General manager Ray Shero insisted Tuesday that it never was an either/or situation. The Penguins always intended to bring defensemen Kris Letang and Sergei Gonchar back for next season.
They solved half of that equation by signing Letang, 22, to a four-year, $14 million contract extension that begins next season and lasts through 2013-14. He would have been eligible for restricted free agency July 1.
"I think he's one of the better young defensemen in the league," Shero said Tuesday of Letang. "He's a guy we're going to continue to build around, and he's going to get better as a defenseman. He's starting to show leadership capabilities on and off the ice."
Their oldest and best defenseman, Gonchar, who turns 36 in two weeks, will become an unrestricted free agent if he is not signed before July 1.
"This doesn't affect Sergei at all," Shero said of the Letang deal. "This is part of our plan, to sign Kris Letang. I'm hoping we can have Sergei back and, hopefully, after the season we can continue those discussions. [Gonchar] has been a fantastic player here for five years, and, hopefully, we'll have him for more."
• Game: Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:38 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
• Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Antero Niittymaki for Lightning.
• Penguins: Are 2-0 on six-game homestand. ... Are 5-5 in two-goal games. ... D Jay McKee is one game shy of 800 in the NHL.
• Lightning: Were 2-6 in past eight games before playing at Columbus last night. ... Are 6-10-2 vs. Atlantic Division. ... Steve Downie has four-game point streak; Mike Lundin has three-game assist streak.
• Hidden stat: Lightning was 9-15-2 when outshooting opponent before last night.
Shero and Gonchar's agent, JP Barry, last talked in February. Shero said he expected talks to resume after the season, perhaps when the 2010-11 salary cap comes into focus. Barry indicated the Penguins need to make the next move.
"We had our last discussions during the Olympics where we presented multiple proposals that would keep Sergei in Pittsburgh," Barry said by e-mail. "There has been no response to date.
"We remain prepared to meet whenever the team considers it appropriate, whether now or after the season. Sergei would like to finish his career as a Penguin."
Yes, Gonchar said, he would, but, "I don't know what the cap situation is. We have to wait and see."
Gonchar, in the final season of a five-year, $25 million contract, is the quarterback of the Penguins' power play and six points away from his ninth 50-point NHL season.
Securing Letang means the Penguins have six core players drafted by the club locked up for some time. Centers Sidney Crosby (average $8.7 million per year) and Jordan Staal ($4 million) are signed through 2012-13. Center Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 million) and defensemen Brooks Orpik ($3.75 million) and Letang are signed through 2013-14. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 million) is signed through 2014-15.
"He joins that group," Crosby said of Letang. "We're building and moving forward."
Letang, a third-round pick in 2005, is the only one of the six who was not a first-rounder. He is making $835,000 this season.
At $3.5 million per season on average in the new deal, he might be considered something of a bargain, especially if he blossoms the way the club anticipates over the next four seasons. He said he was willing to take what could be called a hometown discount.
"If you put money aside ... I'd rather stay here and have fun," Letang said. "I have something great with these guys. We're like a family now. We're young and growing together. It's a really important part of my decision."
While Gonchar can not predict what will happen with his contract situation, he sees a bright future for Letang, an offensive defenseman who has 27 points, including a career-high 24 assists in his third NHL season going into the game tonight against Tampa Bay.
He has 21 goals and 79 points in 211 career games, plus four goals and 15 points in 39 playoff games as the Penguins have advanced to the Stanley Cup final the past two seasons, winning last year.
"His confidence level is much higher," Gonchar said. "Improvement can come in finishing the chances he has. He does a great job playing defense. He's always in a good position, it seems like."
Letang, who had 10 goals last season but has three this season, concurred about the need to polish his offense.
"I'm trying to shoot as much as I can," he said, noting he had 14 shots in weekend wins against Philadelphia and Toronto. "I just try to get my shot on net and create some offense."
He has a plus-minus rating of plus-3 after being a minus his first two seasons, and that has come with him on the ice more and more frequently against opponents' top offensive lines.
"Defensively, I think I'm getting better," Letang said. "I'm playing against better players now than I was three years ago. I think I'm improving every day."
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com . First Published March 31, 2010 4:00 AM