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Uncertain future awaits free agents

by Nicole Jelinek @Penguins / Pittsburgh Penguins

General manager Jim Rutherford was able to successfully enter Pittsburgh in 2014 and create a team that was capable of winning a Stanley Cup championship. Two, in fact. Back-to-back. 

As the Cup hype dies down and the off-season begins, the Pens will start discussing changes in the lineup that include a handful of impactful players' contracts being up for discussion and negotiation.

"I just went through this this morning with these guys," Rutherford said. "All of the unrestricted free agents, I have met with them and told them that we are not going to close the door on any of them. With the cap, the way it is, it is tight fitting guys in. We are not going to be able to fit everyone in.

"What I suggested is they get their agent to go to market on July 1 and see what is out there. Then, if they want to come back to the Penguins, come back and say here is what we got. Can you get to that number? Can you get close to that number? Then they can make a decision."

Some of the bigger names on the list include forwards Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz and defensemen Ron Hainsey and Trevor Daley - all unrestricted free agents who have played a huge role on the team over the years.

Bonino:

At 29-years, Bonino is coming off of a three year contact as a UFA and says that he would start meeting with Rutherford after Thursday's locker cleanout."We'll see," Bonino said about what decision would be made for him. "I think it's a little different this year with the expansion draft. There are a lot of scenarios and things going on. I've made it pretty clear that I love Pittsburgh, I love the team here. We'll see if we can get something done."

Bonino, who arrived in Pittsburgh via trade in 2015, has become a staple player on the team. He has scored some big goals - think Game 6 in overtime against Washington in Game 6 of 2016 - and has been integral part of the team's back-to-back Cups.

But as he enters unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, there are many things he will have to consider.

"You take everything into account, family, team, money. At the end of the day I've never been in a position to choose where I play, which is nice as a player," Bonino said. "For most of our careers we don't have much say in that. The chance to choose is obviously alluring. We have 14 days to see what happens. I really like it here."

Kunitz:

Despite rumors about retirement, this is not it for Kunitz. He feels good on the ice, but in terms of where next he will be next season, he said that he would never want to close the door on any opportunity.

"I don't really know," Kunitz said. "We definitely enjoyed our time, but I would never want to close the door on anything. So, you have to understand what we do as a business. We go out there and see what your interest is in other teams and on this team. It is not all about the dollar amount. It is the situation for some of us who are older, have families, to worry about and schools and how important that stuff is to us. It is something you will know more around July 1."

Kunitz has four Stanley Cups titles on his resume, three with the Pens. He brings valuable experience, grit and tenacity that is a welcomed asset on any team.

"You know what, he's the ultimate teammate for a lot of different reasons," captain Sidney Crosby said about Kunitz. "I think just the way he treats people, the way he handles himself, the way he plays every single night-I think that's no fluke that he's won four Stanley Cups. I think he's another guy that there's some uncertainty there, but trying to think positive that he'll be back. Just a great person and great teammate."

Other changes:

The Penguins would love to have everyone back and keep the group together, but this is the harsh reality of the salary cap era. It is a difficult process each passing season, but something that the team as a whole understands.

"Even though we had a lot of returning players this year, it was a new team," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "Obviously, it is going to be harder for us to keep the semblance of the group that we have this year, but inevitably it is going to be a new challenge once again and we are going to have to find a way when Jim assembles our team, like he will over the next couple of months. We will have to start from Day One of training camp and try to become a team once again."

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