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Yohe: A look at the roster, and a wild summer

Greetings, hockey fans.

We still don’t know the identity of the new Penguins general manager. One would assume this person will be named sooner rather than later, but then, it’s been a curious past few weeks for the Penguins, so let’s assume nothing.

When the new man takes over control of the Penguins, he’ll have some fascinating decisions to make. Let’s break down the roster.

Today, we’ll start with the forwards. We’ll hit the goaltenders and defensemen tomorrow.

 

The Forwards

 STILL UNDER CONTRACT

 Sidney Crosby

Age: 26

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2025. His annual cap hit will be $8.7 million. His contract includes a no-movement clause.

The bottom line: He remains the face of the Penguins and the face of the NHL. It is a face, however, that might possess remnants of a wart for the first time. Crosby, the consensus best player in the world for the past five years, did not look like the best player in the world during the 2014 postseason. Aside from the stunning lack of production, Crosby failed the eye-test miserably this spring, often looking disengaged. If Crosby has been anything while playing hockey, it is engaged. I’ve often called him the hardest working superstar in hockey history. Which Crosby will show up at training camp in September? Was he merely tired or secretly injured? Was it simply a slump that will pass, making this spring nothing more than an aberration as Crosby goes on to finish as one of the five-to-ten greatest players in hockey history? Or, did something go wrong this spring that is foreshadowing a decline in Crosby’s power? I tend to bet on Crosby. Great player, and a terrific human being. But, he’s dealing with pressure now, and not just the kind of pressure that is associating with wins and losses. His legacy took a hit during the past two postseasons. How will he respond?

Evgeni Malkin

Age: 27

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2022. His annual cap hit will be $9.5 million. His contract includes a no-movement clause.

The bottom line: Gauging Malkin is always difficult. When in full flight, Malkin is probably more physically gifted than Crosby and perhaps the game’s finest player. Problem is, he’s not always in full flight. Why? What needs to happen for Malkin to play like he did in the 2009 postseason, or during the 2011-12 season? He was pretty good in the playoffs, brilliant at times, and certainly better than Crosby. The decision that will be made with the coaching staff could affect Malkin more than anyone. While he’s had fine moments under coach Dan Bylsma, it has become fairly evident to me that Bylsma is not always capable of getting through to Malkin, or of knowing which buttons to push. Mike Therrien almost always got through to him. What does this mean? It means that Malkin could probably use a coach who isn’t afraid to confront him when things aren’t going well. Malkin is still in his prime, and is well on his way to the Hall of Fame. There is every reason to believe he will play the rest of his prime in Pittsburgh. Although he remains inconsistent at times, I’d say that Malkin is the least of the Penguins’ worries moving forward.

James Neal

Age: 26

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2018. His annual cap hit will be $5 million. His contract possesses a modified no-trade clause that begins on July 1, 2015.

The bottom line: Here’s where things get interesting. The Penguins would be making a perfectly logical decision if they conclude that keeping Neal during the entirety of his contract makes sense. After all, 40-goal scorers are rare. Plus, Malkin and Crosby thrive playing with him. Both centers are pretty particular about who they play with. Malkin loves playing with Neal. Crosby wouldn’t mind playing with him more often, by the way. But, as you know, there are plenty of reasons to trade Neal. No one’s contract on this team is easier to trade than Neal’s. He is hardly overpaid. In fact, lesser NHL forwards often make more money than Neal. So, if the Penguins conclude that depth at forward at the NHL level and throughout the organization is a weakness – and make no mistake, it is – trading Neal makes perfect sense, given that a player of his age and caliber could easily draw a couple of young, good forwards. Neal also has developed a deserved reputation as a dirty player, something the front office is sensitive to.  He also is noted for having the ability to rub people the wrong way. But still, he’s quite a hockey player, always plays hard and never once complained even after being removed from Malkin’s line and the top power play – both were bad decisions by the coaching staff – in the playoffs. An interesting decision is looming.

Chris Kunitz

Age: 34

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017. His annual cap hit will be $3.85 million. His contract includes a modified no-trade clause.

The bottom line: Chris Kunitz is a good hockey player and has been among the NHL’s steadiest contributors during the past five years. Crosby loves playing with him. Malkin does, too. Given that Kunitz will be 35 when next season begins, it’s safe to say that we’ve seen his best years. Still, he figures to remain a steady, reliable player for a couple of more seasons. Was there a touch of autumn in his game this spring? Maybe. But he also enjoyed some strong moments, and the fact remains, Crosby’s struggles partially explain Kunitz’s lack of production in the second half. Would the Penguins consider dealing Kunitz to get younger? I guess anything is possible, but it seems unlikely. You know what you’re getting from Kunitz, and in his case, that’s a good thing.

