Hossa to test free agency

Decision big blow to Penguins' plans

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OTTAWA -- General manager Ray Shero won't say that the chances of the Penguins re-signing Marian Hossa absorbed a potentially lethal blow yesterday, when Hossa informed the team he plans to explore free agency July 1.

He doesn't have to.

That picture is painted all too well by the numbers. Specifically, the number of dollars Shero has to invest in players under the NHL's salary cap.

Although the exact cap ceiling won't be known for about another week, indications are it will be in the $55 million-$57 million range, and Shero has enough other players in line for contracts that he can't afford to set aside a significant chunk of cash in the event Hossa decides sometime next month that he wants to return.

Hossa is one of 12 players who finished the 2007-08 season on the Penguins' major league roster who will be eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1. What's more, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is headed for salary arbitration and centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have one year left on their entry-level contracts.

"I explained to [Hossa] that I've got other free agents on our team and I've got other players, like Marc-Andre Fleury, that I'm trying to work on a contract with," Shero said.

"The word I used with him and his agent [Ritch Winter] is 'clarity.' I need some clarity with the situation here. I've got things tied up, waiting, and I need to move forward in the best interest of our hockey team.

"We've got the Ryan Malones and Brooks Orpiks and Pascal Dupuises and Adam Halls and [Georges]) Laraques, and they all played significant roles for our hockey team. They're all important to me."

Hossa made $7 million in 2007-08 and is expected to receive offers of $8 million or more per season on the open market, where the New York Rangers and Boston, among others, figure to express interest.

Shero said he made a "firm" contract offer to Hossa during the past few days. He declined to elaborate on its particulars, but it is a multiple-year deal believed to be worth about $7 million annually.

"It's very fair, in my opinion," Shero said. "Of course, that's my opinion."

He noted that the offer wouldn't necessarily remain in its current form if the Penguins begin to commit money to other personnel.

Hossa could not be reached for comment.

The Penguins acquired him from Atlanta Feb. 26 for forwards Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and a No. 1 draft choice.

He had three goals and seven assists in 12 regular-season games, then surged during the playoffs. Hossa obliterated his reputation for struggling in the postseason, putting up 12 goals and 14 assists in 20 games to finish second to linemate Sidney Crosby in the team scoring race.

"I respect the job he did for us," Shero said. "I would do that trade again."

Hossa seemed to settle in quickly with the Penguins, earning immediate acceptance from his new teammates and rave reviews for his strong two-way play. He also seemed to enjoy being in a setting where other players, particularly Crosby, attracted much of the outside attention and pressure.

"He's taken us for a test drive for three months," Shero said. "He knows our organization, knows our ownership, knows our management, knows our coaches and certainly knows our players and our fans. I'm not sure what you can find out on July 1 from other cities, but that's his decision, not mine."

Shero said that removing Hossa from the mix, even temporarily, will not have a significant impact on negotiations with other free-agents-to-be, like Malone and Orpik.

"I don't think it's going to change much, as to what we have in motion right now," he said, adding that "we haven't closed the door on anything."

Neither, it seems, has Hossa, at least the way Shero has interpreted their conversations. While Hossa clearly wants to explore his options, he apparently hasn't ruled out returning.

"We look to be his first choice, but I believe he's going to look at July 1, just to be sure," Shero said. "We'll see what that brings both of us."

Chances are it will bring an end to the ties between Hossa and the Penguins, although Shero is philosophical about how things will unfold in coming days.

"If it's meant to be, it's going to work out," he said. "If it's not, that's the way it is."

The 'top' pick: After waiting until the 120th pick overall for their first selection, the Penguins take teenage center Nathan Moon out of the Ontario Hockey League.

Another Staal: Jared Staal, brother of the NHL Staal family that includes Penguins center Jordan, goes with the 49th pick to Phoenix.

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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