On the Penguins: Even 'easy' has wrinkles

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In most years, it would be the easiest contract to negotiate in all of hockey.

Sometime shortly after midnight next July 1, Sidney Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, could send a fax to general manager Ray Shero letting him know exactly what Crosby would like to be paid, and how many years he would like to have that deal run.

At that point, Shero would ponder his options -- which basically would consist of agreeing to Brisson's terms or looking for work elsewhere -- and then start to prepare the paperwork required to make the contract official.

The catch is that the NHL's collective bargaining agreement will expire in September, and both parties will want to see what the new deal looks like before making a firm commitment.

The reassuring thing for the Penguins is that Crosby's current deal, which carries a salary-cap hit of $8.7 million, pays him considerably less than market value because he wanted to leave enough money on the table so that Shero could continue to bring in, and retain, players who could make the team perennial contenders.

At this point, there's no indication Crosby's priorities will be dramatically different the next time. Or that his concussion and/or any related issues will have a meaningful impact.

Another plus for the Penguins: Even though negotiations with Crosby can begin July 1, his contract doesn't run out until the following summer.

The perfect role to play

It will be interesting to see exactly how Columbus uses Craig Patrick, who was hired as a senior adviser a few days ago.

By the time the Penguins cut their ties to him in 2006, Patrick, 65, had fallen behind the times in terms of running a club as general manager. Team officials at the time, for example, said there had not been Internet access in the coaching offices until after Michel Therrien replaced Eddie Olcyck in December 2005. But there never has been any question about his hockey acumen or ability to evaluate talent.

Whether his extended layoff will affect Patrick's performance is impossible to predict, but the thinking here is that he could be a major asset for the Blue Jackets.

Indeed, it has been suggested for years on various Post-Gazette platforms that Patrick's assets (and shortcomings) made him an ideal candidate to serve as an adviser. It's nice that a decision-maker -- in this case, Columbus GM Scott Howson -- finally has seen it the same way.

Realignment: It could have been worse

The best-case realignment scenario -- among the realistic possibilities, anyway -- for the Penguins probably would have been for the league to keep its six-division format, while simply sliding Winnipeg into the Western Conference and Detroit or Columbus into the East.

That would have allowed the Penguins to retain their intra-divisional rivalry with Philadelphia, which team officials readily acknowledged was their top priority, while saving them from the increased travel costs inherent in the plan the NHL ultimately adopted.

It calls for four conferences -- the Penguins will share one with the Flyers, New York Rangers, Washington, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders and Carolina -- and will have each club play a home-and-home series against all teams from outside its conference.

That means the Penguins will be making annual trips to places like Western Canada and California, rather than doing it once every other year.

There are some negative tradeoffs for the Penguins' fan base -- only one visit per season by high-profile opponents like Boston and Montreal, and not much chance to cultivate rivalries with regional teams like Buffalo and Columbus -- but all things considered, the Penguins don't have much to complain about it.

Certainly not as much as a few other clubs.

Consider Carolina, which looks like it might be a candidate for a serious overhaul/rebuild, now that replacing coach Paul Maurice with Kirk Muller hasn't proven to be an instant cure.

If things are as grim for the Hurricanes as the 9-17-4 record they dragged into the weekend suggests, they will face the daunting challenge of selling fans on the idea that they can supplant the likes of the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers and Capitals for one of the conference's four playoff spots.

And Carolina isn't the only Southeast Division club that could reasonably be unhappy with how realignment played out.

As recently as last season, Tampa Bay and Florida only had to travel to Atlanta, Raleigh and Washington for divisional games contested outside their home state.

Beginning in 2012-13, the Lightning and Panthers will have to go outside the country to play many of their games inside the division, because they've been grouped with Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo and Boston.

And if Phoenix would end up relocating to Quebec City, Les Nordiques, Part Deux would be a logical fit in that division. A lot more logical, certainly, than Tampa Bay and Florida.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @molinaripg .


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