Following another disappointing playoff showing in Pittsburgh, Penguins GM Ray Shero is now faced with some tough decisions in the offseason to determine where his team goes from here.
In today’s “what have you done for me lately” NHL, the Penguins are quickly gaining the reputation as an ultra-talented group unable to come up big when it counts. Since winning the Cup in 2009, the Pens now have lost three of their last four playoff series, putting superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin directly in the crosshairs of criticism for their perceived inability to lead this group to higher achievements of late. Sure, regular season success is great to a certain extent, but playoff success ultimately determines one fate. Just ask the Vancouver Canucks.
For starters, Pens GM Ray Shero is close to reaching a major crossroads regarding his superstar centers. Both Crosby and Jordan Staal only have one year remaining in their current deals and are slated to become UFA’s after next season, while Malkin has two years left on his deal. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future ceiling of the NHL’s salary cap, it remains unlikely that the Penguins will be able to afford to retain all three players, especially considering Kris Letang is in line for a major pay raise soon. And when you consider everything that Crosby’s gone through health-wise over the past 16 months, Shero’s decision on who to re-sign and who to possibly trade in 2013 may not be as clear-cut as once imagined, depending on how things transpire next season. It's also worth mentioning that three key role players – Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy – all become UFA’s after next year, complicating matters that much more.
After this year’s early playoff exit, it’s quite clear that the Penguins defense corps is in need of upgrading, but Shero will have to pull off his best Houdini act in order to pull it off. Defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, two high-priced free agents signed by Shero two offseasons ago, have been unmitigated busts in their time thus far in Steeltown. But the bigger issue surrounding the two rearguards isn’t whether they should be moved, it’s whether they can be.
At the forefront of Shero’s dilemma are their immovable contracts; Martin still has three years left on his 5-year, $25 million deal, while Michalek is owed $4 million in each of the next three seasons as well. While talented young blueliners Brian Strait, Simon Despres and Joe Morrow wait in the wings for their turn to crack the lineup, Shero’s biggest challenge may just be trying to ship out the dead weight to make room for them.
Letang, meanwhile, who’s coming off multiple concussions and a subpar playoff performance, is currently the Pens’ fourth-highest paid defenseman (also behind Brooks Orpik) and stands to get a sizeable raise before his contract expires in two years. How the Pens will be able to afford it, if they can’t move Martin’s and/or Michalek’s contracts, remains to be seen.
There’s also been plenty of talk surrounding Head Coach Dan Bylsma and whether or not his services should be retained. Bylsma, who led the team to their Cup victory three years ago, will undoubtedly get another shot at leading his team back to the top. But if Bruce Boudreau’s and Randy Carlyle’s firings this season taught us anything, it’s that regular season success and past winnings are no guarantees of job security in the present. If the Penguins take another misstep next year, it will likely mean the end for Bylsma.
For now, the Penguins remain as one of the league’s elite teams heading into 2012-13. But the bigger concern is, can Shero make the right choices moving forward to keep them there.
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