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A free-agency update, and new Consol pics.

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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.

ARENA UPDATE

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

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Author: Rob Rossi

Rob Rossi is the lead sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has been called many names, but “Rossi” is the one to which he most often responds. He joined the Trib in November 2002 and was promoted to the columnist role in July 2014. Previously, he had covered the NHL’s Penguins (2006-14) and MLB’s Pirates (2006), while also working on beats associated with the NFL’s Steelers (2005-06) and the NCAA’s Pitt (2004-06). He has won national and local awards for his coverage of youth concussions and athletes’ charities. Also, he is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association executive committee and the Pittsburgh chapter chair. Raised in Crafton and Green Tree and a graduate of West Virginia University, he has covered a Super Bowl, All-Star Games in baseball and hockey, the NCAA basketball tournament and over 100 Stanley Cup playoff games, including the Cup Final twice. Oh, and his sports reporting has led him to brief chats with Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen; so that’s pretty cool. He is a regular contributor on TV with WPXI, Root Sports Pittsburgh and TSN. Also, he is the authorized biographer of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

Comments

  1. Beth says:

    I’m not hearing a lot about Cooke. Its making me nervous. I would be a shame to lose him.

  2. Ron says:

    The Steelers always had a great feel for when to let go of older guys right at the time they were ‘starting to turn’ so to speak. Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter, you name it. My gut tells me that the Sarge we saw at the end of the playoffs is what we’ll increasingly see going forward. Slow. I say let him go and spend the money on several promising guys. I would support signing Eaton and Cooke and maybe even McKee if he’s cheap. Let the D pairings be Orpik/Goligoski, Eaton/Letang, McKee/rotation of rookies.

  3. Bobby O says:

    Weak FA market = trade. I’d love to see them move Goligoski for something remotely resembling the Whitney/Kunitz-Tangradi deal. There’s already too much of the “Gogo” element in this teams defense and I’d rather see Leopold (a veteran defenseman with some smarts) if the have to keep another offensive defensman than Goligoski, especially if we can use that $ to help at the wings.

    I agree with just about everyone else as far as Gonchar is concerned, He’s lost more than a step and isn’t worth a 3-year deal, or $5 million a year. $3.5 for 2-years would be the max. Also, like Goligoski, that money could be better served adding something to the wing position even if it is simply resigning Cooke. If people want to think Gonchar was simply fatigued, then he (along with Malkin) had no business playing in the IIHF after that putrid display in the playoffs. Hopefully Shero has no intention of resigning Gonchar and is only doing it for show to make him look more valuable in an attmept to increase Gonchar’s potential earings somwhere else as a sort of parting gift.

  4. Frank says:

    Let the 36-year old Sergei Gonchar receive his five million dollar long-term deal elsewhere and throw the money at a tough and physical defenseman, possibly Anton Volchenkov.

    While I realize Ray Shero loves his puck-moving defensemen, they need more of a blue-collar presence back there. Outside of Brooks Orpik and in the words of Michel Therrien, “they’re soft”.

  5. Mark Madden says:

    Rossi, you stink. You’re trying to run Geno outta town, and this article is just another example. I said GOOD DAY!!!

  6. Elvis says:

    if they sign gonch for 3 years they are nuts. 2 years, 3.5 mill a year. take it or see ya and thansk for the memories. that even makes me nervous considering his lack of speed and energy as of late.

    ROSSI, if you ever talk about running a super star like geno out of town again…grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

    wake up rob…and smell the ice….

