Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari

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Q: Wow, a five-year deal. That's only one year longer than the Pens would have held Sidney Crosby's rights as a restricted free agent. This is pretty close to a worst-case scenario for Pittsburgh. He'll be unrestricted (shortly before turning) 26, just as he enters what are typically the most productive years of a player's career. Cap or no cap, arena or no arena, the Pens likely will have a tough time matching the dollars that will be thrown at him then, not to mention that by then he simply may want a change of scenery. Too bad, it would be tough to watch him skate away so soon. Poor deal on behalf of the Pens.

Keith Justus, Las Vegas

MOLINARI: There was a stunning burst of negativity -- even among some extremely knowledgeable Q&A correspondents, including the author of this submission -- in the hours after news of Crosby's contract extension broke Tuesday.

Some Penguins partisans didn't like the length of the deal, apparently believing Crosby should have allowed himself to be tied up until he reached a federally mandated retirement age. Others felt that accepting $1.36 million less than the amount to which he was entitled under the current salary cap -- a figure that figures to go up again next summer, when Crosby would have been eligible for restricted free agency and would have received an offer sheet for the new maximum -- was not nearly magnanimous enough for the best player in the game. Too bad, apparently, that the league's labor agreement doesn't allow a guy to work for minimum wage plus tips.

The core truth that all those displeased with the deal seemed to overlook was that Crosby could have demanded a one-year deal. And gotten it. Demanded the salary-cap max. And gotten it. Demanded that the Penguins repeat the procedure every summer until he qualified for unrestricted free agency. And gotten it.

Instead, he gave them six years of cost-certainty and, in the process, established the Penguins' unofficial salary cap, because there can't be a teammate -- or even a teammate's agent -- with the temerity to suggest he's worthy of earning more than Crosby.

Also, just because Crosby will be eligible for unrestricted free agency when he's 25 doesn't mean he'll exercise that option; he would have been eligible for restricted free agency at 20, too, but opted to sign this contract extension a year before that became relevant. It's hardly out of the question now that he will do likewise in the summer of 2012.

What's more, if Crosby leaves the Penguins when he becomes unrestricted, it almost certainly will not be for financial reasons. Unless the fundamental nature of the league's labor deal is altered in the interim, Crosby still will be entitled to only 20 percent of a team's cap maximum. If retaining him would be the Penguins' top priority -- and it's hard to believe it wouldn't be -- they should be able to come up with the same money that Philadelphia or Detroit or Toronto or the New York Rangers or any other club could throw at him.

Now, should Crosby opt to leave via unrestricted free agency for a different reason -- whether it's because he wants to play closer to his home province of Nova Scotia or because he'd like to be in a larger (or smaller) market or simply because he's grown weary of Pittsburgh accents -- there's nothing the Penguins could do to stop him, and that's a facet of the CBA they would just have to learn to accept.

Barring something cataclysmic, though, the absolute worst-case scenario for Penguins fans is that they will have a chance to watch a player who should become one of the greatest in NHL history for the first eight years of his pro career. Fans of every club should have to experience such agony.


Q: While it's nice that Crosby was willing to be flexible enough to allow management to have something left over to keep at least some of this nucleus intact, who's to say that an agent of one of the other young guys doesn't just think, 'Well, OK, maybe Sid accepted less than the max, but who's to say that a team won't find my client worth more to their particular team'? Imagine if Scott Boras ever became an agent of NHL players.

Rob St Pierre, Concord, N.H.

MOLINARI: There's (at least) one major distinction between hockey agents and those who work in baseball: The hockey guys operate within a salary-cap system, and their baseball counterparts don't. That explains why people who represent big-money baseball players have teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox on speed-dial, while not even keeping some small-market clubs on their Rolodex. Hockey, conversely, has a labor agreement designed to give all 30 franchises a reasonable chance to be economically competitive.

The concern you raise, though, is quite valid, and the scenario you lay out is realistic. While no player should allow an agent to make life-altering decisions for him -- that's what spouses are for -- there's no question that the agent's primary charge usually is to maximize his client's earnings, and precedent tells us that in most cases, players will accept the most lucrative offer, regardless of other considerations. (Not surprisingly, many come to regret decisions made solely on the basis of money, but recognize it only with the benefit of hindsight.)

