Q: Now that the free-agency signings are all but over, what do think of the Penguins' signings versus the losses? I think Ray Shero did a great job, and if the Finnish star (Janne Pesonen) signs, it will be even better.
Todd Walker, Muncy, Pa.
MOLINARI: The Penguins are not, to be sure, the team they were a month ago, but people who figured they would be as good now as they were then were either fooling themselves or simply not paying attention.
The Penguins stood to lose valuable players such as Ryan Malone -- and possibly Marian Hossa and Brooks Orpik -- because they either didn't see those players as being worth the money they would be offered elsewhere (obviously, that's not worth it to the Penguins, not to the team extending the offers) or because they simply couldn't fit them in under the $56.7 million salary cap for 2008-09.
As it is, Malone was the only top-six forward to leave strictly because of money; Hossa signed with Detroit because, he said, he wanted to maximize his chances of winning a Stanley Cup next season. Shero was able to negotiate a six-year deal to retain Orpik, his most physical defenseman.
While Shero made a couple of signings that could work out -- Matt Cooke is a pretty fair agitator, while wingers Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko have the potential to be effective in top-six roles, although it's far from a given that they will -- his best and most important moves were the long-term contracts he negotiated with key guys already on the depth chart.
Locking up Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Orpik means that, if the Penguins are able to tie up Jordan Staal for an extended period -- and it's conceivable that could happen before training camp -- their entire core of quality young talent will be under contract for at least the next five years. That's an extremely impressive accomplishment, and testimony not only to the planning and diligence of Shero and his staff, but to the desire of those players to remain part of the same team.
Shero got all of those guys to come in for less than they could have gotten on the open market, and Cooke taking a pay cut of more than $300,000 to join the Penguins is an indication that even complementary players on short-term deals might settle for a bit less to be part of this team.
All of that said, while Shero did a pretty nice job of fleshing out his lineup last week -- signing Markus Naslund to play alongside Sidney Crosby would have been nice, but teams can't force unrestricted free agents to join them -- the Penguins are still down a quart or two of grit and toughness. Bringing in Cooke and Eric Godard will help to address that, but the Penguins lost a lot of muscle and/or feistiness when Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque moved on.
Shero seems content to, in his words, "let the dust settle" for now -- and it never hurts to remember that it's what a team's lineup looks like in early October, or at the trade deadline, not in early July, that really matters -- but it won't be surprising if, at some point, he adds another forward who plays with an edge.
Certainly if Shero decides to pursue one in a trade, he could give up a defenseman, if necessary. The Penguins, like most teams, like to have 10 defensemen who can play, at least on a fill-in basis, at this level, so it's not as if they have a true surplus. However, concessions have to be made the salary cap at times, and if the Penguins determine they need another gritty -- or even skilled -- guy up front, they could afford to part with a capable defenseman without feeling too much of a pinch.
As for Pesonen, his performance and productivity in Finland's SM-Liga makes him an intriguing prospect, especially when he is 26 years old and should be approaching the prime of his career. The Penguins, though, are cautious about raising expectations for him, and Pesonen would certainly not be the first player to star in Europe but struggle in North America, where the ice surface is smaller and the hitting more frequent and punishing.
Still, adding him shapes up as a high reward-low risk move, because if Pesonen can't compete in the NHL, the Penguins will be able to send him to their farm team in Wilkes-Barre and pay him a reduced salary. In the salary-cap era, that kind of deal for a player with Pesonen's skill level makes sense for teams hoping to add a contributor at a relatively low cost.
Q: I won't ask you to read minds, but I will ask for your opinion: Did Marian Hossa mislead the Penguins, or did he have some sort of epiphany? If Ray Shero's pre-July 1 comments were accurate, Pittsburgh was Hossa's first choice. I know he didn't break any rules by signing elsewhere, but this feels almost dirty.
Jordan P. Biscardo, Stafford, Va.
MOLINARI: Precisely what went into Hossa's decision to sign with the Red Wings isn't known -- and might not be to anyone except Hossa -- but there's no reason to doubt Shero when he said in the days leading up to July 1 that Hossa had told him his preference was to stay with the Penguins. Obviously, that wasn't an etched-in-stone sentiment -- if it were, Hossa would have negotiated an agreement with the Penguins without bothering to test the free-agent market -- but Hossa never said or did anything, at least publicly, to indicate he felt otherwise.
The striking thing about Hossa's departure, of course, is not that he left, but that he did it for a one-year deal, passing up a potential $80 million or so in additional earnings, if reports of some offers he received are accurate. Still, as an unrestricted free agent. Hossa had the right to select his next team on the basis of whatever criteria he wanted; assuming the teams in question wanted him, he could have gone to Los Angeles because he likes temperate weather, Montreal because he loves hockey tradition, St. Louis because he's smitten with the Gateway Arch, or anywhere else, for any reason.
Turned out he settled on Detroit because, he said, he felt it gave him the best chance of earning a ring next season. He's been around the game long enough to realize nothing is guaranteed -- repeat winners aren't exactly the norm in the NHL these days -- but at this moment, it's tough to argue with his rationale.
Q: So, do you think Hossa has replaced Jaromir Jagr as the player Penguin fans love to hate?
Dave Holley, Philadelphia
MOLINARI: With Jagr having signed to play in Russia, that seems like a reasonable bet, because so many Penguins partisans took Hossa's decision to go to Detroit so personally. (A lot more, it should be noted, than most people associated with the team, who were more surprised than offended that he accepted a one-year contract for so much less money than he could have gotten elsewhere.)
Whether those fans will have a chance to express their feelings to him directly remains to be seen, since the 2008-09 schedule isn't supposed to be released for another week or so, but if Hossa turns up at Mellon Arena this winter, he isn't likely to be welcomed with a heartfelt chorus of "Thanks for the Memories."
It won't matter that he violated no rules when he signed with Detroit, or that he played a major role in the Penguins' playoff run this spring. Logic isn't always factored into how fans react to opposing players, and a lot of people -- justifiably or otherwise -- seem to feel betrayed by Hossa, even though he worked here for little more than three months and did his job quite well.
Q: I realize that Hossa probably made a few people in the Penguins' front office and team upset when he signed with Red Wings, but will Shero take another run at him next off-season? It would make sense, considering the one-year contracts to which he signed the replacements.
Jason Kopeny, Chicago
MOLINARI: As noted above, Penguins officials didn't seem to take Hossa's departure as a personal affront, even though they were perplexed by the details of it. What's more, during his first two-plus years on the job, Shero has not shown much evidence of being a guy who allows emotion to color his personnel decisions.
So if 1) Hossa, goes on the market next July, as he is scheduled to, 2) he is the best candidate to fill a hole the Penguins have in their lineup at the time and, 3) he could be signed to a deal that wouldn't wreck the Penguins' salary structure and cause major salary-cap problems, Shero almost certainly would give him a long look.
The Penguins had to like just about everything they saw from Hossa after acquiring him from Atanta at the trade deadline, especially as the playoffs moved along, and wouldn't shy away from pursuing him simply because he elected to play elsewhere next season.
Of course, whether Hossa would be interested in returning -- especially if the Red Wings play here in 2008-09, and he's greeted with hostility that includes everything shy of small-arms fire -- might be another issue altogether.