Q: Please tell me that the Penguins aren't so shortsighted as to let Jordan Staal play more than nine games this year and gain a year's credit toward free agency. Especially with Sidney Crosby eligible to negotiate a big-money deal in 2008 and Evgeni Malkin's next contract due in 2009. Sending him down would put off Staal's first mega-deal until 2010. Will he be sent down in time, perhaps when Malkin returns?
Michael Tulenko, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: It says much about Staal's ability that, as an 18-year-old, he showed the Penguins enough to convince them to keep him around during the regular season, whether it's for two days, nine games or six months.
But his great promise is the primary reason that the most prudent move will be to send Staal back to his Ontario Hockey League club in Peterborough after no more than nine games; good as he is at 18, he'll be much better at 25. And with the NHL's current labor agreement, players can become unrestricted free agents after just seven years of service. Delaying the start of that clock clearly is in the Penguins' long-term interest.
The issue you raise about staggering the first big-ticket contracts for Crosby, Malkin and Staal presumably will be part of GM Ray Shero's decision-making process, too.
What isn't so clear, at least at the moment, is that there's any connection between Malkin's return to the lineup and Staal going back to junior.
Staal practiced on the fourth line this week and was scheduled to play there in the opener against Philadelphia last night. That was a surprising decision because, with Malkin out, Staal was a logical candidate to fill in between Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi on the No. 2 line.
Instead, Therrien shifted Malone into the middle and bumped John LeClair from the third line into Malone's spot. He then moved Jarkko Ruutu from the right side of the No. 3 line to the left, and plugged Michel Ouellet into Ruutu's usual position.
All of which means that the Penguins dramatically overhauled two forward lines when nearly all of the position-swapping could have been avoided if Staal had simply been slipped into Malkin's place. Certainly, Staal isn't ready to produce at the same level as Malkin -- one suspects that not many players in the league are -- but he possesses a skills set that wouldn't be out of place on a second line, especially under these circumstances.
Q: Jack Johnson and Oleg Tverdovsky were traded to Los Angeles for Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger. It seems Carolina could have gotten a lot more out of this deal. It makes me think the Pens would've given up too much for Johnson (if they'd acquired him for) Staal. Could we possibly have had him for Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik or Kristopher Letang?
Jason, Robinson Township
MOLINARI: There's no indication the Penguins and Hurricanes ever engaged in serious discussions about Johnson, and there definitely is no evidence that they had even cursory conversations about a Johnson-for-Staal deal. Not recently. Not last spring. It might have provided great fodder for talks shows and message boards, but it did not come close to being rooted in reality.
The Hurricanes decided to deal Johnson after they became frustrated with his refusal to leave the University of Michigan and sign with them. (Never mind that honoring his commitment to the Wolverines to stay through at least his sophomore season is a show of integrity a prospective employer should appreciate.) Carolina stepped up its effort to lure Johnson to the NHL because it was somewhat short-staffed on the blue line after Frantisek Kaberle needed shoulder surgery, and was seeking a quick remedy to that problem.
That, presumably, is why Gleason had such appeal to them. He's a reliable defensive defenseman who has good intangibles, skates well and is willing to play tough. A nice addition to any defense. Belanger, meanwhile, is a solid third-line center, who handles a lot of blue-collar duties well.
Johnson, though, projects as the kind of player around whom a defense corps could be built, and that almost certainly is what the Kings will do. Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi knew exactly what he was getting in the deal, just as his Carolina counterpart, Jim Rutherford, had to be aware of what he was giving up. Which is why it wouldn't be surprising if it turns out that Rutherford shopped Johnson primarily, if not exclusively, to Western Conference clubs. If Rutherford didn't actively try to get Johnson into the other conference, he should have.
Q: I caught the first two preseason games of the Pens on TV and was really impressed with Dominic Moore. He was much faster than I expected and moved the puck with ease. Why isn't he ever mentioned as someone who could center the second line? Wouldn't the third line be a more appropriate place for Malkin to learn the ropes of the NHL?
Mike, Ottawa, Ontario
MOLINARI: In a word, no.
Your assessment of Moore is pretty accurate; his well-rounded game and diversified skills made him a quality addition to the Penguins' lineup.
But while Moore is a good two-way player with significant potential, Malkin operates on an entirely different level. He isn't a typical rookie -- he has several seasons in the Russian Super League on his resume -- and is fully capable of establishing himself as one of the NHL's premier talents before he becomes fully conversant in English.
Malkin surely will need a bit of time to adjust to the North American game -- remember, he got just over a period of actual game experience during the preseason -- but his body and style of play are perfect for the NHL. He not only doesn't shy away from contact, but routinely initiates it. Put the puck on his blade, and he could stickhandle through a half-dozen pylons on a manhole cover without once looking at the ground.