Frankly, it's hard to logically begrudge any player the decision to make as much as he can when the opportunity presents itself. Most have a limited window of time during which their earnings power is at its peak and taking full advantage of that makes sense, especially for players with no training in any other line of work. While some fans might decry a lack of loyalty among modern-day players, the reality is that most fans' loyalties are to their team's sweater, not the guys who wear it. A fourth-liner who's besieged by adoring citizens after home games now can expect to be all but ignored by the same people six months later if he retires, or joins another club.

Over the next two years, general manager Ray Shero will have to re-sign Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury and, at this point, there's reason to be optimistic that he'll be able to do so. Not only because Crosby has given him some fiscal wiggle room, but because all three will be restricted free agents when their current deals expire. That means that even if the Penguins fail to sign them before they hit the open market, they will be able to retain them simply by matching any offer another club would make.

The best guess at this point -- and any number of variables could cause a profound change in the projection -- is that the Penguins' window of opportunity to be a dominant team will be open for six more seasons; if their young players develop the way management believes they will. If the team has the success of which it seems capable, the Penguins might simply have too many elite players to keep them all while still fielding a 23-man roster, when that period is up. Terrible problem to have, huh?


Q: If Buffalo wouldn't have matched Edmonton's offer to Thomas Vanek, the Sabres would have gotten four first-round picks as compensation. That means the Sabres would have eight first-round picks within the next four years (four from the Oilers, four of their own). Wouldn't it have been worth losing Vanek for such great potential in all those first-round picks?

Mike, Grand Rapids, Mich.

MOLINARI: In the instance you cited, Buffalo pretty much had no choice but to match any offer Vanek received because it already had absorbed two major public-relations setbacks when free agents Chris Drury (Rangers) and Daniel Briere (Philadelphia) left town. Losing a star-in-the-making like Vanek, regardless of the cost of keeping him, might have alienated a significant portion of the Sabres' fan base. (Although the price Buffalo had to pay for Vanek underscores the importance of having realistic negotiations with key restricted free agents before they go on the market.)

The CBA's compensation formula, coupled with the reality that nearly any offer will be matched, deters most teams from submitting proposals to restricted free agents, but Oilers GM Kevin Lowe was reacting to a public-relations crisis of his own: After Michael Nylander backed out of an agreement to play for Lowe's team, apparently because his wife didn't want to live in Edmonton, Lowe wanted to re-establish that Edmonton is an attractive destination for NHL players, as well as add a quality young goal-scorer to his lineup.

While four first-round draft choices seems a steep price, the value of those picks can vary dramatically. After all, the second selection in Round 1 is a first-rounder, but so is the 29th. Clearly, those choices would not have the same appeal to another club. Now, it's possible that Edmonton is in a downward spiral that will result in the Oilers having a top-five choice in each of the next four drafts, in which case the picks Buffalo would have gotten for Vanek likely would produce a couple of impact players. Conversely, the Oilers could be on the cusp of a resurgence and might finish in the top half of the overall standings for four seasons in a row, thus giving the Sabres a string of so-so first-rounders, with little reason to think any would yield another player of Vanek's caliber.

Under the circumstances, holding onto Vanek was the only prudent decision Sabres GM Darcy Regier could have made.


Q: I may be in the minority, but I feel Sergei Gonchar is overrated. Although his goal-scoring was near the top of the league (among defensemen) last year, he struggles getting the puck to the net from the point, skates with heavy feet and lacks grit. For what he's being paid, I think the Pens could and should expect more.

Todd Walter, Boardman, Ohio

MOLINARI: If that's true, their expectations for Gonchar should skyrocket any minute now, because his pay is about to -- he is scheduled to be paid $5.5 million, 6 million and $5.5 million in the remaining three years of the deal he signed as a free agent in 2005.

Whether Gonchar has been worthy of his seven-figure salary during much of his first two seasons with the Penguins is, to be charitable, open to debate and it's hard to believe that the caliber of his performance will rise significantly now that his salary is about to. While Gonchar does have some serious offensive ability -- his 67 points last season were surpassed among defensemen only by the 69 put up by Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer -- no one is going to accuse him of overachieving.

