Penguins likely to take conservative approach to free agency

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You could flesh out a pretty competitive lineup with free agents the Penguins have signed since 2005.

In fact, they have done just that.

Sergei Gonchar (2005) got here that way. So did Jarkko Ruutu (2006). And Petr Sykora (2007). And Matt Cooke (2008). And Paul Martin (2010). And Steve Sullivan (2011).

So did a number of others, not all of whom had the anticipated impact.

Zigmund Palffy, brought in as a linemate for rookie center Sidney Crosby in 2005, might be the prototype for that.

The NHL's 2013 free-agent signing period begins at noon today -- four days later than usual, thanks to the lockout that shut down the league for much of fall and winter -- and there's every indication the Penguins again will be involved.

Just not as prominently as most years.

Certainly not the way they were in 2012, when they vigorously pursued the top two players on the market, forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.

Both ended up signing big-money deals with Minnesota.

There's no reason to think the Penguins will be offering gaudy contracts today, and not just because there's a fairly lackluster collection of free agents from which to choose.

They have little salary-cap space with which to work and no glaring voids that would have to be filled by a big-ticket talent.

NHL regulations do allow teams to exceed the salary-cap ceiling, which will be $64.3 million next season, by as much as 10 percent until the end of training camp but that's not a tool Penguins general manager Ray Shero has used since replacing Craig Patrick in 2006.

Barring a trade, the Penguins likely will chase a blue-collar forward or two, since Matt Cooke almost certainly will be moving on and Craig Adams is hardly a lock to return.

Perhaps they'll target some players to plug into the organizational depth chart, as well, but most indications are that neither their profile nor their offers will be high the next few days.

"We don't have many holes to fill right now," Shero said. "We might have something to fill up front at some point."

Although the Penguins probably would like to add a shutdown-type defenseman, it's hard to see that happening unless there would be other moves to open cap space.

The Penguins are proceeding as if Cooke, a third-line winger, won't return.

As Shero noted Wednesday night, players who reach unrestricted free agency rarely end up re-signing -- Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik is one notable exception from recent seasons -- and it's not a reach to suggest that, even with the cap ceiling dropping, other clubs will see Cooke as a valuable role player.

Cooke had eight goals and 13 assists in 48 games with the Penguins in 2013. He is an effective forechecker and has been a fixture on their penalty-killing unit.

"Matt's been a real good player for us," Shero said.

Cooke remains one of the game's most accomplished agitators, as well, although he has virtually exorcised cheap shots and borderline hits -- once staples of his repertoire -- from his game in the past two seasons.

While he still ranks among the league's most-disliked figures, he hasn't done much lately to merit a high place on that list.

But Cooke will be 35 when training camp opens and, having just signed veterans Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis -- they are 33 and 34, respectively -- to new contracts, the Penguins seem wary of having too many aging wingers on the payroll.

Adams' age (36) likely works against him, too, even though he has been a reliable fourth-liner and penalty-killer.

The Penguins are not believed to have submitted a formal contract proposal to Adams' agent, Neil Sheehy, and that's a pretty important first step toward getting a deal done.

If Cooke and/or Adams move on, the Penguins might opt to have prospects such as Zach Sill from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre audition for spots on the third and fourth lines in training camp.

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Dave Molinari: or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published July 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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