Q: While I understand why Craig Patrick was let go (as general manager), I believe he should have been given one more year to construct a "new NHL" team. No one knew what the NHL would look like coming out of the lockout. Patrick gambled in the wrong direction, but only cost the team one season (in which two star players retired, starting goaltender injured and there was a coaching change). Of all the large contracts he handed out last year, only John LeClair and Sergei Gonchar are left. Both players produced in the second half of the year and the production was worthy of the deals given. If he was still buried under several multi-year contracts, I could understand letting him go. Taking all of this into consideration, was this separation mutual? Was Patrick ready for a change of scenery?
Gregg Fouch, Moon
MOLINARI: It's unlikely the separation was mutual -- over the course of the season, Patrick repeatedly expressed his interest in returning -- but the franchise clearly needed a change in leadership. "Stale" is a word a lot of people inside the organization, many of them staunch, longtime supporters of Patrick's, used to describe his work in recent years.
While the definition of "large contracts" is subjective, you left Jocelyn Thibault and Andre Roy off the list of players who received seven-figure salaries last summer and remain on the payroll for 2006-07. And, as was detailed in Wednesday's Post-Gazette, the free agents Patrick didn't bring in last summer were at least as troubling as any of the ones he signed. Bottom line: He had a chance to greatly accelerate the Penguins' development into a contender, and failed. Badly.
That doesn't detract away from anything Patrick did for the Penguins after he replaced Tony Esposito in 1989. He put the finishing touches on a couple of Stanley Cup champions, and assembled five division-winners. He is, without question, the finest GM in team history.
Patrick has been mentioned as a candidate for the GM job in Boston, and it's entirely possible that a change of scenery will rejuvenate him. There was very little that happened during the past nine months, however, that suggested he was going to reclaim his spot among the league's top front-office people if he remained here.
One of the bright spots of the Pens this year has been Johnny LeClair. I know he was disappointed not to be traded, but I hope he stays next season and beyond. Any insight into what might happen?
Todd Shikora, Chicago
MOLINARI: LeClair has a year left on his contract and, with 12 of his 22 goals coming during the final 25 games of the season, looks like he could be quite valuable in a supporting role in 2006-07. He overcame a poor start that was brought on at least in part by sitting out the 2004-05 season because of the NHL lockout, and became a steady contributor during the second half.
Much has been made of LeClair's disappointment at not being traded before the March 9 deadline, but what has been widely ignored -- or, at the very least, overlooked -- is that he simply was responding to a question when he expressed his feelings; LeClair didn't seek out a reporter, or anyone else, because he wanted to go public with his feelings. He simply answered a pointed question that had been put to him.
Given LeClair's age (36) and lack of ties to Pittsburgh, no one should have taken it personally that he was hoping to be sent to a contender. And frankly, given the way he closed out the season, some of those contenders are probably wishing they had made a pitch for him.
It also is worth noting that LeClair clearly was stung -- and understandably so -- when his alternate captaincy was taken away and given to Sidney Crosby. Why coach Michel Therrien would do that to a respected veteran remains a mystery; what isn't nearly as difficult to understand is why LeClair, asked if he'd like Ziggy Palffy's "A" after Palffy retired, declined the offer.
What is the plan for Marc-Andre Fleury's playing time during the playoffs with the Baby Pens? He is a great goalie and showed his worth at the beginning of the AHL season. But there is another excellent goalie, Dany Sabourin. Will Fleury be the No. 1 goalie, or Sabourin, or will they split time? Given the ice time Fleury has had and the number of times he has been bombed, does he need more playing time this year? Is it even a good idea? Does management want to give him more high-pressure experience?
Janusz Mrozek, Washington, D.C.
MOLINARI: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Joe Mullen has said he plans to give both Fleury and Sabourin work during the Baby Penguins' series against Bridgeport, which opened last night. That's understandable, given that Sabourin was honored as the top goalie in the American Hockey League this season, but the reality is that farm teams exist for the benefit of the parent club, and the top priority for the Penguins during the Calder Cup playoffs should be to get Fleury as much playing time -- and, ideally, success -- as possible.
While Sabourin might well be able to play in the NHL, Fleury is part one of the Penguins' core, a guy who will be counted on to fill a critical role as the franchise evolves into a contender. It's been several years since Fleury had anything resembling success in the post-season, and putting together a solid playoff run this spring could do great things for his confidence.
Of course, if he stumbles during Round 1 -- hardly out of the question, given the Sound Tigers' skill level -- sticking with him could put Wilkes-Barre in a hole from which it could not escape. That might not be entirely fair to the Baby Penguins or their fans, but it's critical that Fleury get the opportunity to prove to his bosses, and to himself, that he can thrive under playoff pressure.
