BUFFALO -- General manager Ray Shero does not know how many players the Penguins will have on their roster when they open the 2006-07 season Thursday against Philadelphia.
He isn't sure how that still-to-be-determined group will break down by position, either. Whether his club will carry 12 forwards or 13. Six defensemen or seven. Two goalies or three. Or any combination thereof.
Perhaps, the only thing of which he seems reasonably certain is that the team the front office and coaching staff settle on during a meeting today won't necessarily be the best 21 or 22 or 23 players to come out of training camp. that would be ideal, of course, but he acknowledged that off-ice factors -- like whether one job candidate must clear waivers if he is sent to the minors while another doesn't -- cannot be ignored in the decision-making.
"It's like managing your roster," Shero said.
Twenty players, including all the young players competing for jobs, got a final opportunity to impress management last night, when the Penguins closed out exhibition play with a 4-2 loss to Buffalo at HSBC Arena.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, lackluster throughout training camp, responded well to that challenge, stopping 25 of 28 shots.
"He played well," coach Michel Therrien said. "He was sharp, was solid. ... He was square to the puck and didn't panic."
Shero said the group that will assemble the roster -- he'll be joined by Therrien, assistant coaches Mike Yeo and Andre Savard, assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher and senior advisor Ed Johnston -- figures to face "two or three" truly difficult decisions.
The most intriguing might be in goal, where Fleury, Jocelyn Thibault and Dany Sabourin are competing. Much that Shero said yesterday gave the impression the Penguins are likely to start the season with two goalies, not three, although he said that is "not 100 percent" yet.
If the Penguins don't keep three, they must either demote Fleury, their long-term go-to guy who does not have to clear waivers, or risk losing Sabourin or Thibault when they are sent down.
The Penguins have 27 healthy players on their roster, which means they must pare at least four to reach the league-mandated maximum of 23. Winger Ronald Petrovicky (hip), defenseman Eric Cairns (knee) and center Evgeni Malkin (shoulder) are candidates to start the season on injured-reserve and would not count against the 23 until they are healthy.
Petrovicky is a lock for IR, Cairns figures to end up there and Malkin is iffy enough that a decision on him might not be made until the Penguins submit their roster to the league office Tuesday.
Malkin skated during the Penguins' game-day workout yesterday, stickhandling gingerly and flipping easy wrist shots. Shero said he hopes to have an idea of when Malkin might resume playing by "the tail end of the week."
The current 27-man roster includes two junior players, center Jordan Staal and defenseman Kristopher Letang, who do not have contracts.
Shero confirmed that he's negotiating with the agents for both, however, with the goal of having deals in place by the 5 p.m. deadline tomorrow.
If Staal and Letang are not signed by then, they must return to their junior teams. If they get contracts, both could play up to nine NHL games before going back to junior, and that time with the Penguins would not count toward the expiration of their contracts or their eligibility for free agency.
"If we can get them signed by 5, great," Shero said. "If we can't, they'll go back, and we'll continue to work at a later date. These two guys will be brought under contract at some point."
Getting a contract isn't synonymous with getting a roster spot, though. Shero seems inclined to keep his roster below the league limit, in part to give him flexibility to claim someone off waivers.
"[Carrying 23] wouldn't be my choice," he said. "We only have nine games in October. My preference would be 22, plus IR, or maybe 21, plus IR, quite honestly. Maybe we'll just carry one extra guy to start. I want to be smart about it."
NOTES -- Michel Ouellet and Ryan Malone scored for the Penguins, who finished the preseason 2-2-3.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .