In what could become a high-stakes game of musical locker stalls, Craig Adams secured a seat in the Penguins dressing room.
Adams, a premier penalty-killer, signed a two-year contract Thursday with an average salary of $675,000 that runs through 2012-13. He is the first of the regulars facing free agency, all forwards, to be locked up.
General manager Ray Shero said he is "hopeful we'll sign a few of these [other] guys" before they would become free agents three weeks from today.
"I think you're always conscious of the way the salary cap works, but you don't want to be pressured into a decision you don't want to make," Adams said. "I wasn't feeling pressure to be the first guy to sign, but, now that it's a done deal, it's going to make the next three or four weeks a lot less stressful."
The Penguins previously re-signed up-and-coming winger Nick Johnson but still have a substantial list of impending free agents.
The most prominent among those eligible for unrestricted free agency if not re-signed by July 1 are Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot and Mike Rupp. Others are Arron Asham, Chris Conner and Eric Godard. Shero has said he is not pursuing Mike Comrie and Alex Kovalev, although he had initial talks with them.
In addition, winger Tyler Kennedy and center Dustin Jeffrey will become restricted free agents if not re-signed by July 1.
"I'm not close on anything else," Shero said. "Craig just happens to be the first guy to say yes."
With each potential free agent who comes to terms, salary-cap space -- and therefore the chances of others returning -- shrinks, and Shero then reshuffles his priorities and re-evaluates the financial situation.
"They're all separate negotiations, but they're all somewhat moving targets, too," Shero said.
He has talked to every player whose contract is expiring or their representative, but won't predict which ones or how many might be signed by July 1.
"I really don't have a sense for it," he said. "I don't know what the next three weeks will bring."
Conversely, the Penguins know exactly what Adams, 34, brings.
The fourth-line forward earned his $125,000 bump in annual salary not by producing offensively -- he had four goals, 15 points in 80 games in 2010-11-- but by being strong in other areas.
In addition to being a prominent member of the NHL's top penalty-killing unit last season, Adams ranked fourth on the team with 171 hits and first among forwards with 64 blocked shots.
"He can skate, play a physical game, block shots," Shero said. "He does all those little things you need."
Shero and Adams got close on a contract last month before things temporarily broke down.
"Sometimes, it's just a process," Adams said. "It was never contentious."
Shero declined to say which side eventually blinked.
"It was probably a little of both," he said. "I know how we feel about Craig as a player and a person and a leader here. He has character and grit and passion. You can say, 'I can replace a Craig Adams.' Yeah, you can, but, if you can make a deal, you try make it happen. You know him, he knows us."
Adams was picked up from Chicago on waivers in March 2009, just in time to help during the run to the Stanley Cup.
He called the Penguins "a good fit" and said the club's upside as a contending team for seasons to come figured into his decision -- especially after the Penguins reached 106 points despite long-term injuries to key players in 2010-11.
"There's the business side of it, and then there's the hockey side of it," Adams said. "When you're on a winning team, it's a lot more fun. I know what we have here. I think everybody knows what we have here.
"There's a few question marks, but the guys we know are coming back are good players. We grew a lot as a team, and a lot of those guys are coming back."
NOTES -- Shero, on the general managers' recommendation this week that Rule 48 be broadened to make more hits to the head illegal: "I would like to see zero tolerance. I'm on record on that. Our organization is on record with that. But we're not in the majority on that. ... Eventually, I think it will get there. It's not there now. But, at the same time, it's good to know that they are taking steps to make it safer and recognize we aren't trying to take hitting out of the game." ... Coach Dan Bylsma will serve as an assistant coach at the USA Hockey national junior evaluation camp next month in Lake Placid, N.Y. Among the 40 skaters invited are 2010 Penguins draft picks Bryan Rust (third round) and Kenneth Agostino (fifth round), and local players J.T. Miller (Moon), Brandon Saad (Gibsonia), Vince Trocheck (Upper St. Clair) and Stephen Johns (Wampum). All are forwards except Johns, a defenseman.