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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

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QUESTION:My question is regarding the salary cap. As of today, (July 8th), the Penguins have 14 players signed. The total salary for these players is just over 16 million. Given they sign the 6 guys who were given qualifying offers, they still won't be at the "minimum" salary cap of 28 million. How does this work? Is there a penalty? Or maybe this space should have the Penguins going after some of the higher priced free agent?

-Michael Biron of Montreal

BOB GROVE: From the figures available from a variety of sources, you're right that the Penguins have 14 players currently under contract for a total of $16.36 million. Let's remember, too, that the list of 14 players includes Erik Chistensen, Maxime Talbot and Michel Ouellet -- who will make a combined $1.5 million but who may not make the roster; that the list doesn't include other players under two-way contracts who should get a look at camp -- Micki DuPont, Ryan Stone, Jonathan Filewich and Daniel Carcillo; and that it doesn't figure in the approximate $227,000 that will count against the Penguins' cap total this year for buying out Sebastien Caron and Shane Endicott. That brings us to about $16.6 million.

There's no need to worry about them not reaching the minimum.

The Penguins did make offers to six players who are restricted free agents: Brooks Orpik, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Malone, Colby Armstrong, Jani Rita and Niklas Nordgren. Orpik and Malone have already opted for arbitration, although negotiations can continue until an arbitrator hears those cases. All qualifying offers remain on the table until July 15, but don't expect any players to accept them. In fact, I don't see Rita or Nordgren coming back. Negotiations with Fleury and Armstrong will continue.

Fleury made $942,000 in the NHL last season, while Armstrong made $778,050, Malone $750,000 and Orpik $650,000. I think it's reasonable to expect those four players, collectively, to sign new contracts totaling about $4.5 million for next season. Add in Noah Welch, who has a two-way contract that probably pays him $500,000-$600,000 at the NHL level, and Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to make $984,000 next season, and we have those six players coming in at about $6 million total. Add that to the 14 players under contract, and we have 20 players at about $22.6 million.

If the Penguins are shooting for a payroll of about $32 million, remember that they're not going to want to be at that level on opening night. That wouldn't give them any wriggle room for trades. They might want to be closer to $30 or $30.5 million. That leaves them another $7-8 million, and they haven't yet signed a center who can win draws or a scoring winger -- both areas of need. Not to mention that they probably wouldn't mind signing another defensemen or that they'll add just under $900,000 to the payroll if Jordan Staal makes the roster.

There's still plenty of room left, but it can disappear quickly. I think Samsonov and Carter would be nice fits, but both will make considerably more than the two free agents already signed, Mark Eaton and Jarkko Ruutu. But neither went in the first 10 days, so that's encouraging. Let's also remember that some teams (New Jersey is a good example) are going to be trading away players because their payrolls have been swelled by free agent signings, and that's a place where Ray Shero might make himself a deal for someone who can really help the team.

QUESTION: The Penguins don't seem to be picking any more UFA's up but there seems to be glaring holes in lineup.  Ray Shero has said that he could possibly fix these hole by trading or by signing RFA's. Who do you think are possible trading partners and who would we get?  Also, who on the Pens has trade value?

-Leah of Pittsburgh

BOB GROVE: The Penguins, of course, do have some players with trade value. Off the top, I would exclude young players who are part of the foundation for the future: Crosby, Malkin, Armstrong, Fleury, Welch, Staal and Whitney. Two guys who are a little older, still have many good years ahead of them and who have proved they can play in the league also have some value: Ryan Malone and Brooks Orpik. That's not to say the Penguins have any interest in trading either one.

As far as restricted free agents go, don't expect Ray Shero to be signing players to offer sheets. Remember that in 99 percent of those cases (and it is rarely done) the team with the right to match the offer will do so. So it's basically a waste of time. We had another question this week about whether the Penguins might go after Patrice Bergeron or Brad Boyes of the Bruins -- both restricted free agents. They're great young players, and there's simply no way the Bruins are going to let those guys go.

QUESTION: Why would the Pens sign Jarkko Ruutu to a 2 year deal worth $1.15M each year?  I like the signing, but not for that much money.  We already have Andre Roy for that dollar amount.  Is this why Ryan Malone filed for arbitration?

-Joseph Esposito of Laurel, MD

BOB GROVE: You need all types of players to win, not just scorers. Ray Shero obviously believes there is an element of grit missing from the third and fourth lines and that Ruutu fills that need. His new salary is a good upgrade from what he made last season, but then again the Penguins weren't the only team interested. The Penguins have room in the budget, and frankly, if you can't compete for players earning just over $1 million a year, then you might as well just sit out free agency all together.

Andre Roy will make $1 million this season, but he cannot give you what Ruutu gives you. I figured Roy or Eric Cairns would be bought out, and I would guess now that either one could be packaged in future trades. It's hard for me to picture an opening night roster that includes both.

Ryan Malone filed for arbitration because it's his right and he was not happy with the offer he received. He's dealing with a different GM now, and I'm not sure he goes into arbitration with tons of ammunition. He had a miserable first half and a good second half of the season. By any account, that's a step backward from where he was after the 2003-04 season.

QUESTION: Was Andre Savard the Montreal GM when Michel Therrien was released as the Montreal coach?  It seems like this would now be an uncomfortable pairing as head coach and assistant coach.

-Walt Holdren of Wheeling, WV

BOB GROVE: Yes, Andre Savard was GM of the Montreal Canadiens in January 2003 when he fired head coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Claude Julien. Montreal had lost 10 of 12 games at that point.

It's a very interesting situation, but as you know sometimes a GM likes a coach and believes in his abilities but has no choice but to fire him because a) the team for whatever reason is not responding to him and/or b) the GM has to think about his job security, too.

But when Savard chose to leave his post as assistant GM in Montreal earlier this month, he cited the fact he had worked with both Therrien and Ray Shero (in Ottawa). He also said he was leaving Montreal for "other reasons I don't want to get into." Of course, he was replaced as Montreal GM by Bob Gainey in June 2003, and Gainey remains in that position.

Shero never would have hired an assistant coach with whom the head coach could not work. What's just as interesting about this situation is that this is the third time that Savard has left a management position to basically move down the ladder to the coaching staff -- not exactly a typical move. He did the same in Quebec and in Montreal previously. That tells me the guy loves to coach, and it is always a good thing to have a guy like that on your staff.

QUESTION: Why didn't the Penguins try to sign R.J. Umberger? He's a local boy who the Pens liked a few years ago when he was drafted.

-Andrew of Penn Hills, PA

BOB GROVE: R.J. Umberger was a restricted free agent, meaning the Flyers had the right to match any offers he  would have received from other teams. Knowing that the Flyers would exercise that right, other teams wouldn't waste their time making offers to him. He is signed for $1.05 million next season.

The Penguins had their chances to acquire Umberger after he was drafted in 2001 by Vancouver in the first round but did not sign with the Canucks. His rights were traded to the New York Rangers in March 2004, and he became a free agent when he could not reach a contract agreement with New York. The Flyers signed him in June 2004.

QUESTION: I've been a Pens fan since the early 70's. When was the last time you can remember the Pens having this much young talent going into the season? Also do you think they could contend for the division title? I know it's a reach but with a little luck and another veteran free agent we just might be watching a contender.

-Bob Gaydos of Springdale, PA

BOB GROVE: Thanks for sticking with the team for all these years.

Given that the Penguins have picked first or second in each of the last four drafts and fifth in 2002 -- netting them Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal -- and adding Colby Armstrong and Noah Welch, I think it's safe to say we're on new ground here in Penguins' history.

Perhaps the best parallel you could try and draw would be 1985-86, when the Penguins had in camp Mario (20), Bob Errey (21), Doug Bodger (19), Craig Simpson (18) and Mike Bullard (24) -- all former first-round picks. But it still doesn't compare to the depth of what the Penguins have right now.

As far as a division championship, it's pretty hard to see that in the cards right now. This team still has a lot of holes and a lot of unknowns, and I think it would be a great step for them next season to just stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

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