He's banged out beastly Homer-esque comments with a high level of consistency.
We’re 48 hours from the start of NHL free agency and if you’re like me, you’re sitting down looking all of this stuff over and your head is absolutely spinning. Gonchar. Guerin. Cooke. Hamhuis. Eaton & Leopold. Leopold & Eaton. Finkle is Einhorn. Einhorn is FInkle. Einhorn is a man…Einhorn is a MAN?!
Imagine being King Shero through all of this. You come back from the Draft knowing that for the next week and a half your Blackberry won’t go three minutes without ringing. You know that come Thursday afternoon, you’ve got a 12:01 PM phone call coming from some smartass agent telling you that Lee Stempniak isn’t just the answer to your problems at wing, but that he deserves $3.5 million a year to be just that.
The Pens are at a bit of a crossroads. Coming off a lackluster playoff loss to the Habs in which the lack of depth on the wings was horribly exposed and the defense proved to be soffff, Gonchar’s $5-mil-a-year cap hit is off the books. McKee and Fedotenko are gone, Ponikarovsky right behind them. Money is available.
With a solid six-player core of Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, Orpik and Letang firmly in place, Shero promptly locked up Matt Cooke to a new three-year deal and then complicated matters further by swinging the trade late Friday night with Philthadelphia, obtaining the rights to UFA-to-be defenseman Dan Hamhuis for third-round pick in the 2011 draft. The Pens now have 18 players under contract with about $11.25 million in cap space to play with, according to Capgeek.com.
So what now? As we’re sitting down to have lunch on Thursday afternoon, what can Pens fans reasonably expect to see?
“Well, let me roll up onto the sidewalk and take a look, yes?”
Rob Rossi reported earlier in the week that Ray Shero’s stated objective this free agent season is to strengthen and balance out the defense. There was some talk about bringing back both Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis. Can it be done?
Probably not. With $9.6 million already tied up in Orpik, Letang, Gogo and Lovejoy. Combine what Gonchar & Hamhuis will likely command and the Pens could nearly double that number. $18+ million for six defensemen on a team that already has another $30 million tied up in three centers, a wing and a goalie?
Some reports have Hamhuis looking for a four-year, $16-mil contract. A cap hit of $4 mil per year means there’s not a lot of room – about $7 million - for Gonchar AND the other roster spots AND some wiggle room under the cap.
It just doesn’t seem possible for the numbers to allow for both Gonchar AND Hamhuis, at least not without making another deal and we could speculate all day about that. The smarter money may be on keeping Hamhuis. Shero wants to toughen up the defense? Hamhuis is that guy. He’s the more defensive-minded of the two and plays a game that’s part Rob Scuderi, part Brooks Orpik. He is the one for whom Shero gave up an asset to acquire.
So maybe some of this talk about trying to retain Gonch is some extra lip service paid to a guy who has meant so much over the bulk of the last five years to both the fanbase and the locker room. Stranger things could happen. Who knows?
While Hamhuis seems to be setting up as Option 1A and Gonchar as Option 1B, what happens if they both bolt? What else is out there?
Let’s start with the obvious…
Whoops…let’s set the stage here…
We’ve seen him enough over the last few years that we know his game. Shot-blocker and nasty stay-at-home force, but won’t bring much offensively. Also injury-prone; hasn’t played more than 70 games in a season since 2006-07, which could be a product of his style of play. Will likely draw one of the biggest contracts on the market this summer, likely putting him out of the Pens price range and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Physical nature of his game could take an early toll on him.
Zbynek Michalek – Phoenix Coyotes – 6’2”, 210 lbs.
2009-10: 3G-14A-17P, +5 in 72 games
At 27, he’s one of the younger, more established unrestricted free agent defensemen out there, which could drive up his price tag a little. Solid shot-blocker who isn’t quite as physical as Volchenkov. He’s a Scuderi-type in the defensive zone with more offensive ability. Not a household name because he played in relative obscurity in Phoenix. Previous cap hit was only $1.25 million, so if things fall through with Hamhuis, expect Shero to go after Michalek very quickly because he could be a good fit for Bylsma’s system. Don’t discount the possibility of getting both Hamhuis and Michalek.
Henrik Tallinder – Buffalo Sabres – 6’3”, 214 lbs.
Classic, big stay-at-home defenseman who skates very well, he was second only to Tyler Myers in terms of ice time by Sabres d-men. Usually found himself out against opposing top lines. He’s not a punishing physical player, but he’s physical when he needs to be. Carried a cap hit of just over $2.5 mil and isn’t a flashy enough player to command a huge raise, so he would be terrific option if things fall through with Hamhuis.
Sense an overriding theme here? They’re all Euros. What in the name of Don Cherry is going on?
Willie Mitchell – Vancouver Canucks – 6’3”, 210 lbs.
2009-10: 4G-8A-12P, +13 in 48 games
Another prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, he’s nastier than Tallinder and Michalek. One of the top free agent defensemen on the market in the summer of 2006, Mitchell possesses a cap hit of $3.5 million, but his price tag may come down because of injury risk. He missed the entire second half of the season and the postseason thanks to a concussion he suffered after being driven into the boards from behind by, um…Evgeni Malkin. If nothing else, it’ll be a fun locker room introduction.
Others to Watch:
Paul Martin – New Jersey Devils – 6’1”, 200 lbs.
