Q: Is it too early for Penguins management team to start thinking about signing Dany Sabourin to a longer-term deal? He has definitely made a believer out of me this season.
J.P. Perrine, Lancaster
MOLINARI: A few months ago, there was reason to believe the Penguins might have only lukewarm interest in retaining Sabourin. Marc-Andre Fleury, their No. 1 goalie, is locked up on a long-term contract and John Curry, coming off a strong rookie season with their farm team in Wilkes-Barre, looked like he might be ready to assume the backup role after Sabourin's contract expires next summer.
But Sabourin has been excellent so far this season -- he has a 4-2-1 record, 1.66 goals-against average and .935 save percentage -- while Curry has been supplanted by Adam Berkhoel as the Baby Penguins' go-to goalie, at least temporarily.
If Sabourin continues to play well and management decides that Curry needs more experience before moving into the NHL, Sabourin might end up being the one to decide whether he returns. He doesn't seem to mind playing behind Fleury, but has performed well enough that, unless he stumbles, some club in the market for a new No. 1 guy might make a pitch for him when Sabourin qualifies for unrestricted free agency in July. Certainly, if a team decides to cast him in that role, Sabourin could expect to be paid considerably more than the $525,000 he is making in 2008-09.
Q: Do the Penguins consider Ben Lovejoy a legitimate prospect? He is having a really good year in the AHL.
Dan Novak, Rock Hill, S.C.
MOLINARI: Lovejoy probably won't ever be a difference-maker in the NHL, and it's entirely possible that he'll change employers a few times during his career, but there's plenty of reason to believe he's got a future at this level.
He is having a strong season in Wilkes-Barre -- Lovejoy has three goals, seven assists and a team-best plus-minus rating of plus-14 (No. 2 scorer Jeff Taffe ranks second at plus-9) in 19 games -- and, based on his performance since the start of the prospects camp this fall, could fill in at the NHL, if needed.
The problem for Lovejoy is that the Penguins have good defensive depth; when Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar return, there will be nine defensemen on their NHL depth chart, unless general manager Ray Shero opts to demote or deal one. That pretty much eliminates any chance of Lovejoy getting a promotion in the short term, barring a spate of injuries.
Still, Lovejoy has good size (6 foot 2, 214 pounds) and has been doing a nice job of morphing from being an offensive defenseman to one who focuses primarily on playing well in his own zone. Certainly, he's come a long way for a guy who entered pro hockey last season as an undrafted free agent.
Q: What would happen if an illegal stick was used by a player to score the deciding goal in a shootout? Has there been a rule enacted in the NHL that addresses an issue such as this?
Daniel Lucente, Phoenix
MOLINARI: Per Rule 10.7, a challenge to the legality of a player's stick during a shootout must be made prior to his attempt. Once the player takes his shot, the result stands, regardless of whether the stick he used violates league regulations.
If, during the shootout, a team makes a challenge and the stick in question is deemed to be legal, the challenging team forfeits its next shootout attempt and is fined $5,000, with a separate fine of $1,000 for its coach.
If there is a challenge and the stick is found to be illegal, the offending team loses that shootout attempt and is fined $5,000, while the player is disqualified from participating in the shootout and is fined $1,000.