Free agency opens at noon on Friday, leaving the Penguins with four full days to figure out what can and cannot become of the roster they will take into training camp. Sure, moves will be made starting Friday and perhaps through camp, but these next four days are perhaps the most important of the Penguins’ offseason.
Consider the days leading up to the start of free agency last offseason, days during which GM Ray Shero concluded that neither of two targeted impending free agent defensemen (Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis) were likely to sign before exploring the open market. Reaching that conclusion allowed Shero to waste no time on July 1; he signed defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin within the first three hours of the free-agency period – signings that dramatically revamped the Penguins’ defense corps and afforded Shero the rest of the offseason to add complementary parts for a club whose nucleus was intact.
The Penguins’ nucleus – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury (and now Kris Letang can be considered part of that group) – remains intact for the upcoming season. Those five players took the ice together for just two games last season, and still the squad assembled by Shero finished tied for the third most points in the NHL and without Crosby and Malkin forced a seventh game in a Round 1 Stanley Cup playoff series.
Presuming Crosby and Malkin return for training camp – this past season proved there are no guarantees – the Penguins will be among a handful of NHL teams labeled as Stanley Cup favorites. Some quick points as to why that is:
- No NHL team will add to its lineup two better players than Crosby and Malkin, two former NHL scoring champions entering the primes, each a player likely to return highly motivated to rejoin the conversation about the planet’s best hockey player.
- The return of Crosby and Malkin will make Staal, who played No. 1 center minutes and situations in their absence, a lot more of an impactful weapon. Instead of shouldering the load of carrying an offense, he can continue to grow offensively while he returns to focusing on the shutdown defense that made him a Selke Trophy finalist in his last healthy season (2009-10). Also, Staal will be coming off a limitless offseason, unlike the last one during which he could not train because of lingering issues from a 2010 postseason surgery to repair a torn right tendon. The Staal that shows this season should be the one that finally starts to blossom as the Penguins’ expect. Given the circumstances of last season that was never going to be the case.
- James Neal, acquired last season when Crosby and Malkin were both out of the lineup, never looked comfortable after joining the team from Dallas. Essentially, his time with the Penguins became a test-run for the coaching staff to figure out where he best fits. Coach Dan Bylsma says he has poured over video of every goal Neal has scored in the NHL. Translation: He’ll have figured out how to use Neal by September, if he hasn’t already. Those who quickly want to dismiss Neal because he was underwhelming upon joining the Penguins are overlooking that he has scored 20 goals in each of his first three seasons – and he was brought in to play with an elite center. His center in the playoffs was Mark Letestu. Barring injury, that won’t be the case next spring.
- If he chooses, Bylsma can go into camp with 1-2-3 LW-C combos of Chris Kunitz-Crosby, Neal-Malkin, and Matt Cooke-Staal. Cooke, who can be counted upon for about 15 goals (if he stays in the lineup), is the least impactful point producer of those six players. That actually speaks to the potential depth of the top-6 as it stands. Translation: If healthy, the Penguins possess the potential for strong foundations to their top 3 lines – potentially a huge advantage for a team that, because of salary-cap factors, figures to be working some younger players into the lineup net season.
Keeping all of the above in mind, these next four days are crucial. Vital decisions must be made, sooner rather than later this week. As of this posting, the Penguins had not reached deals with three of their targeted impending unrestricted free agents (Max Talbot, Mike Rupp and Pascal Dupuis) or figured out how to handle the future of an intriguing restricted free agent (Tyler Kennedy, who is coming off a career-best 21 goals and 45 points). Also, there is the tantalizing – at least Bylsma thinks so – potential to add Jaromir Jagr, who is seemingly set on returning to the NHL to play for either the Penguins if Shero wants him. Jagr is 39, hasn’t played in the NHL in three seasons, and seemingly appeals more to Bylsma than Shero. Also, he, unlike these other players, can’t sign until Friday.
Clearly, Shero has a lot to consider before then. He was praised last summer for winning the offseason by revamping the defense corps and setting up the Penguins for another Cup run. Important to keep in mind over the next week is that such praise was warranted. Even without Staal in the lineup and Malkin playing below his potential, the Penguins were a top-5 team in offense and defense and overall points at the time of Crosby’s last game in early January. The point being that Shero is more often right when it comes to making up a roster that can compete for the Cup.
