Penguins face prospect of revamping defense
By Rob Rossi, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Sergei Gonchar isn't on the trading block, and general manager Ray Shero isn't looking to move any defenseman off the Penguins' roster between now and the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
However, developments Monday point toward Gonchar likely playing out the season and testing the free-agent market July 1 - and possibly leaving the Penguins for a long-term contract elsewhere.
There is no other way to read two bits of news from yesterday: That talks between Shero and Gonchar's agent JP Barry are on hiatus until after the season, and the acquisition of puck-moving defenseman Jordan Leopold from Florida for a 2010 second-round draft pick.
Also, consider these words from coach Dan Bylsma regarding Leopold, who is in the final year of his contract.
"His coaches played him against the top line this year," he said, acknowledging that Leopold was often assigned to defend against Washington superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin, who torched the Penguins for nine goals in a seven-game playoff series last spring. "To get a guy who skates like he skates, a guy who goes back for pucks and who has the ability to join the rush - that's a unique opportunity, whether it's in the summertime or now."
Those are all roles currently assigned to Gonchar.
Those are also roles the Penguins believe young defensemen Alex Goligoski, 24, and Kris Letang, 23, could handle next season - especially Letang, long considered by management as the heir apparent to Gonchar as the club's top two-way defenseman.
Leopold, 29, leaves the Penguins with eight NHL-tested defensemen but only two under contract for next season (Brooks Orpik and Goligoski).
Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Martin Skoula are all slated to become unrestricted free agents; Letang can field offers July 1 as a restricted free agent.
Bylsma dressed seven defensemen in eight playoff games last season and said he would consider that unconventional strategy again. Shero said he believes at least eight NHL-quality defensemen are needed for success in the postseason.
He also will not willingly engage clubs such as Philadelphia and Boston in a bidding war for scoring-line winger Raffi Torres of Columbus.
"I'm not really that interested in trading players off our team, because I'm trying to strengthen our team, not weaken it," Shero said, noting a seller's market of five teams.
"And if you're a buyer, there's not a lot of pickings."
Improving the defense was Shero's top priority, and Leopold's strengths - skating and puck movement - mesh well with Bylsma's preference for the Penguins to possess the puck and aggressively challenge on offense.
Leopold's experience as a key component on Calgary's 2004 Cup finalist squad was also a selling point.
The Penguins have tried to sell Gonchar on taking a so-called hometown discount to finish his career in Pittsburgh, but he isn't buying - at least not on short-term deal, which the club prefers.
Barry told the Tribune-Review yesterday that term was a sticking point on two different proposals he presented to Shero during the Olympic break.
Gonchar, 35, is in the final year of a five-season contract that counts $5 million annually against the NHL salary cap, which is expected to increase only slightly next season from its current $56.8 million.
The Penguins are within about $350,000 of the cap after the acquisition of Leopold, whose $1.7 million hit will be prorated over their final 20 regular-season games.
With their remaining cap space, the Penguins could acquire a player whose average annual cap hit is about $1.8 million, but the club must keep enough room to recall AHL prospects in case of short-term injury to regulars or the need to rest returning Olympians Crosby, Malkin, Orpik and Gonchar.
Gonchar has said he wants to finish his career with the Penguins, but he has not said he will accept less than anticipated market value - as Crosby and Malkin did for contract extensions in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Though 36 by July 1, Gonchar is among a group of marquee veterans at his position who are slated to become unrestricted. That group that includes Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer, New Jersey's Paul Martin and Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov.
The bounty of potential unrestricted free-agent defensemen is likely to weaken the market for restricted players such as Letang, who would like a long-term deal in the $4 million range comparable to what center Jordan Staal signed in 2009.
The Penguins, who play Buffalo tonight at Mellon Arena, could turn their attention to negotiations with Letang's agent, Kent Hughes. Talks between Shero and Hughes have stalled since November, and the team is attempting to reach a deal with Letang that mirrors the one signed by Goligoski last summer.
Goligoski is in the first season of a three-year contract that counts $1.83 million annually against the cap.
Shero has not ruled out making another move by Wednesday but reiterated he is comfortable with his group of forwards.
By all indications, he feels the same way about playing future games at Consol Energy Center without the Penguins' "Sarge."