who was unwilling to give that hometown discount was former LW RYAN MALONE, who in 2008 was traded to Tampa Bay before the July 1 deadline that summer because a deal with the Penguins could not be reached.
Shero has long stated he is interested in players that “want to be in Pittsburgh.” From my many talks with Gonchar I believe he does want to be with the Penguins, but I also get the feeling from conversations with his camp that they believe the free-agent market will prove fruitful for a long-term deal at least matching the $5 million he annually received from the Penguins over the past five seasons.
= Something for dear readers to consider regarding Gonchar is the development of 2009 first-round pick D SIMON DESPRES.
Several team officials told me during the regular season that Despres (9 goals/47 points in 63 games with Saint John of the QMJHL) progressed nicely last season. I wouldn’t be stunned, though somewhat surprised, if he played a few NHL games to start next season – ala D KRIS LETANG in 2006; he appeared in seven games with the Penguins that season as an 18-year-old before returning to his QMJHL club and eventually joining Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs.
Letang was an NHL regular by November 2007.
Despres will be 19 on July 27, meaning he cannot play in the AHL in the upcoming regular season. However, I don’t get the feeling from those I’ve talked to within the Penguins organization that they expect him to be in the AHL for long when he is eligible to begin playing there during the 2011-12 season.
Nobody has told me that Despres’ progression is tied to the decision the Penguins must make regarding Gonchar, but in a salary-cap world it seems hard to believe there wouldn’t be some tie-in.
= Of the potential UFAs, I’d put only Eaton, 33, as a 50-50 bet to re-sign before July 1. He and Shero have a history dating to their days together with the Nashville organization, and the Penguins showed good faith in Eaton upon signing him to a two-year deal totaling $4 million in 2008 – that deal coming after two injury-plagued seasons by Eaton.
= A potential UFA told me during the playoffs that as he understood the situation regarding Penguins’ UFAs, “Everything starts with Gonch; (Penguins’ management) can’t do anything until they make a decision on him.”
= Guerin has expressed to me three times since April 1 that he wants to play one more NHL season, and he would prefer that season be with the Penguins. Set to turn 40 next season, Guerin presumably must be willing to accept a reduced salary and reduced role if he wishes to stay with the Penguins.
I’m not necessarily buying that presumption; at least, I wouldn’t think that way if I were him.
To begin with, a convincing argument can be made that for $2 million the Penguins got all they could hope from Guerin last season: 21 goals, 45 points and 75 penalty minutes in 78 games.
The Penguins’ returning top-nine wingers are LWs CHRIS KUNITZ and PASCAL DUPUIS, and RW TYLER KENNEDY. That is hardly murders row, to borrow a baseball term.
Also, the UFA crop of wingers is weakest that I’ve seen since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, with no great young/grow-with-the-core player available as a solution to the perceived long-term wing problem.
I suspect next season will be somewhat of a transition year for the Penguins in terms of building around the nucleus. Replacing Guerin’s production won’t be so easy.
= I’ve written that the Penguins should play some prospects next season — http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/penguins/s_681429.html — and that would mean reaching terms with several restricted free agents, notably Ds BEN LOVEJOY and JONATHAN D’AVERSA, and forwards NIK JOHNSON, MARK LETESTU, TIM WALLACE, DUSTIN JEFFREY, and CHRIS CONNER.
Lovejoy is often talked about by management and coaches as being NHL-ready, so I have to believe keeping him is the priority among those RFAs.
All that free-agency stuff has me thinking of what the Penguins will look like next season, their first at Consol Energy Center. Almost eight weeks have passed since I toured the new digs, but the Penguins’ website has some updated photos that dear readers might find pleasing: http://penguins.nhl.com/club/gallerylanding.htm?id=15888&navid=DL|PIT|home
–BY ROB ROSSI