  7. Tracey Lehigh says:

    Since it seems Gonchar & the Penguins aren’t gonna be coming to any kind of agreement anytime soon, if at all, due to his demands. At his age, which is definately showing, it’s highly doubtful that he’ll be willing to take a discount.,. I agree for the most part agree with Bobby O that he has lost a step or two; and also that if Gonchar & Malkin’s poor performance in the playoffs was due to fatigue(same excuse Malkin used 2 years ago) they didn’t have any business playing in the IIHF especially considering the salary the Pens pay them…where do their loyalties lie? Geno’s game certainly elevated once he was wearing the red jersey. Sorry, that’s a whole different subject. The Pens have way to many spots to fill with a limited amount of finances available. Instead focus on re-signing *COOKE*, Guerin for 1 more year, yes he’s older than Gonch but he is still a valuable winger who can still hold his own with the younger guys & his veteran leadership will be a necessity with Gonchar gone. Leopold, Eaton, & yes possibly McKee for his shot blocking & physical presence. Throw Lovejoy or Engelland in there as possibilities with a minimal cap hit. I also think Goligoski is expendable for the right price; he at times is too concerned with his offense & forgets that he’s a defenseman. Letang & Leopold would have that area covered. There is no doubt Gonchar’s absence will be felt on & off the ice; but in the end wouldn’t it prove more costly to lose more than 1 quality player to re-sign just one & leave hardly any money to fill all those empty spots. The third line at this point is the Penguins best & I think they should be more worried about losing Cooke than Gonchar. Sacrifice the one for the good of the many.

  8. Lisa says:

    Yes, the Pens need to keep Cooke, that should be their #1 priority.

    Based on how Gonchar played in game 7 against the Habs, let him go. Period. Time to move on.

    I completely agree with Bobby O: move Goligoski. I wish they would.
    I also have issues with Gonchar and Malkin playing in Germany–at the IIHF in Germany and they sure did not look tired. Too bad they didn’t put that kind of effort in games 6 & 7 vs the Habs…

    Consider this: what if Malkin has another “average” season with the Pens…would Shero then consider trading him next spring?
    Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, he gets in better physical shape, takes his cue from Crosby–working to improve his game during this off season, comes back in Oct and plays stellar. I hope that happens. Go Pens!

  9. spiros says:

    time to bring in some fresh blood and hunger!.forget gonchar,mckee,eaton,leopold,my first two targets would be joe corvo and volchenkov,one can run the powerplay and a shutdown D in volchenkov..
    bye bye cooke thanx for the memories,u can’t pay a 3rd line winger $3 million a year,steve begin can do the same job at a cheaper price..
    as for wingers i would try to sign some older,faster guys that would give up some $$$,for a chance to play with syd or malkin and a chance to win the cup,guys like cullen selanne,whitney,i would love to see park back great pk guy,the canadiens showed we don’t have enough speed and goal scoring from our wings
    GO PENS

  10. Bag o' Pucks says:

    Jeffrey 7 letestu aren’t RFA. Jeffrey will be in the final season of his entry-level deal (still waiver ineligible) and Letestu will be in the second of a two-year deal the Pens gave him last summer ($500K NHL cap hit). I expect Jeffrey to be back in WB/S next season, Letestu might make the big club. Bylsma clearly trusts him. They both will be RFA in 2011.

    Lovejoy will be with the big club next season because he’ll never clear waivers (it will be his first waiver eligible season), ol’ friend Fletch in Minnesota raved about the kid and would snap him up in a NY minute. Nick Johnson will be back and could also be with the big club.

    Wally is an AHL grinder. Conner a solid AHLer, D’Aversa will probably not be qualified.

  11. Bag o' Pucks says:

    So, some of you want to deal Goligoski and let Gonchar walk? Idiots. Who’ll QB the power play, Letang and Orpik? Get your heads out of your posteriors and quit whining about the WCs. It’s a non-issue.

  12. Marc says:

    Not ready to see Geno go. If we need a winger and Staal is read to be #2 center put Geno on Crosby wing. Not for a shift but for a season. Kunitz, sid, geno is a great line. Staal second center, Talbot 3rd line center and Letestu 4th line. that’s still pretty strong down the middle. I agree keeping staal, crosby and geno for the next ten years is unlikely but get a 50 goal season out of geno while playing on crosby’s line and then trade him.

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