Q: Do you think Sidney Crosby will accept less than 20% of the cap?
Darryl, Alexandria, Va.
MOLINARI: That seems like a very real possibility at this point, but a better question might be whether outside forces will allow Crosby to accept much less than the maximum to which he is entitled under the NHL's collective bargaining agreement. (Assuming Crosby signs sometime in the next 11-plus months, that would be 20 percent of the team salary-cap maximum of $50.3 million, or 10.06 million per season.)
Crosby, who has a year left on his entry-level deal, said as recently as Wednesday that he doesn't feel a need to be the NHL's highest-paid player, and made it clear that he's wary of sabotaging the Penguins' chances of maintaining a lineup capable of consistently contending for the Stanley Cup by consuming too much of their payroll.
Trouble is, he's widely regarded as the finest player in the league, and the link between performance and paychecks is pretty hard to ignore. If Crosby, as hockey's premier talent, settles for less than he could reasonably expect to earn, regardless of his motivation, some agents and players figure to be extremely unhappy, because his pay could establish an artificial ceiling of sorts for salaries. Player A might be a perennial all-star, a consistent 100-point man and a great representative of his franchise, but making a case that he -- or any other player -- is worth a higher salary than Crosby gets would be a daunting task.
While the Penguins' front office isn't eager to start paying Crosby an eight-figure salary and obviously hopes he'll end up costing less than that, people there recognize how extraordinarily fortunate they are to have to deal with this issue. How the franchise wouldn't be nearly as close to being a serious contender if it hadn't won Crosby's rights in the 2005 draft lottery. How he has raised the profile -- and the value -- of the team. How his impact, on and off the ice, assures that no matter how much money the Penguins end up giving him, he'll still be among the best bargains in the sport.
Q: Has Ray Shero been wringing his hands over the amount of money being thrown at slightly better than average centers during free agency? Scott Gomez: Seven years, $51.5 million; Chris Drury: Five years, $35.25 million; Daniel Briere: Eight years, $52 million. If this is what these guys are getting, forget trying to figure out which two of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal to keep; keeping one might be hard enough.
Sean Fagan, Latrobe
MOLINARI: Your characterization of Drury, Gomez and Briere as "slightly better than average" is, to put it delicately, far from a universal sentiment and begs strong debate, but your underlying point about the escalation in salaries is well-taken. For while unrestricted free agents -- a distinction Crosby is at least five years from claiming, and the other two at least six -- almost always end up with bigger contracts than their contributions would seem to merit, a lot of teams are spreading money around more liberally than most people might have anticipated so soon after the NHL's labor dispute in 2004-05.
The spending won't reach pre-lockout proportions -- not when there is a team salary cap, regardless of how high it gets, and a limit on how much an individual player can receive -- but the gap between realistic payrolls for big-market teams like the New York Rangers, Detroit, Toronto and Philadelphia and many of those in smaller markets is growing as the cap ceiling rises. That figure is $50.3 million for the 2007-08 season; the Penguins, however, figure to come up a good $10 million shy of that level, which means teams like the Rangers, Red Wings, Maple Leafs and Flyers can gain an advantage in personnel if they use their fiscal assets wisely.
While this is a cause for real concern at the league level -- after all, giving each of the 30 franchises an opportunity to be competitive on the ice and profitable off it was the major motivation for overhauling the NHL's economic system -- the Penguins are a bit more inoculated against the problem than most.
Because most of their high-impact players are young, they are working on entry-level contracts and won't be eligible for unrestricted free agency anytime soon. And by the time they are, the Penguins should be settled into the city's new arena, reaping the benefits of new and enhanced revenue streams that should allow them to raise their payroll significantly, even if they never have resources to match those of some clubs operating in larger cities.
Q: I'm not overly impressed with bringing back Dany Sabourin. I understand he's a cheaper option, but don't you think the Penguins could have landed a more proven guy like Robert Esche, Mathieu Garon or David Aebischer to aid Marc-Andre Fleury for around the same money?
Jeff, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
MOLINARI: Several factors went into the decision to sign Sabourin after he spent the past season in Vancouver, and his willingness to play for just over $500,000 per season certainly was a major one. That's $1 million less than the Penguins paid Jocelyn Thibault to back up Fleury last season, and Shero didn't have trouble finding ways to spend the cash he saved on that exchange (perhaps Ryan Whitney, Darryl Sydor and Petr Sykora owe Sabourin a thank-you note).
It should not be overlooked, though, that coach Michel Therrien is a strong supporter of Sabourin. That's no surprise, given how Sabourin performed when those two were together in Wilkes-Barre, and how Sabourin played during training camp last fall before being claimed on waivers by the Canucks.
