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Question: I'm not so sure that the two new pickups for the Pens are just rentals. Keep in mind that Sergei Gonchar's $5 million salary-cap hit, at his age, will almost certainly guarantee his departure. In addition, I doubt the Pens will re-sign Ruslan Fedotenko after his miserable season, and Bill Guerin seems unlikely to come back at age 40. They picked up another puck-moving defenseman and power winger who will help replace both of them. I think Ray Shero's moves foreshadow what will happen in the summer.
Joe, Moscow, Pa.
MOLINARI: There is no guarantee that defenseman Jordan Leopold and left winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, the two guys Shero acquired as last Tuesday's trade deadline approached, will not return to the Penguins after this season, but there's no guarantee that they will, either.
Both, after all, will be unrestricted free agents July 1, and thus free to sign elsewhere, for whatever reason they choose. (It doesn't have to be one that makes sense to anyone but the guy himself.) And it's always possible that neither will work out the way the Penguins are hoping, although the early evidence suggests that isn't likely.
In any case, Shero had to approach the decisions about what he should be willing to give up for either player as if he wouldn't have the guy after this season, since that's a very real possibility. If the players are happy with how the rest of the season plays out and if the team is satisfied with the contribution they make, it's reasonable to assume the parties will try to work out new deals during the offseason. (Whether they'd actually be able to reach agreement on contracts is another matter, of course.)
Certainly, it's easy to see how both could have a long-term place in the Penguins' plans. Both are just 29 years old, which means they should be able to be effective in this league for a lot more years. Both also fill significant roles on this team, because coach Dan Bylsma's system requires defensemen who move the puck well, and Ponikarovsky is a legitimate top-six forward in an organization that doesn't have a surplus of them.
Question: Given that Marc-Andre Fleury never even sniffed the ice during the Olympics, was it maybe a strange decision for Bylsma to start Brent Johnson in the first game back from the break? The rust on Fleury was pretty evident in (Thursday) night's game against the New York Rangers. Why the urgency to get Johnson a start immediately after the Olympic break? In the end, the Pens won both games, so no harm was done. But it just struck me as an odd decision.
Vinny, Brewster, N.Y.
MOLINARI: The issue you raise is understandable, Vinny, but actually is undermined by something you pointed out.
Fleury, as Canada's No. 3 goalie in Vancouver, not only "never even sniffed the ice," as you put it, during games, but got very little work in practice, either. The Canadian coaches, not surprisingly, had Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur, their tandem for all but one game in the tournament, take the majority of shots during practices, while Fleury mostly stood around and watched.
That isn't necessarily a major problem for a spare goaltender during the NHL season, because he generally can get extra work before and after practices. At the Olympics, however, practice times were blocked out and adhered to strictly, so Fleury ended up watching a lot more than he participated.
What's more, because Fleury was in Vancouver when the break ended, Johnson got more work during practice than he usually does, which means he actually was more prepared to play a game than Fleury was coming out of the break.
By starting Johnson against Buffalo last Tuesday, the coaches bought Fleury a few extra days of practice, although his performance during their 5-4 overtime victory in New York two nights later (he allowed four goals on 12 shots) suggested that Fleury still returned a bit early. At the same time, if Bylsma had started his backup goalie in the first two games after the break, he would have faced some serious second-guessing -- especially if the Rangers had won that game at Madison Square Garden.