Pascal Dupuis

Age: 35

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2017. His annual cap hit will be $3.75 million. His contract includes a modified no-trade clause.

The bottom line: Dupuis is one of the fine two-way players in franchise history, a player who is also a true gentleman off the ice. He is dealing with significant adversity thanks to a knee injury sustained Dec. 23 in Ottawa. It ended his season and has produced some doubt that he will be able to return for the beginning of the 2014-15 campaign. Of course, Dupuis has said on numerous occasions that he will be back for the beginning of the season. He is one of the league’s best-conditioned athletes, a tireless worker who inspires teammates. It will be interesting to analyze his form when he returns. One thing is most certain: The Penguins badly missed him while he was away.

Beau Bennett

Age: 22

Contract situation: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His cap hit next season will be $900,000.

The bottom line: Next year figures to be large for Bennett. There is little question that Bennett has talent. In particular, he is blessed with a wonderful pair of hands and sees the ice well. Should he skate with a proven goal scorer, he figures to be a productive playmaker at the NHL level. Of course, Bennett has also proved anything but durable during his brief NHL career, suffering a number of injuries. We need to see more of Bennett. He might well have the skill to become a legitimate top-six NHL player. But that isn’t etched in stone yet. I’d expect him to start in the top-six next season because of the lack of depth the Penguins have at forward and because the organization needs to give him an extended amount of playing time in that role to see if he flourishes.

Craig Adams

Age: 37

Contract situation: Eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2015. His cap hit next season will be $700,000.

The bottom line: Adams remains a fixture on the fourth line. Given that he will turn 38 next April, there is legitimate reason to think this could be his final NHL season. He remains a reliable penalty killer, but provides little offensive firepower. Adams looked a step slow at times last season but he has long been a favorite of coach Dan Bylsma’s.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Brandon Sutter

Age: 25

The bottom line: It’s funny the way things work. The perception of Brandon Sutter in the regular season wasn’t so great. He wasn’t productive, wasn’t horribly noticeable at times and was dangled by the Penguins in Ryan Kesler talks. Then came the playoffs, when Sutter was suddenly among the Penguins’ best players. He was defensively strong throughout the postseason and displayed a goal-scoring touch that had rarely been evident during his first two seasons with the Penguins. Does Sutter deserve a huge raise? Tough to say. Would the Penguins be wise to ink him to a long term contract? Probably. He’s not a great player by any stretch, but he’s a good one. He’s also someone who will blossom into a terrific leader. As long as Sutter doesn’t ask for too heavy of a raise, I think it’s wise for the Penguins to make him their No. 3 center for the next few seasons. That said, it could be an interesting summer for him.

Jayson Megna

Age: 24

The bottom line: There is potential here, no question. But there’s also a problem. Megna possesses a bit of goal-scoring touch, but is there enough to consider him as a top-six forward someday at the NHL level? Unlikely. So, while you can use him in a bottom-six role, I wouldn’t say he’s physical enough to be overly proficient in that role. That said, I do believe he’s capable of being a regular NHL player. He doesn’t do anything poorly.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Jussi Jokinen

Age: 31

The bottom line:  What a spring it was for Jokinen, who led the Penguins in goals during the Stanley Cup playoffs. This performance, along with the reality that Jokinen is a solid NHL player, almost certainly has priced him out of returning to Pittsburgh. Someone is going to pay this guy. Should the Penguins pay him? Only within reason. Yes, he’s a good player and he provides some bonuses, namely his shootout prowess and that fact that he was a fine mentor for fellow Finland native Olli Maatta. But let’s not get carried away. Truth is, Jokinen has a bad back, endured a number of defensive lapses in the playoffs and has developed a horrible habit of taking bad penalties. The Penguins already have enough guys under contract who are guilty of that. I like Jokinen. Good guy, good player. But he’s got a chance for big payday here, and I don’t think he’ll get it in Pittsburgh.

Lee Stempniak

Age: 31

The bottom line: Stempniak certainly wasn’t spectacular during his time with the Penguins. But, he did his job pretty well. He was perfectly effective on the first and third lines, scored a few big goals in the playoffs and was a solid addition to the locker room. That said, I’d be surprised if he returns to Pittsburgh. The Penguins need to get younger and can’t afford to be paying average NHL forwards too much money, especially those who are 30 and over. Give former GM Ray Shero credit for brining Stempniak to Pittsburgh. He didn’t make the Penguins a lot better, but he was an upgrade. Only a temporary one, though, I suspect.

