Q: There is a lot of speculation about which Penguins free agents may or may not be back next season. Not much has been said lately about Jarkko Ruutu and Georges Laraque. I believe both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and both have spent time this season in the coach's doghouse. Of late, Ruutu seems to have become, in my opinion, more valuable to the team. Do you think he has a better shot at being retained than Laraque, or are they both likely to be changing teams?
Gerry Mangold, Richmond, Va.
MOLINARI: Like just about everything else in the NHL these days, the futures of Ruutu and Laraque figure to be determined as much by economics as by on-ice performance. Both will be unrestricted free agents this summer, and if management decides it could find satisfactory replacements for either who would earn less money, odds are the less-expensive player would be signed. The Penguins are getting to a point where every bit of salary cap space they can save could come in handy when trying to re-sign their core players.
The catch is, management also wants to avoid making shortsighted decisions, letting veterans who have proven they can fill significant roles leave for the sake of saving a little money, the classic penny-wise-pound-foolish situation. Saving a few hundred thousand dollars might not seem like such a good idea if the replacement brought in is far less effective than the player who left.
Ruutu has spent much of his two seasons with the Penguins in coach Michel Therrien's doghouse, but he has rehabilitated his image lately and has become a pretty valuable member of the team. Therrien clearly has gained enough confidence in Ruutu to use him in important situations, and Ruutu has responded with good play all over the ice and lots of the infuriating, in-your-face play that makes him one of the league's most despised players.
Laraque, meanwhile, started slowly this season, was a force on a regular basis in the middle, and has tailed off again in recent weeks. He still has the best skills of any of the NHL's elite enforcers, though, and management obviously felt it was important to acquire a top-notch fighter at the trade deadline a year ago, so it's hardly a given that he won't be back.
It shouldn't be forgotten that neither Ruutu nor Laraque has any major ties to Pittsburgh, so if some team would make a particularly lucrative offer once they reach free agency, they probably wouldn't have any reservations about accepting it and moving on, regardless of whether the Penguins would be interested in keeping them.
Q: If a Penguins player happens to break his stick and an opposing player happens to lose his stick, is it OK for the Pens player to pick up the opponent's stick and use it (assuming it's not broken) or is this a penalty?
Chris, Newark, Del.
MOLINARI: An interesting question, Chris, and one that prompted an even more interesting response from Stephen Walkom, the NHL's director of officiating.
There is, Walkom said, no black-and-white answer, citing the situation you describe as an example of those in which the league wants its officials "to try to apply common sense" to things that come up during games.
Walkom ran through a number of scenarios under which a player could be penalized for interference or unsportsmanlike conduct -- and possibly a few other things -- if he ended up using an opponent's stick, but said the real key is to determine if the player who got the other's stick was looking for a competitive advantage. If so, a penalty would be in order.
If not -- or if, say, the player who dropped the stick showed no interest in picking it up or if he already had gotten a replacement from his bench -- there would be no need to assess one.
As Walkom noted, it is impossible for the rulebook to specifically address every situation that could come up during games. And while officials have casebooks that do spell out how to respond to particular events, their great asset is sound judgment to decide how to most equitably apply the rules.