Jarkko Ruutu is spending the summer in Finland, but even from seven time zones away, he can spot an opening in the Penguins' lineup that would fit him perfectly.
"First-line right wing," he said.
Ruutu was flashing his finely honed sense of humor -- even if the Penguins don't re-sign Marian Hossa, Ruutu won't be on the short list of candidates to replace him on Sidney Crosby's right side -- but a more pressing issue is whether Ruutu will be on the team's payroll in a few days.
He is one of 10 unrestricted-free-agents-to-be who finished the season on the Penguins' major-league roster (the list was pared from 12 when Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts were traded to Tampa Bay Saturday), and this is the final day the team owns exclusive negotiating rights with them.
General manager Ray Shero and his staff are believed to have spent yesterday firming up the list of guys they'd like to re-sign and determining what it will cost to do so.
The key variable in their plans appears to be an ongoing effort to convince Hossa to return rather than act on his stated desire to explore free agency tomorrow.
Hossa's decision will have a profound impact on how much space the Penguins have under the NHL's salary-cap ceiling for $56.7 million for the 2008-09 season, and thus will go a long way toward how many of their other free agents can be retained.
One player exempt from that group -- which includes the likes of Ruutu, Pascal Dupuis, Georges Laraque and Adam Hall -- is rugged defenseman Brooks Orpik, who the Penguins are expected to continue pursuing regardless of what Hossa tells them.
Shero has, until now, taken a fairly low-key approach to trying to re-sign most of his free agents. Ruutu, who came to the Penguins from Vancouver as an unrestricted free agent two years ago, noted that waiting until a deadline looms is a common negotiating strategy.
"I kind of expected it," he said. "I've been through stuff like this before."
While that approach leaves little time for give-and-take, Ruutu isn't sure that's a bad thing.
"You have to put your best offer out there, and that's it," he said.
Ruutu reiterated his desire to remain with the Penguins -- "Pittsburgh is a great team and, hopefully, we can work something out" -- and said that the Malone-Roberts trade did nothing to change that.
"It's part of the business," Ruutu said. "Every team, it happens."
Ruutu, who made $1.15 million in each of the past two seasons, is one of hockey's top antagonists and bolstered his bargaining leverage by playing well in the stretch drive and playoffs.
Even if the sides agree on money, the length of a deal could be a point of contention for him. The Penguins generally make long-term commitments only to players who are part of the team's core, but Ruutu, who will be 33 Aug. 23, might seek more than a season or two on what could be his final NHL contract.
Still, Ruutu insists he won't take it personally if he can't find common ground with the Penguins, just as Shero says he doesn't when players who qualify for free agency elect to see what they can get on the open market.
"It's a business for them," Ruutu said. "Just like it is for me."
NOTES -- Malone and Roberts reportedly have agreed to contracts with the Lightning. Malone's apparently is worth $4.5 million per season for seven years, while Roberts' is a one-year deal that, with bonuses, could be worth about $2 million. Signing Malone means Tampa Bay owes the Penguins a third-round draft choice, not a fourth-rounder, next year.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published June 30, 2008 4:00 AM