QUESTION: In the free agent frenzy before last season, there were many rumors about the Pens getting a top notch faceoff guy like Yanic Perreault or Stephen Yelle. I personally feel either of these guys would have made the Penguins a much better team. This leads to two questions: 1. Are there any notable face-off guys coming available in free agency? 2. Is face-off success a natural ability or is it something that can be taught and developed?
-Bryan Murphy of Poland, OH
BOB GROVE: Ironically, three faceoff men of note from Ray Shero's former team, the Nashville Predators, are headed for unrestricted free agency: Yanic Perreault, Mike Sillinger and former Penguin Greg Johnson. Predators' GM David Poile said recently it's unrealistic to think the team will retain all three players.
That the Penguins desperately need a reliable faceoff man is a given. Pittsburgh was last in the NHL in faceoffs won (45.9 percent) last season; Nashville (53.8) was first. Perreault led the NHL by winning 62.2 percent of his draws, while Sillinger (55.9) was eighth and Johnson (54.9) was 13th. Stephane Yelle of Calgary, who was 11th at 55.4 percent, just re-signed for two years with the Flames.
Perreault, 35, had a career-high 57 points last season with Nashville, not bad for a guy who went to the Preds' camp on a tryout basis. He played less than 15 minutes per night. Sillinger, 35, put up a career-high 63 points but was a team-worst -17 (and no one else was even close to that). Johnson, also 35, put up the worst numbers of his career (19 points) while playing nearly a full season.
As far as the ability to win draws, I think it's really a little of both. Some guys have a knack for anticipating the drop of the puck or have the quick reflexes you need for the job. But that said, there's no question you can work to develop those skills to some extent and learn little tricks that can aid you in the circle.
QUESTION: Hey Bob, what's with the concensus that the Penguins aren't going to be "as active" this offseason as they were last season? I understand that the "Rebuilding Process" of the last five years is finally bringing the pieces into place, but with all of the salary space cleared up in the absence of Palffy, Lemieux, Recchi, Tarnstrom, Rita, Jackman, Cross, and Nordgren, how can't the Penguins be active in at least pursuing one or two big name players?
-Mike Spiegel of Washington, PA
BOB GROVE: It's all relative. Last summer, the Penguins signed six free agents: Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Lyle Odelein, Andre Roy and Steve Poapst. They also brought in Jocelyn Thibault via trade and worked in two other new players who were acquired the summer before in Mark Recchi and Ryan Vandenbussche. I don't see the Penguins out there bringing in seven new faces this off-season (there are budget restraints and the need to avoid the chemistry problems brought on last season by trying to mold together too many new players), but I think they will make moves to plug holes and improve the team.
You mention a high-profile winger to play with Crosby, and I too believe that should be a priority along with solidifying the defense. I loved the way Andy Hilbert played after the Penguins acquired him, and I think Pittsburgh should re-sign and keep him. But not to play on Crosby's left side. There is plenty of cap room and should be room in the budget to add at least one big-ticket player even if the payroll is going to stay in the lower 30s.
Remember that the Penguins also have a few of their own free agents to sign: Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Malone, Hilbert, Brooks Orpik, Konstantin Koltsov, Tomas Surovy, Matt Murley, Eric Boguniecki, Rob Scuderi, Odelein, Dany Sabourin and Vandenbussche. Of those, only Odelein, Vandenbussche, Boguniecki, Scuderi and Sabourin are set to become unrestricted free agents, and it wouldn't surprise me if all of them go elsewhere. Orpik, who tied for the team lead in penalty minutes, led the team in blocked shots and hits and was a respectable minus-three, should be due a raise. Fleury won't break the bank but won't come cheap, either.
QUESTION: I know that Russia has not signed the NHL transfer agreement yet, but is it not possible for Evgeni Malkin to come to the Penguins without it? Also, what about Alexei Morozov? Is he planning to come back this season or not?
-Brett Wiegand of Largo, FL
BOB GROVE: Malkin is under contract to Magnitogorsk for next season, so there's really no other way for him to get to the NHL for the 2006-07 season.
Morozov is an unrestricted free agent and free to sign with any NHL team he wants come July 1 -- if he even wants to leave Russia.
QUESTION: Do you think it's realistic to expect that with the abundance of young talent already in the organization the Penguins consider trading their 2nd overall pick, perhaps even packaging it with a current roster player to pick up a proven goal scoring winger to play with Crosby or veteran defenseman?
-Kurt Wilson of Los Altos, CA
BOB GROVE: You only get so many chances to pick at or near the top of the draft, and I don't think it's wise to throw away that chance.
Remember when the Ottawa Senators were a laughingstock? They drafted Alexei Yashin second overall in 1992 and years later after a contract impasse traded him to the New York Islanders and got back Zdeno Chara and a number one pick, which they used to draft Jason Spezza in 2001; they drafted Alexandre Daigle first overall in 1993 (a miss, although he later netted Vinny Prospal in a trade); Radek Bonk third overall in 1994 (another miss); Bryan Berard first overall in 1995, whom they later traded to the Islanders for Wade Redden; and Chris Phillips first overall in 1996. Chara, Spezza, Redden and Phillips have all been key players in the team's climb to the top -- of the regular season, anyway. The Senators have also benefitted from some great scouting, taking Marian Hossa 12th in 1997 (later traded for Dany Heatley); Daniel Alfredsson 133rd in 1994; Mike Fisher 44th in 1998; and Martin Havlat 26th in 1999.
Even if you make mistakes, you've got to take your shots at the top. The Penguins' plunge to the bottom of the NHL standings has so far netted them Ryan Whitney (No. 5 in 2002), Marc-Andre Fleury (No. 1 in 2003), Evgeni Malkin (No. 2 in 2004) and Sidney Crosby (No. 1 in 2005), with another outstanding prospect to come June 24. That could be the core of a very good team down the road.
One of the things the new CBA does is make more good players available to more teams, so it's easier to add pieces through free agent signings and trades than it was before -- as long as ownership keeps the payroll at a respectable number. The idea is not necessarily to win immediately; it's to win consistently. That's easier to do with a stable of promising players built from the draft. Later, if you have budget problems trying to keep them all or see the need for help in other areas that might get you from a playoff team to a Cup champion, you can always trade one at that point.