Malkin doesn't need to serve an apprenticeship on the third line and the Penguins, who have a limited number of capable goal-scorers on the wing, don't need to go any longer than necessary with someone other than Malkin feeding pucks to the guys on the second line.
Q: I am optimistic that the Pens will be an exciting team to watch, but I also understand that a playoff push may be about a season away. The hope is that our young stars like Crosby, Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Whitney will improve their games as well as improve other players' games. Do you think this team can step up night after night, and make a push for the playoffs? Also, if the Pens are in (postseason contention), will they have money available to acquire help for a playoff push?
Brian Finnigan, Boardman, Ohio
MOLINARI: The Penguins have to be viewed as longshots to contend for a playoff spot, for a variety of reasons. Their goaltending is suspect, most of their core players are relatively inexperienced and their depth is modest, at best. And that's the abridged list of concerns.
That said, any team that has world-class talents like Crosby and Malkin on its payroll can't be ignored entirely. This is not a one-man game -- remember, Mario Lemieux missed the playoffs his first four seasons in the NHL -- but that kind of ability makes the Penguins dangerous if their elite players get on a roll and their foot soldiers execute their jobs effectively.
And if the franchise's sale to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie goes through -- and there is little reason to believe it won't -- having the money to pay for personnel upgrades shouldn't be an issue once he takes over, assuming Balsillie is willing to spend it. With all the cash Balsillie has earned from the sale of BlackBerries, he could have underwritten the New York Rangers' spending under the old CBA and never noticed the money missing from his checking account.
Q: Chris Thorburn? Karl Stewart? Why waste money and time on this type of player? Why didn't they keep Maxime Talbot, who worked great in penalty-killing last year and had intensity, instead?
Eric Bouchard, Montreal, Quebec
MOLINARI: Talbot's demotion to Wilkes-Barre was perhaps the Penguins' most surprising personnel move of the preseason, because he had an excellent camp -- certainly, better than Michel Ouellet, who survived the final cut -- and seemed like a perfect fit in the middle of the fourth line. This is the second time in about nine months that people were caught off-guard by a decision to send Talbot down, which at least raises the possibility that on-ice performance isn't the only factor at work here.
Acquiring Thorburn and Stewart is a separate matter, however. Both were acquired on waivers -- which means they cost the Penguins nothing more than the waiver fee -- and have two-way contracts, which means the financial risk to the team is limited. If either fails to perform to expectations, he can be sent to the American Hockey League and, if a player can't clear waivers, well, the Penguins are free of any obligation to him.
Conversely, the Penguins are actively trying to transform themselves into a team that's difficult to play against, and high-energy guys like Thorburn and Stewart (and, yes, Talbot) can make things unpleasant for opponents with their aggressive style. None of those three is a game breaker, but if they perform to their potential and don't stray outside their job description, they can be valuable role players.
Q: I was hoping this year that Noah Welch could make an impact and help to improve a defense corps that allowed the most goals in the NHL last season. Please tell me that Noah will be up sometime soon.
Dan, Thompsontown, Pa.
MOLINARI: A lot of factors, such as injuries, will determine when Welch returns to the NHL, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Shero has his cell phone number on speed-dial. And when Welch makes it back to the Penguins, it's hardly out of the question that he'll be staying for good.
Welch got a surprisingly slow start in training camp, but came on strong during the final week or 10 days, and certainly was worthy of claiming a place among the Penguins' top six defensemen. His biggest problem when cutdown day arrived was that he could go to Wilkes-Barre without clearing waivers, and that gave the Penguins a risk-free roster reduction. Risk-free, that is, except for the perils of demoting a player who was more likely to contribute to the club's success than some teammates who remained on the major-league roster.
Q: How did the "Baby Penguins" ever get that name? Was there a contest, or did someone just pick it? It sounds so childish -- I bet most of them don't like being referred to that name. How about the "Junior Penguins," or some other appropriate name?
Jim Zangrilli, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: The official name of the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate is Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and the club is known simply as the Penguins in the northeast corner of the state and in its league.
The team picked up the informal designation of "Baby Penguins," especially in Western Pennsylvania, so that it would not be confused with the parent club. If the farm team's nickname was "Pioneers" or "Red Barons," the "Baby" part of the nickname would serve no purpose.
Also, the name "Junior Penguins" was claimed by a youth team here long, long before pro hockey arrived in Wilkes-Barre. And one would like to think that players in the AHL are more concerned with advancing to the next level than with how their minor-league club is identified in another part of the state.