The Penguins did not look like a very good team for much of their first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia.
And they are, by almost any objective measure, a less imposing group than they were when their season ended.
That, they hope, will start to change today, when the NHL's free-agent signing period begins at noon.
Freeing up salary-cap space to allow general manager Ray Shero to be bold today was a major factor in the trade that sent top-four defenseman Zbynek Michalek to Phoenix for a draft choice and two prospects (one already cut loose) June 22.
It might even have been a consideration in Shero's decision to abort the developing Jordan Staal melodrama and dispatch him to Carolina for Brandon Sutter, a No. 1 draft choice (Derrick Pouliot) and defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin earlier that day.
Those moves cleared about $6 million in cap space, although it should be remembered that new backup goalie Tomas Vokoun will be paid $2 million, up from the $600,000 Brent Johnson got this past season.
Barring any changes brought on by the league's yet-to-be-negotiated collective bargaining agreement, the salary-cap ceiling for 2012-13 is $70.2 million. The Penguins have about $57.9 million in cap space committed for next season, and that's without re-signing restricted free agents such as Eric Tangradi and Brian Strait.
The Penguins have not identified publicly the free agents they will target, likely because doing so would be tantamount to begging for a tampering charge.
"We'll see what's available and if there's players out there that kind of fit what we're looking for, and certainly if we can fit what they're looking for, we'll go from there," Shero said.
Although Shero couldn't acknowledge it, the Penguins are poised to make aggressive plays for Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter and New Jersey winger Zach Parise, the headliners in a shallow, largely unimpressive pool of free-agent forwards and defensemen.
Suter appeals because he could work alongside Kris Letang on the No. 1 defense pairing; Parise's hard-driving style, hands and heart make him an intriguing candidate to play on Sidney Crosby's wing.
Signing either would carve a large chunk out of the Penguins' available cap space; if they could somehow lure both, Shero almost certainly would be compelled to trade another player off of his major league roster.
Two things to keep in mind if that were to happen: 1) The Penguins already are expected to trade at least one more defenseman this summer, simply because they have eight who would require waivers next season and, 2) the CBA allows teams to exceed the cap ceiling by 10 percent in the offseason, so there would be no need for any immediate space-clearing move.
While Parise and Suter stand to get most of the Penguins' attention, at least early in the signing period, it's possible that Shero will be looking to fill a few other holes on his depth chart.
The Penguins have decided to let forwards Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham and Richard Park explore free agency, and it's possible they will look outside the organization for replacements.
Sullivan, who will turn 37 Friday, is a skilled winger who can be counted on to produce 15-20 goals per season, while Asham is a feisty, rugged fourth-liner and Park is versatile and a good penalty-killer.
Parise would be a clear upgrade from Sullivan as a top-six winger, but it's not known if the Penguins have identified players to move into the spots Asham and Park apparently will vacate.
There's no indication of whether the Penguins would dive deeper into the free-agent pool for a Crosby winger or top-pairing defenseman if Parise and/or Suter end up elsewhere, but here are some of the better players available in this largely lackluster class:
• D Matt Carle (Philadelphia) -- He skates and moves the puck well, but doesn't have much of a physical presence. A return to the Flyers can't be ruled out.
• D Jason Garrison (Florida) -- At age 27, Garrison is coming off a breakout season in which he piled up 33 points. There's no guarantee he won't prove to be a one-year wonder.
• D Bryce Salvador (New Jersey) -- His value seems to have spiked because of his strong play in New Jersey's drive to the Stanley Cup final. He's 36, though, and his so-so skating won't get any better.
• D Sami Salo (Vancouver) -- Salo plays smaller than he is and gets hurt a lot, but possesses an excellent shot and good offensive instincts.
• RW Shane Doan (Phoenix) -- He's been a formidable blend of good talent and great intangibles for a lot of years, but Doan is 35 and almost certainly approaching the twilight of his career.
• F P.A. Parenteau (New York Islanders) -- While he fared well playing with John Tavares, Parenteau -- a solid, versatile player with good hands and hockey sense -- might not be ready for top-line duty on a serious contender.
• F Ray Whitney (Phoenix) -- He's 40, but still can be counted on to score 20 or so goals per season. Whitney is going to hit the wall someday, but it hasn't happened yet.
• F Alex Semin (Washington) -- The most gifted player on the market, but also the most enigmatic. A game-breaker when he's motivated, but disinterested way too much of the time.
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 AM