Marcel Goc

Age: 30

The bottom line: Much like Stempniak, Goc came to Pittsburgh for a short time and was effective enough, though he didn’t score a goal. He’s a legitimate NHL player, a third-line center on some teams. But do the Penguins need him? Probably not. I believe he will test the market and will probably do OK for himself. It’s too bad we didn’t see much of Goc. I suspect he could have become a fan favorite here. Very likeable guy. But one must think he’ll be moving on.

Tanner Glass

Age: 30

The bottom line: The Penguins desire more grit and character, correct? Well, Glass doesn’t provide a ton of offensive touch and the Corsi Crowd despises him, but if grit and character is what you desire, this is your guy. However, I find it unlikely that Glass returns. He was a healthy scratch for much of the postseason, and this did not sit well with him. I spoke with Glass in the minutes following Game 7 and, while emotions can always run high in such a setting, I received a very distinct feeling that he had played his final game with the Penguins. He’s a perfectly respectable fourth-liner, but the Penguins are likely to move on. Glass was clearly better in his second season with the Penguins and he will find NHL work somewhere.

Joe Vitale

Age: 28

The bottom line: Vitale has spent portions of the past three seasons as the Penguins’ fourth-line center. He certainly hasn’t been a failure, but he also hasn’t cemented himself as a fixture in such a role. Vitale possesses excellent NHL speed and is a terrific faceoff man. Because of these attributes, he’ll find NHL work either here or elsewhere. If Vitale had hands, he’d be a really good player. However, he managed only one goal in 59 games last season. He simply doesn’t possess a feel for the offensive game, which is something that holds him back significantly. Still, when he’s at his best, Vitale is a very good fourth-linter. Problem is, he isn’t always at his best.

Taylor Pyatt

Age: 32

The bottom line: Pyatt is a delightful man and was well liked in the locker room. And, for all of his speed issues – and they are many – he wasn’t unproductive. Rather, Pyatt did score four goals in 34 games which, considering the role in which he was deployed, isn’t the worst total. But the fact remains, adding Pyatt off waivers from the Rangers did little to help the Penguins. He won’t be back, and despite his size, might have trouble landing NHL work next season.

Brian Gibbons

Age: 26

The bottom line: Now here’s an interesting situation. Of all the players who joined the Penguins from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season, Gibbons made the biggest impact. His speed is special. Maybe he doesn’t own the world’s finest hands, and he obviously wasn’t blessed with great size, but the guy can absolutely fly. He was well on his way to establishing himself as a legitimate if limited NHL player this spring. That speed – he was especially impressive killing penalties – is a real weapon, and given that the Penguins aren’t exactly bursting with forward prospects, perhaps Gibbons is a player they’d like to keep around. Perhaps other teams were impressed with his speed, too.

Harry Zolnierczyk

Age: 26

The bottom line: Let’s talk about Harry Z for a few moments. Question: Did the Penguins possess a better candidate for their fourth line all season? Answer: No. It remains horribly curious to me that Zolnierczyk was not used more at the NHL level this season, especially given the struggles of the third and fourth lines all season. Harry Z is fast, he is physical, and he plays on the edge. He’s borderline crazy on the ice, and I mean that as a compliment. Don’t you agree the Penguins could have used some of Harry Z’s fire this season? When we saw him at the NHL level, he was very good. He’s been one of the best players in Wilkes-Barre all season. Many Penguins officials told me during the past season that the Flyers badly hindered Harry Z’s progression as a player, essentially telling him to play like a madman instead of teaching him the game. OK. Whatever. At some point this season, he should have been with the Penguins to stay.

Zach Sill

Age: 26

The bottom line: There is a lot to like about this guy. He’s physical, first and foremost. Sill plays the game with a real edge, dishes nasty hits and is a good and willing fighter. The Penguins could have used his attitude in the playoffs. Sill is clearly a limited offensive player – zero points in 20 NHL games speaks volumes, I suppose – but is so good defensively and such a tenacious player that I believe there is an NHL future for him. Could I see Sill being the Penguins’ fourth line center next season? Yeah, I could. Many in the organization really like him. He’s a younger, nastier Craig Adams, essentially. Thing is, those who really like him in the organization might not be in power later this week, so Sill’s future, like that of so many others, remains unknown.

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