Q: What do you think about dealing this year's first-round draft choice to Montreal for Alex Kovalev? I know that the value of a high pick like this over time is huge, but so will be the salary-cap management issues eventually, with the other premium selections the Pens already have under contract. The Pens would get a proven scorer and leader and, oh yeah, it might provide a synergistic effect with the arrival of Evgeni Malkin. The team needs more talent now, not in five years.
Steve Kale, San Antonio, Texas
MOLINARI: Unless the moderator of this forum has missed out on news that the end of the world is imminent -- and what a bummer it would be to be the last one to get wind of that -- it's hard to support the idea that talent won't be needed five years from now. No question the Penguins have some pressing, immediate needs (they finished with the second-worst record in the league), but sacrificing the future for the sake of the present is a good way to morph into the California Golden Seals.
While Kovalev, who played his finest hockey here, could add a badly needed dimension to the Penguins' offense, no one should expect him to return. That the Penguins could have had him for nothing more than the cost of a contract last summer -- Kovalev wanted to return, but then-general manager Craig Patrick took a passive approach to pursuing him, then apparently offered a deal woefully inferior to the one Montreal proposed -- would make it even harder to justify giving up the No. 2 choice in the draft for a guy who's now a year closer to retirement than he was then. Finally, there's no evidence Montreal is looking to pare him from its payroll, although an ultra-generous offer like the one you propose surely would get GM Bob Gainey's attention.
As for the salary-cap issues -- presumably stemming from the provision in the CBA that stipulates no player can receive more than 20 percent of his team's cap figure -- that's an issue the Penguins won't have to deal with for quite some time, if ever. At this point, Sidney Crosby, who has two seasons left on his entry-level contract, is the only player on their roster who seems likely to qualify for that kind of pay in the future.
When Malkin arrives, he'll be compelled to sign a three-year entry-level deal with a salary only slightly higher than the $850,000 Crosby is earning, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who could command big money if he realizes his vast potential, is preparing to sign his second pro contract but will come up many millions shy of the CBA-mandated maximum.
Frankly, the Penguins can only hope that so many of their young players develop so well that they're a threat to command 20 percent of the payroll. If they would somehow end up with too many of those, it's safe to assume there would be a healthy trade market for any elite talents they decide they could not keep.
Q: Say Sidney Crosby wins the Calder Trophy this year and Evgeni Malkin, who I assume would be a frontrunner for the award if he plays next year, wins, too. Would it be the first time one team had back-to-back Calder winners?
Dave Stanek, Durham, N.C.
MOLINARI: The scenario you lay out probably is a bit of a stretch -- Washington's Alexander Ovechkin is widely viewed as the favorite to receive the Calder next month, and it's still not certain that Malkin will be in the NHL for the coming season -- but it would be the first time for such a feat since Bobby Orr (1967) and Derek Sanderson (1968) of Boston did it.
Gump Worsley (1953) and Camille Henry (1954) of the New York Rangers won consecutive Calders, too, but Toronto owns the impressive streak, with back-to-back-to-back victories by Gaye Stewart (1943), Gus Bodnar (1944) and Frank McCool (1945). Of course, there were only six NHL teams then. The league did not expand to 12 until Sanderson's rookie season.
Q: While it seems the Pens are looking to bring in a scoring winger and a reliable defenseman via free agency, do you see them bringing in a faceoff specialist like Mike Sillinger or Yanic Perreault? Faceoffs are still an area the Pens need to address. That seems to be getting overlooked.
Jordan Weigler, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: A number of Q&A readers expressed surprise and disappointment when Patrick didn't go after Perreault, one of the NHL's top faceoff men for years, when he was an unrestricted free agent last summer, and it's unlikely that anything they saw during the past winter changed their minds. The Penguins had only three players -- Mario Lemieux, Erik Christensen and Shane Endicott -- win more faceoffs than they lost, with Lemieux's 55.4 success rate the team's best. Crosby, who handled a team-high 1,174 faceoffs, won just 45.5 percent of them.
