Few people expected the Penguins to give a $24 million contract to a defenseman on the first day of free agency.
They were wrong.
General manager Ray Shero didn't use that money to lure a high-profile defenseman from another club, but to re-sign one of his own, Ryan Whitney. He became a restricted free agent at midday yesterday, a couple of hours before word began to circulate that an agreement to keep him here had been reached.
Whitney's contract is for six years, so it will represent a $4 million annual hit against the Penguins' salary cap. Because the deal is backloaded, Whitney's salary will rise after he earns $2.5 million in 2007-08.
Structuring the contact that way works to the Penguins' benefit in two ways: It will allow them to give Whitney the bulk of his money after the remaining three seasons on fellow defenseman Sergei Gonchar's deal are up, and will delay the mostly costly years until the Penguins have settled into the city's new arena, where their revenues will be greater than those generated at Mellon Arena.
"Obviously for me, it's unbelievable," Whitney said. "For six years, it's fair to them, too. With the other guys they'll have to sign [in coming years], I don't think I screwed them over."
At the very least, Whitney left management enough money to sign free-agent goalie Dany Sabourin to a two-year deal worth $1.025 million.
Sabourin was the Penguins' most impressive goalie during training camp last fall, but was claimed on waivers by Vancouver after they tried to assign him to their minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre. He figures to serve as Marc-Andre Fleury's backup.
The Penguins also looked into signing rugged defenseman Scott Hannan, but he accepted a four-year deal reportedly worth $18 million from Colorado.
Shero, who is overseeing the Penguins' free-agent maneuvers, was not available last evening to discuss the Whitney signing or any other moves he might be attempting to make.
Because Whitney was a restricted free agent, the Penguins had the right to either match any offer he received from another club or to get compensation if they had declined to match. Their other restricted free agents are forwards Colby Armstrong, Tim Brent, Erik Christensen and Maxime Talbot and defenseman Ryan Lannon.
Whitney volunteered that it was conceivable that he would have received an offer sheet -- "Not that I would have signed one" -- and avoiding the mess that could have created appeared to be part of the reason he said, "I'm glad to get it done."
Whitney is part of a core of young talent management believes will help the team mature into a consistent Stanley Cup contender in coming seasons. He tied for sixth in the NHL scoring race among defensemen in 2006-07, putting up 14 goals and 45 assists in 81 games.
Although he is going through a rehabilitation program for a surgically repaired wrist, Whitney is expected to be fully recovered by the starting of training camp in September.
Yesterday, he certainly sounded as if he already is mentally prepared for 2007-08. No surprise there, given the success the Penguins had last season, when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2001, and their considerable potential.
"I couldn't be happier being there, with the group of guys we have," Whitney said. "I couldn't be more excited."
Mostly because of all he believes this team can accomplish, beginning in 2007-08.
"This year, we know what we can be," Whitney said. "We can be an elite team."
NOTES -- Penguins executives expect to speak again with University of Minnesota defenseman Alex Goligoski in the next few days about whether he will turn pro or play his senior season with the Golden Gophers. ... The Penguins' exhibition schedule has not been announced yet, but is expected to include two games in Montreal and home-and-home series with Buffalo and Detroit. ... Right winger Michel Ouellet, to whom the Penguins declined to extend a qualifying offer last week, accepted a two-year deal with Tampa Bay. He reportedly will get $1.2 million in 2007-08, $1.3 million the following season.Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Ryan Whitney, center, gets new deal for six years that will represent a $4 million annual salary-cap hit.
Click photo for larger image.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .