On the Penguins: Shero has decisions to make on free agents

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Max Talbot's place in this city's sporting lore is secure forever.

His place with the Penguins probably is not.

Talbot, of course, scored both of the Penguins' goals in their 2-1 victory in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final in Detroit, one of the great clutch performances by anyone who has played here in any sport.

His 2009-10 season was sabotaged by shoulder surgery required after the Penguins won that Cup, however, and the first 50 games of 2010-11 have been largely forgettable for him, too.

It's hardly like the guy is a liability -- he's an integral part of the best penalty-killing unit in the NHL and still can provide a spark with his selfless style -- but Talbot doesn't have a point in 15 games or a goal in 24.

While generating offense is a secondary facet of his job description, Talbot doesn't usually go through such extended slumps. And frankly, he simply isn't as visible as often as he has been in other seasons.

None of that would be a significant issue except that Talbot is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Penguins have several forward prospects -- guys like Dustin Jeffrey, Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson and Tim Wallace -- on their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre who might be ready to move into NHL jobs next season.

It won't hurt their chances that younger players tend to work cheaper than veterans, because it is naïve to think that salary cap considerations don't influence personnel decisions.

Whether Talbot -- who has been, at times, the heartbeat of this team -- will be deemed expendable by management is hard to say. With the stretch drive and playoffs still ahead, it would be foolish for general manager Ray Shero and his staff to have finalized any decisions about who will be allowed to walk this summer.

Nonetheless, with a seven-figure cap hit ($1,050,000) and such an emphasis on getting the best possible return on every cap dollar, Talbot has to be viewed as a possibility, especially if he's unable to ratchet up his game over the next few months.

Talbot, though, is not the only forward on the cusp of unrestricted free agency. Here is a list of the others, along with their cap hits and an assessment of where they've fit in:

Pascal Dupuis ($1.4 million): While he isn't a classic first-line winger, Dupuis can be counted on for 15 or so goals. His speed is a great asset and, like Talbot, he's a terrific penalty-killer. Probably a keeper, although it's not clear how much he might be offered to stay.

Mike Rupp ($825,000): A prototypical fourth-liner who hardly is irreplaceable but has excellent size (6 feet 5, 230 pounds) and isn't afraid to use it. If it comes down to money, Rupp might well be able to get more elsewhere.

Eric Godard ($750,000): Shero believes that having an accomplished heavyweight on the roster is critical, and Godard has filled his narrowly defined niche well for most of three seasons. Defenseman Deryk Engelland's emergence as a top-shelf fighter might make him an expendable luxury, however.

Arron Asham ($700,000): The appeal of a guy who can play a physical game and still show up on the score sheet fairly often is obvious, but Asham has yet to perform to expectations for an extended period.

Craig Adams ($550,000): Coach Dan Bylsma loves him, and it's easy to see why. Adams is versatile and has no qualms about accepting his blue-collar role. He is a perfect fit for this team, and it's likely that both parties recognize that.

Chris Conner ($550,000): He's proven he can play at this level and be fairly effective. Keeping him might require a one-way contract, however, and it's not clear whether the Penguins would be willing to offer one because of their surplus of NHL-caliber forwards.

Mike Comrie ($500,000): Signing him was a low-risk gamble, and one that looked during training camp as if it could yield a terrific payoff. A hip problem that required surgery short-circuited his season, though, and it's hard to imagine him returning.

Note: Tyler Kennedy ($725,000), Jeffrey ($508,333), Wallace ($500,000) and Johnson ($500,000) will be restricted free agents after this season, but there's no reason to believe the Penguins will relinquish their rights to any of them.

The Week Ahead

Today: NHL All-Star Game at Raleigh, N.C. ... This means there is nothing resembling NHL hockey being played today.

Tuesday: at New York Rangers ... The road team has won each of the first three meetings between these clubs, including a 3-1 Penguins victory at Madison Square Garden Nov. 29.

Wednesday: New York Islanders ... For the second time at Consol Energy Center in just over a week.

Friday: Buffalo ... This will be Buffalo's first game since last Tuesday. Think there's the potential for a little rust?

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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