Cook: Shero has problems to solve

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Maybe it's just as well the Penguins were bounced out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round last week. General manager Ray Shero was able to turn his attention immediately to the construction of next season's roster. He's going to need every second.

So many questions ...

Will Sidney Crosby be ready for the start of the season? Will he be the same player? Will he and we spend the rest of his career wondering if the next hit he takes will finish him as a world-class athlete? The news Friday that Crosby had a setback 3 1/2 months after his concussion was disheartening and alarming. All bets for his future are off at the moment.

If Crosby is healthy, who will be his linemates? James Neal came in a trade deadline deal in February for that reason but was an enormous disappointment down the stretch and in the playoffs this season. He was a big reason the Penguins' power(less) play went 1 for 35 in their playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Do the Penguins consider playing Crosby with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis again? Crosby was having a terrific season with those wingers before his concussion. Reuniting the three would mean re-signing Dupuis as a free agent.

Who plays with Evgeni Malkin? The plan for this season called for Jordan Staal in that role, but injuries to him and then to Malkin sabotaged that strategy. Do the Penguins start that way again in October? Or do they put Neal with Malkin and drop Staal to third-line center with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, a unit that has been highly successful? That can happen only if Kennedy, who was the one player on the team to exceed all expectations after the injuries to Crosby and Malkin, doesn't wind up on one of the top two lines.

What free agents does Shero keep? Craig Adams should be one. Shero once said he would have to fight coach Dan Bylsma to get Adams out of the lineup because Bylsma loves the get-down-and-dirty game that Adams plays. It was how Bylsma played when he was in the NHL. Adams also comes cheap; he made $550,000 this season, barely more than the league minimum. It's nice to think Mike Rupp will be another keeper because of his blend of toughness and skill. Bylsma underutilized him this season. Arron Asham played well on a line with Adams and Rupp against the Lightning, but it will be a surprise if he is back next season. He did little during the regular season.

And the others? Dupuis had the biggest salary of the will-be free agents who were with the Penguins all season -- $1.4 million -- and probably will be a salary-cap casualty unless Crosby asks for him as a linemate. Max Talbot ($1.05 million) also should be gone for the same reason and one other -- Bylsma doesn't appear to like him as a player. Talbot always will be remembered as a Stanley Cup hero here because of his two goals in Game 7 against Detroit in the 2009 final. Many have blamed Bylsma for not having Alex Kovalev on the ice instead of rookie Mark Letestu when the Penguins had a 6-on-4 power play at the end of their 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 7 Wednesday night. They've got it all wrong. Kovalev barely looked interested against the Lightning and will not be back. Talbot should have been out there instead of Letestu, especially considering his history of scoring big playoff goals.

When do the Penguins make room for their young players? To give a spot to Eric Tangradi, they could let Dupuis go. To set one aside for Dustin Jeffrey, they could say goodbye to Talbot. To clear a spot for Joe Vitale, they could part with Asham. As for their young defensemen, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait are considered great-to-good prospects. Despres -- the best of the bunch -- probably needs a season in the American Hockey League, but Bortuzzo and Strait could be ready to make the club out of training camp. The issue is the Penguins' top seven veteran defensemen are under contract for next season. Does Shero consider trading a couple -- defensemen are prized commodities in the NHL -- for a scoring winger for Malkin or Crosby? He doesn't figure to have the cap space to sign a high-paid winger as a free agent. He made his big move by trading for Neal.

So many questions ...

The good news is Shero answered an important one Friday when he said his plan is to bring Cooke back next season. Cooke's value was never more evident than during the series against the Lightning when he was out of the lineup serving a 17-game suspension. He said he takes partial responsibility for the Penguins being eliminated. He deserves a lot more blame than that. His reckless elbow at the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonough March 20 badly damaged the team's playoff chances. It is likely Tampa Bay wouldn't have scored eight power-play goals if Cooke had been out there killing penalties. If it had scored on just four or even six power plays, the Penguins might have won the series.

Bringing back Cooke is an easy call.

But the other questions?

Shero can use the extra time to figure it all out.

Ron Cook: . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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