Stars in place, Penguins turn to youth to fill roster

Wednesday, 07.03.2013 / 4:48 PM
Chris Adamski  - Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- The biggest news of the first month of the Pittsburgh Penguins' offseason has been the contract extensions agreed to with veteran stalwarts Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz.

While coach Dan Bylsma happily acknowledges the keeping together of "the big foundation of our team," it's the resulting trickle-down effect that will have more of an impact on his team going forward.

Bylsma knows what he has in Malkin, Letang, Dupuis and Kunitz. The $24.35 million of the annual salary cap they will swallow up in future years means the coach will turn to younger (and cheaper) players to fill out the rest of his lineup.

"Now when you've got top-six forwards and you've got some key players on your defense locked up, you talk about adding to our team and our identity and third- and fourth-line type of roles," Bylsma said Wednesday, referring to the organization's younger players and prospects. "We are going to see that going forward."

Bylsma was effusive in his praise of recent first-round picks Beau Bennett and Simon Despres, for example. Each spent much of the past season on the NHL roster but frequently were healthy scratches or playing bottom-six (in Bennett's case) or third-pairing (for Despres) roles.

That, apparently, won't be the case next season. Each player is still on his entry-level contract and will count less than $1 million against the salary cap. Bylsma strongly hinted Despres is a potential partner for Norris Trophy finalist Letang and Bennett is a serious candidate to play left wing alongside Malkin and James Neal. Malkin and Neal were first-team NHL all-stars as recently as 2011-12.

"Over the course of a full season, you'll see [Bennett] able to play with those types of players, whether it is a power-play situation or whether it is with [Sidney] Crosby or Malkin or on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal," Bylsma said. "I think he's got that ability."

Bylsma complimented the mentoring qualities of 26-year-old Letang, who agreed to terms to an eight-year, $58 million extension with the Penguins on Tuesday. Bylsma said 21-year-old Despres benefited from the minutes he got this season paired with Letang.

Despres, who appeared in 33 regular-season games but was limited to three Stanley Cup Playoffs games, figures to get a more significant role in 2013-14. Bylsma suggested big minutes with Letang, power play, penalty kill, shut-down role -- all of it are possible for Despres.

"Simon certainly has the game and talent to do all that," Bylsma said.

He and Bennett will have to take on bigger roles now that Pittsburgh finds itself rapidly approaching the salary cap. Bylsma said, as a result, the club's remaining unrestricted free agents could find themselves elsewhere by the time next season begins.

That group includes forwards Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams, and defenseman Douglas Murray. Add in the fact Tyler Kennedy was traded to the San Jose Sharks on NHL draft day and there are plenty of opportunities for younger players to seize a spot in the Penguins lineup.

Specifically, Bylsma touted a deep and fertile group of defensemen knocking at the proverbial NHL door: Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Scott Harrington and Derick Pouliot.

"We're talking about guys who project to be very big players for us down the road who are on entry-level contracts," Bylsma said. "That's going to be a must. We don't know where the cap's going to go after the following year. You never can be absolutely sure there's going to be any certainty; you talk about it going up possibly a little higher and that might give you some room going forward."

While Bylsma openly ponders what the spate of contract extensions given to his veteran standouts could mean down the road for the Penguins' salary-cap space, he made sure it's known he's happy that Malkin, Kunitz, Dupuis and Letang are locked up.

Coming off a career year, Dupuis signed a four-year, $15 million contract Tuesday. He and Kunitz have long been the preferred wings for Crosby, a Hart Trophy finalist in 2012-13. Last week, Kunitz reupped for three years at an average annual value of $3.85 million. Malkin signed for eight years at a salary-cap value of $9.5 million per season.

"You see over the course of the past few days and even weeks who we've been able to extend," Bylsma said. "A core of great hockey players back here in Pittsburgh that are the big foundation of our team."

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