Nonetheless, it remains that Sabourin has just 14 NHL games on his resume -- nine of those while playing behind Roberto Luongo in Vancouver last season -- and the Penguins do not, at least at the moment, have another goalie except Fleury with even a second of NHL experience. That means that, while the Penguins like to believe they are continuing to evolve into a serious contender, their season could be sabotaged if Fleury gets a significant injury and Sabourin proves incapable of being a go-to guy at this level. At that point, saving the extra money that would have been required to sign someone with more extensive NHL credentials will seem awfully short-sighted.
Of course, if Sabourin would happen to prove that he can carry a team for several weeks -- or longer -- the Penguins will have made an awfully shrewd acquisition and Sabourin will have positioned himself very nicely for his next foray into free agency.
Q: Do you feel that Ryan Smyth is overrated? I hear his name mentioned on a regular basis with other prominent forwards in the NHL, but have never been impressed by his play or his stats in general. I know he is a hard-working winger, but to me he seems to be very overrated.
Brian Texter, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: Smyth is a very good player -- there isn't a team in the league that wouldn't be improved by adding him to its lineup -- whose set of intangibles might be his most impressive quality, but the five-year, $31.25 million contract he got from Colorado a few days ago is easy to interpret as more evidence of the ongoing salary inflation in the NHL.
Clearly, he was among the guys who got a payoff from having a number of teams pursue him on the open market, but it remains that Smyth never has matched the 39 goals he produced for Edmonton in 1996-97 and has generated as many as 70 points only once, in 2000-01. His offensive numbers are respectable, to be sure, but hardly overwhelming, as befits a guy whose success is rooted more in hard work and grit and determination than extraordinary natural ability.
Still, aside from some fans in Edmonton and on Long Island who are sour about his departure from the teams there, not many people seem to have much bad to say about Smyth. And his public image has been further polished because he so faithfully represented his country at the world championships, which has led to him picking up the nickname "Captain Canada."
Q: When Jordan Staal made the team last year, he became the Penguins' seventh consecutive first-round selection to be on their roster. If Angelo Esposito makes the team next year, every first-round selection they have made since 2000 would be in the lineup. Is there any team in the NHL with a longer streak of first-rounders on its roster? What is the NHL record?
Shaun Becker, Ayton, Ontario
MOLINARI: It's way, way too early to seriously consider the notion that Esposito will play in the NHL during the coming winter -- that's an awful lot to expect of any 18-year-old, let alone one deemed by at least some clubs to be less of a prospect than 19 other players -- but if he would happen to make it, the Penguins would become the first NHL club to have its No. 1 pick from eight consecutive drafts on the roster.
For now, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, they share the record of seven with the 1978-79 New York Islanders, the 1988-89 Buffalo Sabres and 1990-91 Toronto Maple Leafs.
Q: Now that Ron Francis has been elected to the Hall of Fame, what do you think the chances are he goes in as a Pittsburgh Penguin instead of Hartford Whaler/Carolina Hurricane?
Phil Riddle, Richmond, Va.
MOLINARI: Zero, and not because Francis' feelings about his days here have curdled, or because he gets all choked up remembering those 24 games he played for Toronto during the stretch drive and playoffs in 2004.
Unlike similar honorees in some other sports, inductees to the Hockey Hall of Fame do not have to choose a team with which to be linked in perpetuity. The wisdom of that policy becomes apparent when one considers how slighted some Penguins partisans might be if Francis opted to enter the Hall as a Whaler or Hurricane, or how fans in Edmonton would have felt if Paul Coffey had determined he wanted to be remembered forever as a Penguin, not an Oiler (let alone as a King, Flyer, Red Wing, Whaler, Hurricane, Bruin or Blackhawk).
Logic isn't always part of the equation when hockey-related issues are being addressed, but the decision by Hall executives to have individuals inducted as players, not members of a particular team, was sound, regardless of what the thinking behind it might have been.
Q: Will we likely see Angelo Esposito with the Penguins or Baby Penguins next year, or will he play another year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League? Would his status depend on a tryout period like Jordan Staal and Kris Letang last season?
MOLINARI: There is only a slight chance that Esposito will play for the Penguins next season, but absolutely none that he will play in Wilkes-Barre, because the CBA calls for players his age to return to their junior team if they do not stick in the NHL. (Witness the way Letang went to Val d'Or in the QMJHL, not Wilkes-Barre, last fall when the Penguins decided he didn't fit into their short-term plans.)
By compelling teams to send 18-year-olds back to their junior club instead of to the minor leagues, the NHL assures that junior teams will not lose performers who often are major gate attractions unless those players are deemed capable of competing in the NHL. At least some of those prospects might actually benefit from the higher level of competition they would face in the American Hockey League -- Letang is a great example -- but it's important to keep major-junior hockey economically viable for a variety of reasons, ranging from their cultural value in some areas to their importance as a feeder system for the NHL.