2009-10: 2G-9A-11P. +10 in 22 games
Martin’s a strong skater and a heads-up hockey player, but is also battling injuries which could bring his asking price down from his previous $3.8 million cap hit. Not overly physical at all. Given what Shero wants and what he’d have to pay, Martin is a longshot here.
Paul Mara – Montreal Canadiens – 6’4”, 212 lbs.
2009-10: 0G-8A-8P, -16 in 48 games
Fits the bill of the physical stay-at-home type but is coming off shoulder surgery. Likely wouldn’t get much of a raise over the $1.675 mil cap hit from last year. Has a tendency to take some Scott Hartnell or Dan Carcillo-level dumb penalties.
Andy Sutton – Ottawa Senators – 6’6”, 245 lbs.
2009-10: 5G-8A-13P, -10 in 72 games
Expert jokes aside, Sutton is about as close as the Pens could get to Hal Gill without getting Hal Gill this summer. Still moves well, but struggled at times matching up with the quicker Pens lineup in the postseason. Also carries a $3 mil cap hit and will be 36 before the next hockey season ends.
What has been called one of the worst free agent crops of forwards in recent memory might be the reason why Shero has made somewhat public his desire to put the defense first this summer. There’s not much here that would be a guaranteed improvement, but there are some players who could help the Pens. It could be another summer of King Shero trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Or two.
2009-10: 21G-37A-58P in 80 games
Linked to Pittsburgh around the deadline, but those rumors fell through rather quickly. Great hands around the net. Age (38) will always be a factor because he’s rumored to want a three-year deal. If that’s a sticking point, forget it. His 2009-10 cap hit of $3.55 million could hinder negotiations, too. But if Shero can convince him to take two years, the guy can still play at a relatively high level. There probably is not a better pure sniper available to the Pens this summer. Would you be happy with Michalek or Hamhuis on defense and then Whitney on a wing? I think I would.
2009-10: 19G-32A-51P in 81 games
For as much grief as Frolov got last year, he actually finished with decent numbers, good for 5th on the Kings in scoring and only five points back of Dustin Brown for third. A guy who is setting up to be a classic “change of scenery” free agent, he might see a reduction on his $2.9 million cap hit from last year. Getting him on a line with either Sid or Malkin could do wonders, or he could turn into another Ponikarovsky. One of the ultimate wildcards this summer.
2009-10: 24G-27A-61P in 82 games
Played his way out of Buffalo and came to the Thrashers very late last summer. He ended up turning in what was basically a career year. Given that he was on a one-year deal, therein lies the rub. Was he playing for a contract? Last ditch shot at the NHL? Both? Neither? Tough to say. He’d be due a raise up from his $800,000 cap hit from last year, but how much and for how long? He’s a risk beyond a one-year deal, but he looked very good at times in Atlanta and even seemed to buy into their system. Worth noting that he’s already turned down a one-year deal with Atlanta and rumors picked up that he may head back to the KHL.
2009-10: 19G-34A-53P in 78 games
Center who can also play wing, he’d fit the mold that Shero and Bylsma like for versatile players. Speed to burn with good hands and good vision, he’s spent most of his career playing for coaches who run defense-first systems, so he’s flying under the radar this summer. Cap hit last year was just under $2 million, so he could be very affordable for the Pens. Probably one of the free agent wings best suited for Bylsma’s system.
Others to Watch:
Lee Stempniak – Phoenix Coyotes
2009-10: 28G-20A-48 in 80 games
Played 62 games with the Leafs, scoring 14 goals and 16 assists. Got traded to Phoenix at the deadline and promptly became a point-a-game player (14 goals, 4 assist in 18 games), but then faded in the playoffs. Notoriously streaky scorer. Cap hit was $2.5 million last year and his strong finish in Phoenix will likely translate into an offer that the Pens won’t trump.
Bill Guerin – Pittsburgh Penguins
2009-10: 21G-24A-45P in 78 games
Would likely come back for something in the range of $1.5-2.0 million next year and perhaps more time in the press box. Did about all you could expect of a player his age and then more in the playoffs (4-5-9 in 11 games). Faded a little bit down the stretch in the regular season. Not a priority, but I would suspect he’s not in a huge hurry to make a decision either and doesn’t have to be signed right away.
Teemu Selanne – Anaheim Ducks
2009-10: 27G-21A-48P in 57 games.
Man, if we could just get him over to the East coast for one season, huh? Even at 39, he’d still likely have enough in the tank for one more Cup run. But he loves the West Coast and he’s very loyal to that Ducks organization. Big longshot, but it depends on the money and his priorities.
Colby Armstrong – Atlanta Thrashers
2009-10: 15G-14A-29P in 79 games
Perhaps no more polarizing player in recent Pens history outside of maybe Marian Hossa. Armstrong was part of the original core group that arrived from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton midway through the 2005-06 season and helped inject some life into what was a poorly-constructed team. Became a fan favorite thanks to crushing body checks, timely goals and goofy personality. Scored 16 goals and 24 assists in 47 games during his first season, but never recaptured that production. Physical element tailed off after he injured Carolina’s Trevor Letowski with an open-ice hit to the head. Traded to ATL in Hossa deal, his role has since been replaced by the likes of Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke & Tyler Kennedy. If he played like he did during that 05-06 campaign, he’d be a great fit in Bylsma’s system, but he hasn’t produced at that clip since that season. Said to be looking for a raise on $2.4 mil cap hit from last year, so that may price him out of Pittsburgh.