Still, a GM is only as good as his most recent moves – and these are the ones Shero should make before Friday:
= GET A DEAL DONE WITH DUPUIS
Of the potential UFAs, he is the most dependable and the likely easiest to sign. The idea that Shero doesn’t give multi-year deals to role players in the 30s was proven false last June when Cooke secured a three-year deal and somewhat last month when Craig Adams signed for two years.
Dupuis, 32, is a rare player, but one the Penguins cannot afford to chance losing. He is versatile, a quality Bylsma professes to demand, and more important willing to accept any role – capable of working on a top line and eager to contribute on a checking line. His speed remains elite, and his hands have produced 18- and 17-goal seasons the past two years. In other words, the Penguins know what they are getting offensively from Dupuis, who Bylsma ha said is one of the most effective penalty killers in the NHL. Finally, as last season proved, Dupuis is a subtle team leader – identified as such by the likes of reputably vocal leaders such as Staal and Brooks Orpik.
The Penguins needs some stability leading into Friday. Signing Dupuis would take care of that. Shero should offer him a multi-year deal with a modest raise on his $1.4 million previous cap hit. He wants to stay, so give him a reason to stay and then get moving onto the next move.
= MAKE A CALL ON KENNEDY
Perhaps he is a developing top-6 right wing and his career highs this past season were more indications of his development than the result of Kennedy playing in better offensive situations because of injuries to Crosby and Malkin. Either way, the Penguins needs to decide what Kennedy is worth to them and move accordingly, but swiftly.
What they shouldn’t do is let arbitration become a factor. By the time of that hearing it will be too late. Set a deadline with his agent for a new deal – Wednesday? – and get that deal done, thus committing to him as a top-6 right wing for the next few seasons, or trade him before Friday even though his value isn’t that high because of his RFA status.
Technically, there are other options, but the ones addressed here are the ones the Penguins should consider. There isn’t enough time to kick tires at Kennedy. Sign him or move him, and live with the decision. There are too many other issues at hand.
= ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS ABOUT JAGR
Is Jagr on a one-year deal, even at $2 million (plus?), a better option than: A) Kennedy on a longer-term deal, or B) any other potential UFA winger?
Does Jagr fill the needs for this season – those needs being secondary scoring skill and a power-play difference maker – better than the non-Jagr options?
If the answer is yes to both of those questions, get a handshake agreement that he will sign on Friday. Commit to him, even if he isn’t an ideal fit.
Hal Gill wasn’t an ideal fit for what the Penguins wanted from their defensemen – top-quality skating, sharp puck movement – but he worked out well on a short-term basis. Actually, he played a big secondary role in helping the Penguins reach one Cup Final and win another. Fits not need be ideal, see Gill, Petr Sykora or even Marian Hossa – the latter whom was acquired without assurances he would sign a new contract.
Sometimes the less-than-ideal fits are the ones that push a contending team to the brink or over the top, and thus become risks worth taking.
Bottom line: The Penguins should not wait until Friday to make Jagr an offer. Get cap-whiz asst. GM Jason Botterill to work the numbers ASAP, make Jagr a best-case offer by Tuesday and tell him an answer is needed Wednesday night. There is only one way to find out if Jagr is sincere about wanting to play again for the Penguins. This is that way.
Also, there is something to be said about giving a coach what he wants – and Bylsma clearly wants Jagr. Shero has stated repeatedly that Byslma is his coach, and if Bylsma firmly believes Jagr is a missing piece to the Penguins’ Cup puzzle, Shero should provide Bylsma that piece.
At that point the pressure is on Bylsma, not Shero.
= ACCEPT THE INEVITABLE
Let Rupp and Talbot test the market, but make it clear that doing so means they eliminate any guarantee the Penguins will be waiting if they don’t find other offers that attractive once Friday arrives. It’s simple, really. Both players bring a lot of intangibles, but neither is irreplaceable – and these next four days aren’t the time to waste time on role players who may be set on testing the market.
These next four days are the time to make some decisions.
Surely the dear readers have thoughts; so chime in at @RobRossi_Trib on Twitter or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org