NOTE: The Penguins Q&A is going on hiatus. It is scheduled to return on Friday, Aug. 31.
Q: Speaking of Tom Fitzgerald and playoff ghosts, was there ever a bigger upset in NHL playoff history than that 1993 series against the Islanders? The 1992-93 Pens team may have been better than the two Cup-winning teams. And wouldn't that Eastern Conference final (Mario Lemieux vs. Patrick Roy) have been fun to watch?
Tony Verdream, South Side
MOLINARI: Fitzgerald, who was named the Penguins' director of player development a few days ago, not only scored the series-winning goal in Florida's upset of the Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference final, but was part of the Islanders team that stunned the Penguins in seven games during Round 2 in 1993, so his fingerprints can be found on a couple of the most disappointing moments in franchise history.
But shocking as the Panthers' victory was, it actually pales alongside what New York did three years earlier. That's not to downplay what Florida accomplished -- remember, the franchise was in just its third season -- but only the Islanders' parents could have liked their chances of beating the Penguins in 1993. And even they probably had grave reservations.
That was, in fact, the best team in Penguins history, even though the two previous ones had captured the Stanley Cup. It piled up 119 points during the regular season -- which was 32 more than New York and included a league-record 17 consecutive victories in the weeks leading up to the playoffs -- and featured an absolutely fearsome collection of talent, from Lemieux and Ron Francis to Jaromir Jagr and Joe Mullen to Kevin Stevens and Rick Tocchet.
New York never was intimidated, though -- precisely why remains a mystery, considering how overmatched the Islanders were -- and goalie Glenn Healy had an exceptional series, Darius Kasparaitis drove Lemieux and Jagr to distraction and the otherwise forgettable David Volek claimed his 15 minutes of fame by beating Tom Barrasso in overtime of Game 7.
New York promptly lost to Montreal in the Wales Conference final, and the Canadiens went on to defeat Los Angeles for the Cup. That is Montreal's most recent championship, but the Canadiens wouldn't have gotten it if they'd been forced to face the Penguins in the third round, assuming the Penguins performed at anything remotely close to their potential. Roy was brilliant in the playoffs that year and a young left winger named John LeClair showed a real knack for scoring clutch goals, but the Penguins would have been a prohibitive favorite in a series with Montreal. Kind of like they were against the Islanders.
Q: With the core of young stars the Penguins have and probable salary-cap issues, would it not be better to stagger the yearly salaries of players? Instead of increasing Ryan Whitney's salary and backloading it, would it be beneficial to frontload it, since we have much more cap room now than, say, three years from now, and then have money to pay Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal et. al.? Or is it the contract's average that is factored in yearly?
Rik Sable, Tampa
MOLINARI: For salary-cap purposes, it is the average annual value of the contract that counts; the cap hit on Sidney Crosby's new deal, for example, will be $8.7 million per year, even though he won't be paid exactly $8.7 million in any of the five seasons the deal covers. The same is true of Sergei Gonchar's $25 million deal; it never calls for a salary of $5 million, but that is its yearly cap hit.
You could make a case for frontloading a few contracts, if you accept that the Penguins' stable of young talent will be drawing bigger checks in a few years and believe that attaining something of a balance from year to year might make it easier for management to come up with the actual cash needed to meet the next round of contractual obligations. However, the Penguins expect their revenues to increase significantly when they move into the city's new multi-purpose arena, probably during the 2009-10 season, so deferring some major financial outlays until those funds start to roll in seems like good planning.
Q: While the Penguins are on a tremendous upswing right now, these things run in cycles, and they will be back on a downswing in a number of years. That said, it seems that the team is cultivating a very strong young fan base. As the new arena is still in the planning stages, do you think there would be any thought to increasing the number of seats beyond what was initially projected? I realize the team's potential won't always be as high as it is now, especially over the 30-plus year life of the new building, and that the ticket demand won't always be as high. I would think, though, that it would be something to think about, especially with the team having to cut off season-ticket sales recently.
MOLINARI: If the decision on how many seats to include in the new building would be based solely on the current level of interest in the team, the Penguins probably could have the arena planners put in at least twice the 18,000 or so scheduled.
But even though there's no question the Penguins could routinely sell more seats than are currently included in the project -- at least while their team is so entertaining and promising -- there are several factors that help to determine the "correct" number to have.
Market size is an obvious one, and western Pennsylvania has been losing population for decades. It would be nice -- on many levels -- to have that trend reverse, but only the incurably optimistic really believe that will happen in a significant way anytime soon.
