It's looking more and more like veteran winger Matt Cooke won't be back with the Penguins next season.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's not official yet and can't be for another day, at least.
But the evidence is accumulating that Matt Cooke won't be with the Penguins in 2013-14.
Cooke, a blue-collar winger, is on the cusp of unrestricted free agency, and will be eligible to sign with any team Friday.
General manager Ray Shero acknowledged Wednesday evening that precedent strongly suggests that, now that Cooke is about to be free to move on, he almost certainly will do so.
"Most guys, if they get [to unrestricted free agency], there's more money, or they want a change," Shero said.
Cooke's agent, Pat Morris, could not be reached for comment.
The Penguins' other unrestricted-free-agent-to-be, forward Craig Adams, might be more likely to return, if only because he will command a lower salary than Cooke.
Cooke's cap hit under his expiring contract was $1.8 million while Adams' was $675,000.
The Penguins already have a little more than $60.1 million of cap space committed to players for the 2013-14 season, when the ceiling will be $64.3 million.
Enforcer Steve MacIntyre, who is expected to play primarily in the American Hockey League, accounts for $625,000 of that, so a more realistic figure probably is closer to $59.5 million.
That total, however, does not include an estimated $1.9 million worth of qualifying offers extended to defenseman Robert Bortuzzo and forwards Dustin Jeffrey and Harry Zolnierczyk, all of whom figure to be on the major-league depth chart this fall.
Shero said that he and Morris "exchanged offers a few weeks ago," but confirmed that he still hasn't put a contract proposal on the table for Adams.
"Pittsburgh is interested [in Adams], but could not offer yet," agent Neil Sheehy said Wednesday. "We will speak later. In the meantime, we are open to other opportunities."
Wednesday was the first of two days in which teams could have contact with prospective free agents, even though they're not allowed to sign them until Friday.
The interview period, which was introduced by the NHL's new labor agreement, also allows agents and players to gauge the level of interest clubs have.
The Penguins kicked the tires on a players who might fit in at various levels on their organizational depth chart.
"We checked in with some people, both NHL and two-way contract guys," said Shero, who described the day as "our first kick at the can."
He added that he expected Cooke to "go out, look around and see what's there," although he did not know whether Cooke and Morris actually had done so Wednesday.
While the front office continues to try to assemble the final pieces of the 2013-14 roster -- the early-July version of it, anyway -- two key players who got new contracts Tuesday insisted that looking for work elsewhere never was a serious consideration.
"I never thought about going to free agency [next summer] at all," said defenseman Kris Letang, whose eight-year, $58 million deal will take effect in 2014-15.
"I made it clear with Ray and the owners that I wanted to stay."
Right winger Pascal Dupuis never tried to hide his desire to remain with the Penguins and said that while he might have been tempted to see what he could get on the open market as an unrestricted free agent -- "It's human nature, that curiosity to know what you're really worth" -- he didn't regret accepting his four-year, $15 million contract.
"I feel like I'm getting a fair deal here and staying in a place where I want to play," he said. "What I have in Pittsburgh is special. ... It came down to, you don't mess with happiness."
Dupuis will be 38 when his new deal runs out, but isn't ready to concede that retirement would be his next logical step.
"I take good care of my body and work hard," he said. "It may not be my last contract."
For Letang and Dupuis, the stresses that go with trying to get a new contract have passed. Not so for players such as Cooke and Adams, who remain uncertain about where they will be working in the fall.
The closest thing to a safe bet at this point is that there will be personnel moves over the next few days that few, if any, people saw coming.
"There are always some surprises," Shero said. "We'll see what [today] brings."