Evgeni Malkin reportedly has signed with a team from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, as a backup plan if the NHL has a lockout.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ray Shero's wish list for the offseason was headlined by a top-six winger and an elite defenseman for the Penguins' No. 1 pairing.
It still is.
And might be for quite a while.
Not only because players with the kind of pedigree Shero covets don't come available very often -- that's particularly true of top-shelf defensemen -- but also because the looming expiration of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement seems to be dissuading teams from making major trades.
The CBA is set to run out Sept. 15, and negotiations on its replacement have not been productive. Talks are scheduled to resume in New York today, but the league and NHL Players' Association acknowledge being far apart on major financial issues.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made it clear that the league intends to lock out the players if a new labor deal isn't in place when the current one ends.
With so much uncertainty about how the financial landscape will look in coming years, most clubs are being cautious about using their resources and salary-cap space, although some have re-signed players to big-money, long-term contracts.
"Until we see what the new system could be, teams don't know what they can -- or should -- do, in terms of their lineup," Shero said Monday.
The Penguins are scheduled to open training camp Sept. 21, and with a high-impact trade unlikely, Shero's short-term priority is finalizing contracts for three restricted free agents, left winger Eric Tangradi and defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Alex Grant.
A far more prominent member of Shero's roster reportedly agreed to a contract Monday, although it wasn't with the Penguins. Or even in North America.
Reports out of Russia said Evgeni Malkin has accepted a deal from his hometown Kontinental Hockey League team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, to play there if there is an NHL lockout. A later report by Sport-Express, a Russian newspaper, said he has a contract in place with CSKA, which is based in Moscow.
Malkin's agent, J.P. Barry, confirmed that Malkin has discussed a deal with Magnitogrosk and at least one Moscow-based club, but said nothing had been finalized.
Malkin has two years remaining on his contract with the Penguins, and any KHL agreement he accepts would be structured to allow him to return to the NHL when the lockout ends. Malkin and his KHL club also would have to arrange insurance to cover the possibility of him being injured while playing in Russia.
Shero did not speak directly to the possibility of Malkin playing in Russia, saying that "we'll cross that bridge when we get to it." He volunteered, however, that "a lot of players might look to play somewhere" if the prospects for a new CBA don't improve significantly in coming days.
There are plusses and minuses for NHL teams to having their personnel play in Europe if there's a lockout. The threat of injury is an obvious concern, but players who participate in high-level leagues like the KHL would figure to have an early competitive edge once the NHL is back in business.
If the top-three centers -- Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Brandon Sutter -- can stay healthy, the Penguins will be as strong down the middle as any team in the league, and significantly stronger than most.
Their organizational depth on defense is impressive, too, even though intriguing prospects such as Joseph Morrow, Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta have little, if any, pro experience.
Nonetheless, the Penguins likely will enter training camp with a surplus of bodies on their blue line. When Bortuzzo is re-signed, no fewer than eight defensemen will have to clear waivers to go to the American Hockey League in 2012-13.
NHL teams rarely carry more than seven on the NHL roster, so the Penguins presumably would like to deal at least one before the regular season begins. Shero, though, doesn't seem optimistic about working out a trade before camp opens, whenever that is.
"Barring something unforeseen, we'll go into training camp with the group we have," he said. "Once we have a CBA, we'll know the ground rules we're playing with."