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Q: I never understood why the Pens did not play Martin Skoula regularly when he was here. The ineptness of Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski and Jordan Leopold is going to keep this team from making a long run in the playoffs. These guys are supposed to be offensive-minded defensemen, but they put no points on the board and they can't cover anyone. Next season when Sergei Gonchar is gone, what kind of defense are the Pens going to have left? Pretty awful, I think.
Bob Speidel, Mechanicsburg, Pa.
MOLINARI: There have been a lot of theories put forth about why the Penguins have had such an up-and-down season, but this might be the first that involves purported misuse of Martin Skoula.
He was signed a few days before the start of the regular season to give the Penguins some insurance on the blue line, and spent his time here as the No. 7 defenseman. He filled in quite capably the first time he was asked to, but the quality of his play eroded to the point that, when six other defensemen were healthy, Skoula was assured of spending game nights in street clothes.
(Skoula ultimately was sent to Toronto in the trade that brought Alexei Ponikarovsky to the Penguins, because the Penguins needed the salary-cap space taken up by Skoula's contract to handle that of Ponikarovsky. Less than a day later, the Maple Leafs traded him to New Jersey.) The Penguins have had some significant issues on their defense this season, and both Goligoski and Letang have struggled mightily at times. That reinforces the wisdom of the adage about the importance of giving defensemen and goaltenders enough time to get their games in synch at this level. That doesn't mean either will do it this season -- or ever, for that matter -- but there are real risks in writing off guys at their position prematurely.
As for the Penguins' defense next season, four guys -- Gonchar, Leopold, Jay McKee and Mark Eaton -- will be free to sign elsewhere this summer, so it's a little early to try to accurately project who will be manning their blue line when the 2010-11 season gets underway.
Q: How much of an effect, in your opinion, will the chance at playing in a brand-new arena, with state-of-the-art facilities, affect the decision of the Pens' free-agents to re-sign here? How about potential free-agent signings? Would a player possibly turn down more money elsewhere to have a chance to play in a new building with a contender like the Pens?
Brad Krenicky, Plymouth Meeting, Pa.
MOLINARI: There certainly are precedents for players to pass on more money in order to sign with a contender, although that generally seems to involve staying with a team rather than moving to a new one.
Having a team with the potential to be a contender for years to come, as well as an arena that features all the amenities for which a player could ask, can only work to the Penguins' benefit when courting free agents, but in most cases, those things probably won't be more than a tiebreaker.
In the majority of cases, players seem to sign where they're going to get the most money, with everything else being a secondary factor, at best.