Q: Are there any specific players or types of players you think the team will pursue when free agency begins? How can they get what they need to be a true Cup contender without mortgaging the future?
Josh Yoder, West Lafayette, Ind.
MOLINARI: The Penguins have been extremely tight-lipped about who they plan to pursue when free agency begins Sunday -- of course, publicly expressing interest in a specific player before then could lead to a tampering charge -- and, just as important, exactly how much money they will be willing and/or able to spend.
General manager Ray Shero says the payroll will be higher than it was in 2006-07, but has steadfastly declined to say how much it will go up. Couple that with the uncertainty of how much retaining their own free agents will cost, and it's tough to predict precisely how much Shero will have to use on free agents in the next week or so. Especially if, as seems prudent, he decides to set a little payroll space aside for moves in coming months.
(It's worth remembering that rosters don't have to be set until the trade deadline, and there could be some valuable players who become available at bargain prices because their teams face salary-cap issues, or who are made expendable as the coming season progresses because a young player develops quicker than expected and took their job. Also, Shero has made it clear that he won't rule out trying to address his team's needs via trades.)
Finding a veteran, sound defenseman -- ideally, to be Kris Letang's partner, assuming Letang reaffirms that he's ready for the NHL during training camp -- figures to be the Penguins' top priority. Guys who might be able to fill that role and who figure to be worth investigating (at least until it's determined that their salary demands are too rich for the Penguins) include Cory Sarich (Tampa Bay), Andy Sutton (Atlanta), Darryl Sydor (Dallas), Vitaly Vishnevski (Nashville), Tom Preissing (Ottawa) and Danny Markov (Detroit).
Up front, they might want to look into Dainius Zubrus (Buffalo) or the chronically underachieving Ladislav Nagy (Dallas), among others, although it's entirely possible both will command more money than the Penguins are willing to pay. And if they go shopping for a backup goalie, ex-Penguin Dany Sabourin (Vancouver) and Mathieu Garon (Los Angeles) might merit consideration.
Q: Why did the Penguins not make a qualifying offer to Michel Ouellet? They need all the help they can get on the wing when it comes to scoring and given how young he is, I think he was a good fit and was especially dangerous on the power play.
Craig Lester, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
MOLINARI: The official explanation was that they feared Ouellet could be awarded an unduly large salary in arbitration, and that concern probably was well-founded, especially for a team that still works with a fairly modest budget. The NHL's collective bargaining agreement gives the Penguins the ability to "walk away" from an arbitration award they deem excessive -- the threshold for activating that option this summer is an award of more than $1.2 million -- and Ouellet might well have received such a salary if he'd "won" his hearing.
One interesting aspect of Ouellet's departure -- albeit one that looks to be entirely coincidental -- is that he is the second member of the organization with strong ties to coach Michel Therrien who has been jettisoned in the past month or so. Previously, the Penguins fired conditioning coach Stephane Dube, who had been with Therrien since he coached junior hockey. The word inside the organization when Dube was let go was that he simply wasn't "fitting in" as well as had been hoped.
Those fond of conspiracy theories might be tempted to draw a connection between the decisions to sever ties to Ouellet and Dube -- especially when it happened against the backdrop of Therrien trying to negotiate a new contract -- but there is zero evidence to suggest any link between their departures.
Q: I was looking at the list of players in Penguins' system and was surprised to see the following guys: Jani Rita, Milan Kraft, Michal Sivek and Richard Lintner. How long do players stay in the system, particularly guys like these who the Pens appeared to have written off years ago? Is there a particular roster rule that they are still there? It reminds of when Peter Lee used to continue to show up on the Pens' unprotected list, years after he was out of the NHL.
Jerri Bullock, Beaver Falls
MOLINARI: The answers to your questions come courtesy of Penguins assistant GM Chuck Fletcher, who took time off from less pressing concerns -- you know, like identifying and signing players who can help make his team a perennial Stanley Cup contender -- to offer these insights:
"All of the players listed were tendered qualifying offers by the Penguins prior to their respective returns to Europe. Accordingly, all were listed by the NHL as Group II (restricted) free agents. However, like players currently playing in the NHL, these Group II players will achieve Group III (unrestricted) status, pursuant to the terms of Article 10.1 of the CBA. In other words, for this summer, any player who has seven accrued seasons or is 28 years of age (as of June 30) will become a Group III free agent. For future seasons, the age drops to 27. Thus, with respect to the players listed, Lintner is free this summer; Kraft and Sivek are free in 2008 and Rita is free in 2009."
(Note: Great. Just what the moderator of this forum needs. Another guy who can explain complicated issues far better than the moderator can. A bad job market for hockey writers just got a little worse.)
Q: I hate to rain on everyone's parade, but I keep reading about Angelo Esposito's "apparent lack of passion at times." What is going to keep this kid from being a Robert Dome or a Milan Kraft?
Ryan Floyd, McCandless
MOLINARI: Absolutely nothing, although linking Kraft with Dome is a stretch. Dome, who played in the American Hockey League before the Penguins drafted him and was purported to be NHL-ready, was an unabashed flop at this level; Kraft was deemed expendable mostly because his sub-par skating would be too much of a hindrance in the post-lockout NHL.