At the same time, even his most ferocious detractors shouldn't expect to see him playing for anyone but the Penguins in the near future, despite the fact that they now have a number of other offense-oriented defensemen -- guys like Ryan Whitney, Kristopher Letang and Alex Goligoski -- on their depth chart. There just aren't that many teams that would be able, let alone willing, to take on Gonchar's contract, even though his salary-cap hit ($5 million) is a bit lower than his pay will be.


Q: Does the recent season-ticket boom have any negative effect on how much money the team can make in the coming season? Typically, full- and half-season plans cost less per game than mini-plans and single-game tickets, so one might expect less revenue as a result. My guess is those extra sales will actually increase the team's revenue, compared to the cheap walk-up tickets that were sold via the Student Rush program.

Doug McKinney, Bethel Park

MOLINARI: Single-game tickets and those sold in mini-plans are, as a rule, more expensive than those in full- or half-season plans, so they do produce more revenue. However, they also cost more to sell, because some expenses related to them, such as staging marketing campaigns, wouldn't be needed if all allotted tickets were sold in full- and half-season plans.

Your point about the team making more money off of tickets sold as part of full- or half-season plans rather than being distributed via the Student Rush is well-taken, but the Penguins also showed commendable foresight by cutting off season-ticket sales so that some seats would be left for things like single-game sales and Student Rush.

Not all fans can afford season tickets, and by setting aside seats for individual games and for purchase by students, the Penguins are acting to make certain that the pool of people who actually attend games doesn't stagnate, that a meaningful segment of their fan base doesn't get out of the habit of watching games in person occasionally.

That's important, because while the Penguins appear to be on the cusp of an extraordinary run, it's worth remembering that success in pro sports tends to be cyclical. Indeed, many years of failure and losing helped the Penguins to acquire much of the talent that's made their rebuilding program so promising to this point. There almost certainly will come a time again when the franchise will again go through a down period like the one from which it only recently emerged, and that's when having a large and loyal fan base in place will be particularly important for the economic health of the franchise.


Q: How do you see Kris Letang fitting into the Penguins next season? With Gonchar and Whitney returning, do the Penguins have enough playing time for another offensive defenseman, or would he be better served getting more ice time in the minors?

Dion Phillips, Tantallon, Nova Scotia

MOLINARI: The Penguins do not try to hide that they would like to see Letang earn a place on the NHL roster this fall, so it's reasonable to believe that he'll be given every opportunity to do so. It also can be assumed that the Penguins will not force-feed him to the NHL if they determine he is not ready for it.

Letang is a particularly valuable commodity because he is a right-handed shot -- the only one with a chance to play on the Penguins' defense, the way it's currently constituted -- but there are real risks to throwing a young defensemen in over his head, because the damage done to his psyche could take a long time to repair. It's definitely better to introduce a young defenseman to the NHL three months after he was ready than three months before.

Nonetheless, even though Letang was a late arrival at the Penguins' rookie camp, it was hard to overlook him when he skated with some of the organization's other top prospects and young players. That certainly isn't enough to guarantee that he'll play in the NHL this winter, but it reinforced the belief that no one should pencil him in for Wilkes-Barre's lineup just yet, either.


Q: I don't think overtimes or shootouts will be eliminated anytime soon. Since this is the case, I wanted to know your thoughts on this -- two points for a victory. Overtime, shootout or otherwise. I don't see the need for awarding one point for a tie. I also think it would be interesting to see each team's strategies when the one point is no longer guaranteed.

Phil, Robinson

MOLINARI: As has been mentioned here several times during the past few years, the moderator of this forum is a traditionalist who is not a fan of regular-season overtime (especially the four-on-four version now employed), let along the novelty act that is the shootout. Certainly, those seem to be popular with a significant portion of the paying public -- and keeping the customer satisfied is critical for any business -- but there also are plenty of people who have no problem with a well-played tie.

Your point about the approach teams would take if they no longer were guaranteed a point for taking a game beyond regulation has considerable merit -- certainly, it would figure to make teams a little more willing to take risks, although some might get more cautious and hope for a mistake on which to capitalize -- but the feeling here is that if a team can play its opponent on even terms for 60 minutes, it deserves a point for its effort.



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