No position is more important to a hockey team than goaltender.
And no decision Penguins general manager Ray Shero will make this summer means more to his franchise than figuring out who will be its go-to goalie next season.
That includes determining whether Dan Bylsma, who told reporters repeatedly Sunday that Marc-Andre Fleury remains the Penguins' No. 1 goalie, should return as coach.
A decade ago, the Penguins traded up to the No. 1 spot in the draft to get Fleury, with the idea that he would be one of the cornerstones of the franchise.
And he has.
But almost never after the regular season, at least in the past few years.
Why Fleury has struggled so badly, so often during the playoffs since helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2009 is a mystery. One management clearly hasn't been able to solve.
At a time of year when every goal can mean so much, Fleury routinely has leaked in some that defy explanation, and occasionally the laws of physics.
That has to change, and if Shero doesn't believe it will, his No. 1 goalie must.
As with the coaching situation, though, it is imperative that Shero make a change only if there's a better option available. The idea behind any personnel move must be to field the best team possible, not simply to punish people for disappointing performances.
Tomas Vokoun overcame a sputtering start to do a commendable job as Fleury's backup (and playoff replacement), but he turns 37 on July 2, and it's not realistic to expect a guy his age to handle the bulk of the regular-season games, then lead his team on a long playoff run.
What's more, there are no elite goaltending prospects in the Penguins' developmental pipeline, and certainly none ready to assume a No. 1 role in the NHL.
Thus, if the Penguins decide Fleury isn't their guy, they will have to find someone outside the organization.
That likely would involve a trade, because this year's crop of unrestricted free-agent goalies is lackluster, and far from guaranteed to provide the solution the Penguins would be seeking.
Which doesn't mean that working out a deal involving Fleury, let alone one in which the Penguins would secure his replacement, would be easy. Or maybe even possible.
Fleury has two seasons remaining on a contract that carries a salary-cap hit of $5 million, pretty reasonable for a starting goalie. His deal is believed to include a limited no-trade clause, which allows him to stipulate an unknown number of clubs to which he would accept a trade.
Whether any of those would have a need for him -- or a desire to take him on -- would be just the first of many issues with which Shero would have to deal.
Shero also could exercise the nuclear option, a compliance buyout of Fleury's contract. That would cost the Penguins a total of $7,666,667 over four years, but would take Fleury's cap hit off their books.
It also would leave a gaping hole on their roster.
Goaltending, of course, is not the reason the Penguins gathered Sunday at Consol Energy Center for the final time, while Boston prepared to face Chicago in the Stanley Cup final.
Not unless Vokoun and Fleury are being blamed for failing to score more than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and so many others did in the Eastern Conference final.
Right winger Pascal Dupuis was one of five Penguins to earn a point in the Bruins series -- still tough to process that stat -- and will be the top player available when the free-agent market opens July 5.
His ties to the franchise are exceptionally strong, but some team is sure to offer Dupuis a dramatic raise on the $1.5 million per season he averaged on his expiring contract.
The Penguins recognize his value, but that doesn't mean they can give Dupuis, who has developed into a legitimate top-six forward, the same money he would get elsewhere. If he returns, it's largely because of the bond he has developed with this team.
Matt Cooke, his head-hunting days of the past aside, has been a valuable role player for five seasons, a ferocious forechecker and quality penalty-killer. Hard to imagine some team won't propose a deal that exceeds the means of the Penguins, who have about $7.9 million of cap space available.
Keeping Craig Adams, who earned a pro-rated portion of $625,000 in 2013, seems more realistic, and would be wise. He's not a difference-maker, but he does a lot of dirty work effectively.
Bringing back Mark Eaton was an inspired move by Shero because he added experience and depth to the defense, but the Penguins have capable young defensemen in their system. One of them, Robert Bortuzzo, is a restricted free agent, and re-signing him should be a given.
Whether two restricted forwards, Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey, come back isn't so clear. Two years ago, management saw Kennedy as a top-six forward and paid him like it ($2 million); since then, he has been mostly a third- or fourth-liner.
Jeffrey is skilled and versatile, but clearly lost favor with this coaching staff long ago. Especially if Bylsma returns, it's hard to imagine that Jeffrey would, and it's possible the Penguins would allow him to walk, regardless.
Shero tried to upgrade a lineup that already was among the best in hockey as the trade deadline approached, bringing in Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen.
Of those, only Jokinen is not eligible for unrestricted free agency next month.
Not coincidentally, he's the only one likely to be on hand when training camp opens.
The impact of the prospects and draft choices Shero surrendered in those moves won't be felt for several years; the impending drop in the cap ceiling to $64.3 million is a much more pressing concern, and all but assures Iginla, Morrow and Murray won't return.
Although Iginla has not ruled out coming back the Penguins, the bet here is that he ends up in Dallas.
He played junior hockey for Kamloops in the Western Hockey League, and the Stars are owned by Tom Gaglardi. He also is a co-owner of the Blazers, as are Iginla and Mark Recchi, an advisor to hockey operations in Dallas.
The Stars acquired, then signed, Sergei Gonchar a few days ago, so they clearly have no qualms about taking on older, big-ticket players.
There's no indication the Stars will target Morrow, even though he was Dallas' captain for many years. He is one of hockey's consummate warriors, but all of the hard miles on him showed at times.
Murray's physicality added a nice dimension to the Penguins defense, but his limited mobility means he's unlikely ever to rise above the No. 3 pairing on a good team. And the Penguins don't have the luxury of giving a fifth or sixth defenseman the $2.5 million Murray got this season.
Deciding which free agents should be offered nothing more than a farewell handshake might be Shero's least stressful activity this summer.
Two core players, Malkin and Letang, are entering the final years of their contracts, and both will be eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer.
Malkin presumably will be looking for a bump from the $8.7 million average salary on his current deal, and Letang might double his $3.5 million annual pay.
Whether he should get that money from the Penguins is not an easy call.
Letang is an exceptional offensive talent, skilled and creative. But this year's playoffs reinforced the idea that he can make things adventurous in his own end of the ice, as well.
The Penguins have several quality defense prospects in their system, and Letang would net an enormous return in a trade. Moving him is something Shero must at least consider.
Malkin probably isn't going anywhere because he is one of the game's great talents, but neither should he be kept at any cost. Having Crosby, who also averages $8.7 million per season, for a teammate makes Malkin's existence far easier, on and off the ice.
Giving him a bit more money than Crosby is fine because Malkin's next contract can't run as long, but if Crosby-type money doesn't constitute a living wage for him -- and nothing has been said or done to suggest Malkin feels that way -- they should be willing to find another place for him to live.
Because so many core players, including Crosby and Malkin, are approaching what should be their prime years, Shero must repair his team on the fly, rather than going through a meticulous rebuild.
Although the Penguins have a lot going for them, time isn't on the list.
Crosby has been on the payroll for eight years, Malkin for seven. Their team has one Cup to show for it.
The Penguins squandered a glorious opportunity to get a second this spring. They can't continue to make a habit of that.mobilehome - penguins
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published June 10, 2013 4:00 AM