As for Esposito, if he were a mortal lock to be a star in the NHL, you can assume that there wouldn't have been 19 players selected before him last weekend. Especially in a weak draft class. There are reasons he dropped to No. 20, even if it ultimately becomes apparent that the reasons weren't good ones.
Perhaps the most popular rap against Esposito is that he didn't take assume as much of a leadership role with his junior team in Quebec last season as some observers would have liked, which dovetails nicely with the contention that he doesn't want to be cast as his team's go-to guy and is most comfortable in a complementary role.
If the latter proves to be accurate -- and it's way, way too early to reach any conclusions about exactly what Esposito is, let alone what he will be a few years from now -- it's hard to imagine a setting more tailored to his needs. With the Penguins' galaxy of young stars, it will be a lot easier for a player to blend into the background here than it will be to get space in the spotlight.
Q: I'm really surprised the Penguins will not be bringing back Nolan Schaefer because since the trade, he has played really well with the farm team. If he can't be a backup goalie in the NHL with the Penguins, he can at least be a great goalie for Wilkes-Barre.
John Tarbett, Corner Brook, Newfoundland
MOLINARI: It still is not guaranteed that Schaefer won't return; he is a Group VI free agent, which means he will be unrestricted if he isn't re-signed July 1. He qualified for that classification because he has not played in the number of NHL games required for him to be a Group II, which is for restricted free agents.
The Penguins are discussing a new contract with his agent, and he got reasonably good reviews for his work with the Baby Penguins after being acquired from San Jose at the trade deadline. What's more, the Penguins don't exactly have a surplus of goalies in their system, since Andrew Penner will be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent.
Also, Bobby Goepfert wasn't invited to the Penguins' rookie conditioning camp and is not in the team's plans. At the very least, with Jocelyn Thibault (assuming the Penguins don't re-sign him), Penner and Goepfert out of the mix, Shero figures to be spending a lot of time on the phone with agents who represent goalies once free agency gets underway.
The Penguins sent a seventh-round draft choice to San Jose, which develops goaltenders as effectively as any team in the league, for Schaefer at the trade deadline, so getting a significant return on that investment hinges on re-signing him. Then again, they handed Florida a fourth-rounder for Joel Kwiatkowski at the deadline, so perhaps giving the Sharks a seventh-rounder for Schaefer was a steal, no matter where he plays next season. (It should be remembered, of course, that Kwiatkowski was brought in primarily as insurance against an injury to a defenseman during the playoffs.)
Q: I wonder if part of the Shero genius is knowing when to let guys go. Toward the end of the Craig Patrick era, I often felt that not only did the team go after the wrong guys, but compounded the error by retaining them long after they proved ineffective. Shero seems more precise, more willing to admit when a player is a spare part who isn't advancing the team's long-term plan.
Jeff Kraus, Richmond, Va.
MOLINARI: Shero has does some terrific things during his first year-plus on the job -- especially in the way he has restructured and modernized the front-office operation -- but it's a bit premature to be talking about "the Shero genius." He's had a decidedly mixed record on player acquisitions since taking over, picking up some players who have filled significant roles and bringing in others who have done little more than occupy a locker.
The quality you mention is an important one for any GM, however, especially in a sport operating under a salary-cap, and Shero does seem to have it. (The decision to let Ouellet because of concerns about how his salary would mesh with his on-ice contributions is the latest example.) A year ago, Shero, admittedly looking to clear some space on his depth chart, declined to offer contracts to guys like Konstantin Koltsov, even though there were indications they could have played a role at this level.
It's pretty much a given that some of these decisions will backfire at some point -- not every guy who is let go before reaching the prime of his career is going to quietly fade from view -- but the thinking behind them is sound. The idea is to build a championship-caliber team, and if a decision is made that a particular player can't be a meaningful part of realizing that objective, cutting him loose and giving an opportunity to another player or prospect -- Jonathan Filewich, in the case of Ouellet -- makes sense.
Q: I was wondering what kind of take you have on a possible retirement of Jaromir Jagr's number.
Kris, Shadyside, Ohio
MOLINARI: The Penguins, to their credit, have resisted the temptation to retire the number of every player who has made a major contribution to the franchise. The only two so honored, of course, are Michel Briere, whose promising career was cut short by mortal injuries he received in a car accident after his rookie season, and Mario Lemieux, who enjoyed a bit of success in the NHL and never skated a shift for any team except the one he now owns.
A lot of people soured on Jagr during his final few seasons here -- and there was ample reason to, on several levels -- but it remains that he got more goals (439), assists (640) and points (1,079) and played in more games (806) here than anyone in franchise history except Lemieux. Throw in a couple of Stanley Cups and a handful of NHL scoring titles, and making an argument that he deserves such a tribute wouldn't be difficult.
Nonetheless, there is much to be said for keeping the retirement of a number the most exclusive of honors, something done only for those who have had the most profound and enduring impact on the team, and the moderator of this forum would like to see the Penguins take that approach. If they do, the next number that ends up in the rafters of their arena figures to be 87. And if the Penguins are lucky, that ceremony won't be held for a long, long time.