Perreault, meanwhile, controlled 62.2 percent of his draws while playing for Nashville, where Sillinger complemented him by winning 55.9 percent. Both are scheduled to be unrestricted again this summer, and neither should have trouble finding interested teams.
Q: As much as I would hate to see the Pens leave Pittsburgh, Portland was mentioned as a possibility. Out here, we have the Winter Hawks, a (Western Hockey League junior) team that gets pretty good support. We're a city that is dying for another professional squad. Anyway, is Portland still in the hunt?
Mark Hartz, Portland, Ore.
MOLINARI: For years, the league hoped Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire and long-time owner of the NBA Trail Blazers, would show interest in securing an NHL franchise, but it never happened, and Portland really doesn't come up in the conversation very often any more when there is talk of teams relocating.
No person or group with ties to Oregon has gone public with its desire to buy the Penguins and move them to the West Coast; at this point, Kansas City, Houston and Las Vegas appear to be the most likely destinations if the franchise leaves Pittsburgh.
Q: Who do you think should wear the "C" next season? Before we drafted Sidney Crosby, there was a lot of talk that it was going to become Brooks Orpik's team because he was a natural leader. I think that down the road it should become Sidney's team, but not right now. It's too much to put on someone so young. I really believe that Brooks would be the perfect transition from Mario to Sidney. Sergei Gonchar and Sidney should wear the As.
Jim Schloder, Jacksonville, Fla.
MOLINARI: All indications are that the Penguins will be Crosby's team for years to come -- Malkin's language limitations figure to limit his impact in the locker room for quite some time -- but it probably is premature to make him the captain when he's 19 years old. (Of course, it was premature to make him an alternate captain when he was 18, but that didn't prevent the Penguins from doing it.) Because the NHL does not require teams to designate a captain, and because that's a role Crosby will be ready to assume in the not-too-distant future, the Penguins probably should just go with three alternate captains in 2006-07.
Q: There seems to be a large number of high-level players who will be available in free agency this summer. How much cap room will the Pens have to work with? And will they go after big-name guys, given the problems they had with some of them this year that they brought in?
Ben, Warren, Pa.
MOLINARI: The salary cap for next season hasn't been set yet, but could be as high as $45 million. If that proves to be the case, the league-wide cap will have no impact on the Penguins' personnel decisions, because their self-imposed payroll limit will be far below that. If ownership has set its player budget for next season, the details haven't leaked out yet, but there's not much reason to think it will rise above the low- to mid-$30 million range. The 2005-06 payroll crested around $33 million and team officials say the Penguins lost about $7 million, so it's hard to believe that an ownership group that's looking to sell would be willing to add to its expenses.
The Penguins' approach to pursuing high-profile free agents will be determined by the new general manager (and his budget), but they don't figure to be as aggressive going after big-name players this summer as they were in 2005. Not because Ziggy Palffy bailed out in mid-season or Sergei Gonchar was horrible for the first three months, but because a team with limited resources and multiple holes on its roster usually is better off spreading its money around rather than trying to invest it in one or two marquee players.
Q: I have only had the chance to see Erik Christensen a handful of times on television and would like your opinion on his potential. Do you believe he is someone the Penguins can count on over the next few years as they build with a core of young players? What role do you think he'll play over the next few seasons?
Dan Robertson, New Glasgow, Nova Scotia
MOLINARI: Christensen is an intriguing prospect, a guy who has shown enough to suggest that he's capable of being a significant contributor in the NHL, but who has been sufficiently inconsistent to raise legitimate questions about whether he's someone a team should be prepared to count on. Which means he's like a lot of other young players who have just two seasons of pro hockey on their resume.
Christensen has good skills and a decent scoring touch, a rare commodity on the Penguins' organizational depth chart. Trouble is, he's a center by trade, and the Penguins figure to have Crosby and Malkin in the middle on their top two lines for a lot of years, so Christensen likely will have to shift to the wing if he's going to be a top-six forward with the Penguins. That probably isn't fair to him -- in general, it's best to use a player at the position where is he most comfortable and effective -- but if Crosby and Malkin are on the payroll, they're going to dominate playing time with the team's top wingers.