On the sixth day of July, with the season still some three months away, the Penguins are not as good a team as they were when they lost the sixth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs in early June.
Gone, most notably, are Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone, the team's best wingers, who were lost in free agency. In their place, both signed to one-year deals, are Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, two wingers who are less productive and older.
Based on this evidence, it would be easy to cite general manager Ray Shero as having been derelict in his duties. But that's not the case at all. Shero had a masterful grand plan in place that would have made the Penguins just about as good a team as they were at the end of the season and a team far better suited to contend for years ahead.
As it is, the Penguins remain definitely built to contend for the Stanley Cup for the foreseeable future with the long-term signings last week of center Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Brooks Orpik and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. They join with center Sidney Crosby and defenseman Ryan Whitney as the long-term nucleus of a championship-caliber team. All five are under contract through the 2012-13 season and all will be in their prime during that span.
The final piece of this core, center Jordan Staal, will receive a long-term contract offer from the Penguins next summer.
What did not come to fruition, and what would have been the masterstroke of Shero's plan, was the signing of Hossa, the crown jewel of free-agent forwards. Only one of the most bizarre contract negotiations in the history of professional sports stopped Shero from fully executing his plan.
Who ever would have thought Hossa would leave a minimum of about $40 million on the table? Who would have thought he would reject a Penguins offer of about $7 million a year for five to seven years to accept a one-year deal from the Detroit Red Wings that will pay him $7.4 million?
Hossa is either obsessed with winning the Stanley Cup and correctly believes the Red Wings give him the best chance. Or he's stark, raving mad.
The notion that Shero would have tried harder to keep Malone had he known he would not sign Hossa is not correct. The Penguins did not see Malone as a player worth more than $30 million, which is what it would have taken to keep him.
What's most important is the nucleus is intact. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Penguins will be highly competitive and highly profitable for the foreseeable future. No one knows if there's a Stanley Cup in their future -- just as the Red Wings don't know if another one is in their immediate future. All a general manager can do is build his team the best he can within the confines of the salary cap and normal circumstances. Hossa's decision to sign with Detroit falls out of the realm of normal circumstances.
Staal, the final piece of the puzzle, presents an interesting case. Although the Penguins' core has fallen relatively easily into place, with the possible exception of Orpik who was briefly on the free-agent market, Staal might not be so easy. He will have to decide if he wants to be a third-line center, which he will be with the Penguins, and accept the lesser monetary return that comes with the position. He's a quality player, but his talent level might best be suited to centering a third line. He can make himself a wealthy man over the next 15 to 20 years in such a role. He might, however, prefer to be fabulously wealthy and go to a team where he would be a first or second-line center.
There is a third alternative, and it's one the Penguins might be wise in pursuing. Since the team is light at wing, Shero and coach Michel Therrien might want to play Staal at that position. He's done it in the past and with some success. Max Talbot could adequately, at least, handle the third-line center duties if Staal is moved to wing.
It's possible Hossa's rejection of the Penguins money gave the team the cap space to sign Orpik. It's not an even trade off, but Orpik, the team's most physical defenseman, would not easily have been replaced.
The team has a surplus of offensive defensemen, which could give Shero some room to make a trade. Veteran Sergei Gonchar, who has two years remaining on his contract, would figure to be an untouchable. But Whitney is not. With Kris Letang, who plays a similar game to Whitney, having a season of NHL experience behind him and with Alex Goligoski looking to be ready after a strong minor-league season, Whitney, though valuable, is not indispensable.
In order to make cap room or to acquire a forward, he could be moved.
The Penguins look good, and Shero does, too.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .