The Pittsburgh Penguins had a comprehensive business plan heading into the 2008 free agency frenzy on July 1 – but it wasn’t all about coveting other teams’ free agents.
With Sidney Crosby and Ryan Whitney already signed to long-term contracts, GM Ray Shero spent the early days of free agency negotiating additional long-term deals with Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik – assuring that a huge chunk of the Penguins’ young core will be together for a minimum of the next five years.
Sure, Shero added some other pieces, including slick winger Miroslav Satan, agitator Matt Cooke and enforcer Eric Godard, but the focus was retaining more of the young leaders who’d mesmerized the city and the hockey world in leading the upstart Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1992. And it all came about because the Penguins’ owners committed to spending virtually to the upper limit of the salary cap, which the NHL set at $56.7 million for 2008-09.
“That decision from ownership made it all possible,” Shero said. “And it says something about their commitment to the team, to the city of Pittsburgh, and most importantly to our fans. We have a very unique situation here with all of these talented young players, and the owners wanted to make sure we had the tools to keep the core guys here for the long term -- to give them a chance to compete for championships and win the Cup together.
“We’re pretty much at the cap right now. We left ourselves a little bit of a cushion, because you’ve got to be prepared for an injury, or maybe a move that becomes available during the season. But we’re where we wanted to be.”
It is significant to note that Malkin, Fleury and Orpik all took less than they could have received on the open market to stay in Pittsburgh. Malkin, 21, the league’s No. 2 scorer and MVP finalist, signed for five years at $8.7 million a year; Fleury, 23, an elite goaltender who sparkled in the playoffs, signed for seven years at $5 million a year; and Orpik, 27, a bone-rattling defenseman, agreed to a six-year deal for $3.75 million a year.
Malkin’s deal was all the more noteworthy because he would not have become a restricted free agent until next summer; in fact, he will play the 2008-09 season under the terms of his entry-level contract, before the new deal kicks in from 2009-10 through 2013-14.
Crosby and Whitney are signed through 2012-13; Orpik, like Malkin, is locked up through 2013-14; and Fleury is signed through 2014-15.
“We have the greatest group of young players in the league, I believe,” Shero said, “and the fact that these guys all wanted to be here, and took less than they could have gotten to stay here, says a lot about our situation. It shows we’ve got a great thing to offer, and I think people are taking notice around the league. We had a guy like Miro Satan contact us and say, ‘I want to be in Pittsburgh.’ Petr Sykora did the same thing last year.”
Ownership’s commitment to spend to the cap also enabled Shero to take a serious run at keeping veteran winger Marian Hossa, although Hossa ultimately turned down a lucrative offer to sign with Detroit. Nonplussed, Shero finalized his mega-deals with Malkin and Orpik on the same day, and essentially used the money that would have gone to Hossa in this year’s budget to add three more pieces to the puzzle – wingers Satan, Ruslan Fedotenko and Cooke.
“We respect Marian’s decision and wish him the best, but we moved on immediately – that’s the way it is in free agency -- and I like the elements we were able to add to our team,” Shero said. “Satan is a very skilled guy who can play on the top two lines. Fedotenko won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and is a player who brings some grit in addition to scoring ability. Cooke is someone I’ve always liked – fast, aggressive, a guy who hits and plays all-out.”
The Penguins roster changed in some other noticeable ways with the free-agency losses of Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts and others. But, in addition to newcomers such as Satan, Fedotenko, Cooke and Godard, Shero also re-signed Pascal Dupuis and Mark Eaton to multi-year deals. And the rest of the cupboard is not exactly bare.
Jordan Staal, who will finally turn 20 in September, has one more year remaining on his entry-level deal, and Shero will be talking to him about negotiating an extension that would start in 2009-10. Staal, who can play left wing as well as center, will be the main beneficiary of extra ice time that becomes available because of the loss of Malone, especially on the power play, and that should only enhance his rapid progress to early stardom.
Sergei Gonchar remains, at age 34, one of the premier defenseman in the league, and Sykora, 31, is a bonafide scorer. Kris Letang, 20, made impressive strides as an NHL rookie defenseman last season, and 22-year-old Alex Goligoski had a strong first pro season in Wilkes-Barre and will challenge for a spot on the blue line.
Max Talbot, 24, has established himself as a valuable, versatile NHL forward, and he’s already a part of Penguins lore because of his last-second game-tying goal in Game 5 of the Cup finals at Detroit. Other key role players from the memorable season and playoff run -- Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Tyler Kennedy, Darryl Sydor, Dany Sabourin – are all on board for another shot at the Cup.
“I think we’re in good position,” Shero said. “I think we’re all learning that, under the new system, you can’t keep everybody. The system is intended to give the players some maneuverability. But the fact that our ownership approved spending to the cap, and that so many of our young core players want to be here long-term … that’s a tremendous sign for the Pittsburgh Penguins and our fans. It’s July, but I can’t wait to get started.”