Ray Shero did, by almost any measure, a commendable job of bolstering his lineup for the stretch drive and playoffs during the days leading up to the NHL trade deadline. • But while adding Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen without giving up anyone from his major-league roster couldn't have been easy, the really tough part for Shero and his staff is still to come.
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They not only will have to figure out who from their large group of free-agents-to-be they want to retain but also come up with a way to do it.
Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams and Mark Eaton are scheduled to become unrestricted this summer, as are Iginla, Morrow and Murray. Tyler Kennedy, Dustin Jeffrey and Robert Bortuzzo will be restricted, which means that if the Penguins extend a qualifying offer to any of them, they will be entitled to match any offer the player might receive from another team.
Qualifying impending RFAs generally is standard procedure, but the Penguins will have to be certain that there's a place in their plans for a Tyler Kennedy before they put forth the $2 million qualifying offer he would be due.
After all, once a qualifying offer is accepted, the agreement is binding, and the Penguins won't be able to absorb many (or perhaps any) six- or seven-figure mistakes.
Bringing back everyone -- or even most of them -- is pretty much out of the question, in part because the Penguins' available salary-cap space is shrinking.
The cap ceiling in 2013-14 will be $64.3 million, down from $70.2 million this season.
Precisely how much the Penguins have committed to the 16 players who currently are on their major-league roster and have time remaining on their contracts isn't clear, because Carolina will assume an unknown portion of Jokinen's $3 million hit.
CapGeek.com, the leading authority on such matters, places the Penguins' obligations for next season at $54,898,333. That figure does not include Beau Bennett's contract, which carries a cap hit of $900,000.
Being relatively close to the ceiling for 2013-14 puts Shero in a challenging position, and things don't figure to get less difficult for him anytime soon because two core players -- center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang -- will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in summer 2014.
Provided both are interested in staying, it's safe to assume they will consume more cap space from 2014-15 on than they are now.
Malkin won't necessarily be in line for an enormous raise, since he's already pulling down an average of $8.7 million per season. It's even possible, although hardly likely, that he'd settle for the same money on his next contract, maintaining salary parity with Sidney Crosby.
The catch is that Malkin's agreement could run no more than eight seasons, whereas Crosby was able to sign for a dozen because he got his under the previous collective bargaining agreement.
Letang's current deal, meanwhile, carries a relatively modest cap hit of $3.5 million. If he continues to perform at -- or above -- the level he has reached in recent seasons and can avoid significant injuries, he figures to bump that up considerably.
Although unrestricted free agents generally have most, if not all, of the leverage in negotiations, Shero could have at least one factor in his favor if Letang makes it a priority to stay with the Penguins.
Because they have so many good young defensemen on their organizational depth chart, Letang has to realize that he would be somewhat expendable.
If Shero concludes that keeping Letang would be prohibitively expensive, the general manager could put him on the market well before his contract is up because there would be no shortage no shortage of teams interested in acquiring a premier defenseman with his skills set.
A willingness to take less money to stay with the Penguins could determine whether some current players are re-signed. And even though performances to date presumably have gone a long way toward shaping management's opinions about who it wants to bring back and how much it will be willing to spend to do so, what a player does during the stretch drive and playoffs could have an impact on that as well.
"We just want to see," Shero said, "how the year plays out."
The Week Ahead
Tuesday: at Carolina ... The Hurricanes had hoped that acquiring Jordan Staal, pictured at left, would solidify their place among legit Stanley Cup contenders. With three weeks left in the regular season, they'll now be delighted just to get into the playoffs.
Thursday: at Tampa Bay ... The Penguins get their first look at the Lightning since Jon Cooper replaced Guy Boucher as coach.
Saturday: at Florida ... The Panthers are staring up at the rest of the Eastern Conference but earned one of their infrequent victories the last time the Penguins visited the BB&T Center.
Dave Molinari: email@example.com First Published April 7, 2013 4:00 AM