What is your opinion of the rules changes/enforcement put in place this year and their impact? I hope the enforcement level continues into the playoffs. It's been much more fun to watch. I thought elimination of the two-line pass would lead to a lot of "cherry pickers," but it really hasn't. I also like the rule that prohibits the team guilty of icing from changing personnel, the tag-up offsides and the automatic minor for shooting the puck over the glass. I can live without the trapezoid area, though. I'd like to see the league allow hand passes in all zones; allow any part of the body or any motion (except kicking) to score a goal and not force players to wear helmets during shootouts. As for no-touch icing, I'm on the fence.
Al DeMarchi, North Huntingdon
MOLINARI: The new rules -- along with the strict enforcement of the old ones governing obstruction-related infractions -- have had the desired effect of raising scoring, and the entertainment level, of NHL games. There is a renewed emphasis on skill -- Joe Thornton won the scoring title with 31 more points than Martin St. Louis had in 2003-04 -- and knuckle-draggers whose only talent is the ability to hook an opponent or grab a fistful of his sweater no longer can drag down the quality of play.
That said, limiting the area where a goalie can play the puck still seems like an unfair restriction on goalies who have devoted a lot of time and effort to making their puckhandling an asset. (Imagine if the league, in an effort to reduce scoring, decided to ban, say, backhand passes.) As for your other points, 1) Hand passes, if permitted at all, should be limited to the defensive zone; 2) Allowing any body part or motion, except kicking, to score a goal opens the door to, among other things, players throwing the puck into the net; 3) Allowing players to shed their helmets during shootouts is fine, since there's a greatly reduced risk of injury then; and 4) No-touch icing can eliminate needless injuries caused when players race for the puck, although many players and fans regard that as an exciting, important facet of the game.
What does the rise in the salary cap mean for the Penguins? Will it be harder for the Pens to compete next season or will they be able to raise their payroll to meet the cap?
Bryan Justman, Modesto, Calif.
MOLINARI: The rise in the salary cap, which could go as high as $45 million in 2006-07, is bad news for the Penguins, and every other franchise with limited resources. If ownership has decided what its payroll will be next season, it hasn't gone public with that information, but the Penguins' payroll peaked at around $33 million -- about $6 million below the cap -- in 2005-06.
Given that team officials have been projecting a $7 million loss and that Mario Lemieux and his partners are trying to sell the club, it seems like a long shot that the Penguins will even be willing to match, let alone exceed, the amount spent on players during the past winter. All of which means that well-heeled teams, including division rivals like Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, will be able to spend significantly more on personnel than the Penguins. That, obviously, will not help the Penguins in their bid to become competitive again.
My Dad and I noticed that Mark Recchi is wearing No. 18 with Carolina, not his usual No. 8. Did he take No. 18 because he is not planning on staying in Carolina beyond this year and, hopefully, coming back to the Pens ?
Matt Cullen was wearing No. 8 for the Hurricanes before Recchi arrived at the trade deadline, so keeping his customary number obviously wasn't an option for Recchi. Carolina can keep him for 2006-07 by exercising a $2.28 million option in his contract, but most indications are the Hurricanes were interested strictly in bringing him in for the stretch drive and playoffs.
If Carolina doesn't pick up his option, Recchi will be an unrestricted free agent, and there was a time when it seemed almost inevitable that he would rejoin the Penguins, for a variety of reasons. After all, his permanent residence is here, and he is close friends with Patrick. But with Patrick being replaced, there's no guarantee his successor will be interested in signing Recchi -- or that Recchi will still be interested in returning.
I know Michel Briere's No. 21 is retired and Mario's No. 66 will be returned to the rafters, as well. Is the Penguins' management ever going to add more of the honored Penguins of the past? I feel that Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Joey Mullen and, someday, Jaromir Jagr should get the honor, but will that time ever come? Is there any talk at all?
David King, Orlando, Fla.
MOLINARI: This issue really seems to resonate with a lot of Penguins fans, which suggests it's more pleasant to dwell on the memories of the past than the realities of the present. But if the Penguins have considered honoring any other alum by retiring his number -- and that's a decision made at the highest levels of management -- they've done nothing to let on that it will happen anytime soon.
There are at least two things that could reflect: One, that the front office realizes that so many players, mostly from the Stanley Cup years, are worthy of being honored that choosing which to do it for would be extremely difficult. The other is that management could be looking to reserve future number-retirements for only the very best of the franchise's elite talents, so that there will be no misinterpreting the magnitude of the honor.