Q: It seems likely that Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone are going to be with other teams, and I know Ray Shero has eight or nine other unrestricted free agents to sign, but is there any chance Shero tries to sign other players from outside the organization? Namely, a right winger to complement Sidney Crosby.
Bryan, Bangor, Pa.
MOLINARI: The subject you raise is, obviously, a pretty popular one these days, but until it's known exactly who the Penguins will have to replace -- while Malone is out of the mix, the Penguins went into the final day of June still hoping to retain Hossa -- it's difficult to predict who they'll pursue.
Shero and his staff have put together priority lists for the start of free agency tomorrow (shockingly, they haven't chosen the Q&A as the proper forum to make that information public), and it's reasonable to assume that they have players in mind for every conceivable hole that exists, or could develop, in their lineup. If precedent means anything, Shero isn't likely to get involved in a bidding way for big-ticket free agents; he has, during the past two years, specialized in under-the-radar acquisitions, like Jarkko Ruutu, Mark Eaton, Petr Sykora and Darryl Sydor.
Because of the seven-figure, multi-year contracts players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney, Jordan Staal (and possibly Hossa and Brooks Orpik) either have or will get, spending wildly won't be an option. Besides, Shero's strategy of looking for players who have a history of being effective but haven't gotten a lot of attention leading up to July 1 -- Sykora is a great example -- has worked well, for the most part, so it's hard to see why he'd abandon it.
Consequently, while the Penguins might be intrigued by the possibilities of a guy like Markus Naslund (Vancouver) or Kristian Huselius (Calgary), they aren't likely to chase them if the price starts to spiral out of what Shero sees as an acceptable range.
One guy with a relatively modest profile who might be worth watching is Niklas Hagman of Dallas. He can play either wing and, while hardly a natural scorer, got a career-high 27 goals in 2007-08 while earning just $675,000. Hagman is fast and highly competitive, although it's far from certain he's skilled enough to be a top-six forward on a good team.
Q: If the Pens re-sign Evgeni Malkin to a big contract, it won't take effect until the 2009-10 season. So it seems the Pens have to make their other moves with Malkin's '08-09 cap hit in mind. Is there any chance they'll try to throw a huge pile of money to a player for a one-year contract for 2008-09, then let that player go once Malkin's contract starts?
Matthew Mills, Granbury, Tex.
MOLINARI: There's nothing wrong with that idea, in theory, but it likely isn't terribly realistic in practice most of the time. Any player worthy of receiving "a huge pile of money," as you described it, also will be in a position to demand the security that comes from having a multi-year contract.
There is one possible exception, though: In the case of an aging, but still elite, talent such as 37-year-old Toronto center Mats Sundin, the player might not want to make a long-term commitment, but still would be worthy of a superstar-caliber contract. Such situations don't arise very often, because as a rule, players who are closing in on the end of their careers generally aren't producing at a very high level anymore.
Q: How much does the arbitrator look at experience or quality of play over a period of time? Marc-Andre Fleury has played only one full season, plus two partial ones, and his first two were not exceptional. His most recent was decidedly better, but how much of that was him improving as opposed to the team? Also, his best season was only a partial one as he only played 40 percent of the season, plus the playoffs. It just doesn't seem that there is much to look at, unless they consider potential.
Bobby Smith, Sugar Land, Texas
MOLINARI: The NHL's collective bargaining agreement lists seven categories of information that can be presented during an arbitration hearing, among them "the overall performance, including official statistics" of a player during the preceding season or seasons.
Certainly, if negotiations with Fleury's agent, Allan Walsh, don't yield a long-term agreement before the matter goes to a hearing -- and both sides seem intent on working out something that would keep him here for an extended period -- the Penguins will point out that, as well as Fleury played after he returned from the high ankle sprain that forced him to miss much of the 2007-08 season, he has not performed at a consistently high level for most of his time in pro hockey.
That isn't necessarily a criticism or indictment -- Fleury's only 23 years old, and it's unusual for a goalie his age to have several high-impact seasons on his resume already -- and is a valid point to make, but underscores one of the reasons all concerned like to avoid arbitration: While most players insist they know that what is said in a hearing is strictly business, more than a few have taken it personally over the years, and that can sour his relationship with his employer.