QUESTION: Sebastien Caron obviously hasn't had a lot of playing time this year due to Fleury finally reaching his comfort zone, but do you think we will see Caron more in the last month of the season?
Robby in Huntington, WV
BOB GROVE: With Marc-Andre Fleury eligible for the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs, I'd like to see him rested a bit more down the stretch. He's played an awful lot of games over the second half of the season and has appeared in 39 of the last 47 games heading into tonight's game against Florida. In the eight games in which he did not play during that stretch, the Penguins were 1-7. Caron played five of those games and went 1-4, three times allowing five or more goals.
Therein lies the problem. The team is playing better, Fleury's confidence is up, and Caron has not played well in the few times he's been called upon to give Fleury a rest. That makes it difficult for Michel Therrien to play Caron, and it appears that Caron may be limited to playing in situations where the team is playing three games in four nights -- like next week.
I'd like to see Fleury excel in the Calder Cup playoffs. He's not performed real well in pressure situations in recent years, including the World Junior Championships, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs and Calder Cup playoffs. I think playing well in the post-season at the AHL level will only help his development.
QUESTION: Are the Pens going to sign Ryan Malone for more than one year this off season?
Scott Dougherty of Upper St. Clair
BOB GROVE: It's not always just about the money; the length of a player's contract is often a contentious issue, too, although the two are always tied together. Unless they're approaching free agency, players are generally seeking the longest deals possible once they get in a salary neighborhood they like. Teams may give players more security (longer contracts) only if they move down a bit on the salary end. Teams that are unsure of a player's future will seek shorter terms. Sometimes, teams and players unable to craft a new contract just throw up their hands, sign a one-year deal and take a let's-see-what-happens approach.
I think that's what happened with the Penguins and Malone, which is why his second NHL contract was only for one season at $750,000. That set the table for Malone to return to negotiations with a little more leverage if he had another solid season. I say a little more leverage because Malone will still be a restricted free agent this summer, giving the Penguins the ability to match any offers he receives -- and outside offers to restricted free agents are rare.
It seems to me that the Penguins could have traded Malone at the deadline earlier this month if they weren't anxious to keep him, because there were plenty of teams interested. But management is probably wondering which Malone they're signing this summer: the guy who had six goals and 12 points in his first 35 games and was a healthy scratch under both Ed Olczyk (once) and Michel Therrien (four times)? Or the guy who's had 18 points in the past 18 games and has been a force killing penalties? There are other factors to consider, too: Malone seems better suited to center but played mostly on the left wing from late October until early January, and he's a center but would slot in behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin if Malkin gets here next season.
The negotiations with Malone will be very interesting. If I was betting, however, I'd say the Penguins will sign him to a two- or three-year contract.
QUESTION: When does the off-side tag-up rule come in to effect or how does it work?
Ken Brown of Shippensburgh, PA
BOB GROVE: Tag-up offside was re-instated by the NHL for this season. It was originally introduced for the 1986-87 season and then removed after the 1995-96 season.
Under this rule change, players in the offensive zone when a teammate shoots the puck into the zone are not immediately whistled offside. They have an opportunity to vacate the offensive zone, and once that's accomplished they and any teammates are permitted to re-enter the zone. Linesmen make this call by raising their arm and often by vocally telling the offending team that they must make skate contact with the blue line or "tag up."
The purpose of this rule is to eliminate faceoffs and speed up the game, and it certainly has done that.
QUESTION: If the slots license is passed how long will the arena take to build? Will it disrupt the Penguins schedule?
Chris of St. Catharines
BOB GROVE: The slots license is expected to be awarded in December 2006 or January 2007. If the bid submitted by the Penguins and Isle of Capri, Inc. is chosen (keep your fingers crossed and, for local fans, the e-mails to legislators flying), there would be some real estate acquisition/demolition that must be done on the proposed site of the arena and casino before construction could begin. Construction alone is probably a two-year activity, so the guess is that the arena could be done around spring/summer 2009.
If that timeline holds, the Penguins would have to extend their lease at Mellon Arena and play there two extra years past the 2006-07 season. The Penguins would continue to play at Mellon Arena with no disruption from the activities across Centre Avenue.
By the way, there have been a few e-mails mentioning that this could be the Penguins' last season in Pittsburgh. No matter what happens with the slots license, the Penguins have a lease through the 2006-07 season and will be playing, at minimum, in Pittsburgh through next season.