Also, do not forget that while the Penguins will be the primary tenant of the new building, they won't account for more than a quarter or third of the events staged there, and the kind of crowds other events can be expected to draw has to be taken into consideration. Obviously, some big-name acts could fill even the most cavernous building, but that isn't necessarily true of truck pulls and ice shows and pro wrestling cards.
While some misguided souls persist in identifying the new building as a "hockey arena for the Penguins," the reality is that it's a multi-purpose building for any number of events, and the needs and drawing power of other groups that will use the facility must be taken into consideration when the facility is being designed.
Q: Where do you think the Pens plan on using Jeff Taffe on their NHL roster?
Neil Lifeson, West Palm Beach, Fla.
MOLINARI: It is fairly presumptuous, at this point, to believe that Taffe will be on the NHL roster, at least when the 2007-08 season begins.
He signed a two-way contract with the Penguins, which means that assigning him to Wilkes-Barre would have an obvious (and literal) payoff for the parent club. Consequently, the onus will be on Taffe to prove that he belongs in the NHL; he must play his way onto the team, rather than having to avoid playing his way off it.
Taffe can play center or wing, but given the Penguins' collection of capable bodies in the middle, it seems likely that he would challenge for work on the wing, likely on the fourth line. There was a time when Taffe was deemed to have decent offensive potential -- that's part of the reason St. Louis invested a first-round draft choice in him in 2000 -- but he's never put up very good numbers in the NHL (15 goals, 13 assists in 100 games) and has settled into more of a blue-collar niche.
Still, he is a gamble. The Penguins are obliged to pay him just $500,000 if he works in the NHL and if he can maintain a consistent effort, his size (6 foot 3, 207 pounds), grit and versatility could make him a worthwhile addition to the supporting cast.
Q: It would be interesting to know what is available for Sidney Crosby when it comes to income streams off the ice. Because of his ability, youth, good looks and personality, could he be a "breakthrough" guy who takes him above the ceiling of endorsements that hockey players usually attain? Could he get to a place where his hockey salary is not his main income, a la Michael Jordan?
Ross Brightwell, Maple Glen , Pa.
MOLINARI: For all the assets Crosby has, expecting any hockey player to become a major advertising figure in this country probably isn't realistic. Even Wayne Gretzky, whose popularity in much of North America was considerably higher than it was in this region, managed only a handful of national endorsements while playing in Los Angeles.
At this point, Crosby has three endorsement deals in Canada -- Reebok, Tim Horton's and Gatorade -- and one (Reebok) in the U.S. It is not known what Crosby makes off the ice, but it seems unlikely that his endorsement earnings will surpass the money he'll make when his new contract kicks in.
If it's any consolation for him, though, he's still pulling in a bit more cash than most guys who are still a few weeks shy of their 20th birthday.
Q: What are the chances Ryan Malone plays for Pittsburgh next year? He looked somewhere between awful and terrible over the (final) month. I like Malone and his personality. I like that he's a hometown hero and he has a passion for hockey (sometimes), but he really makes it tough for me to like him as a 2007-08 Penguin. Do you think Malone is worth trading?
Tim Simmons, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: At the very least, Malone has played his way off any "untouchable" list the Penguins might have. That doesn't necessarily mean they're actively shopping him, but it's safe to assume that if another general manager would call Ray Shero to inquire about Malone's availability, Shero would at least listen to what the other guy had to say.
Malone has the size and skill to be extremely effective at this level, but never has played with the consistency expected from a player who is part of his team's core. The obvious risk in trading him would be that the return almost certainly would not reflect the impact player Malone could become if the elements of his game ever mesh on a regular basis. Conversely, the motivation for moving him -- assuming management had concluded that he's unlikely ever to be consistent -- would be to get something valuable back for him before other clubs decide that he isn't worth a gamble.
Q: Why doesn't the NHL adopt an 86-game schedule, with each team playing the other teams in their conference four times and those in the other conference two times? The NHL could showcase it stars in every city and it would level the playing field for the conference races.
Jerry A. Frissora, Reston, Va.
MOLINARI: Your proposed format would address a couple of issues that have gotten considerable attention from fans and some people inside the industry, although it would create at least one new one from the league's perspective: NHL executives contend (although not everyone agrees) that intra-division games are critical to developing rivalries that sell tickets, and your plan would significantly reduce the number of those.
Even more important, though, any change in the length of the season would have to be negotiated with the NHL Players' Association, and salaries would have to be increased accordingly. (Even the guys who really, really love their jobs aren't likely to be happy about the idea of playing four games for free.)
What's more, because many people believe the season already is too long, if there is a change in the number of games at some point in the future, odds are it would be a reduction, not an increase.