Penguins face tough decision with free agency


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Sometimes, things just don't make any sense ...

After the 2007-08 NHL season, the Penguins lost good friend Marian Hossa, Jarkko Ruutu and Adam Hall to free agency and would have lost Ryan Malone if they hadn't traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning first. The losses hurt the team so much that it won the Stanley Cup the next season.

Crazy.

After that Cup year, the Penguins lost Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill. This time, the losses stung more than hardly anyone could have imagined; the team was eliminated in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs.

Who saw that coming?

Which leads to another pertinent question:

What impact will the Penguins' free-agent losses this summer have on the team next season?

Not much, I'm thinking.

That isn't to say it wouldn't be wonderful to keep winger Matt Cooke and defenseman Mark Eaton. But the rest? No Sergei Gonchar? No Bill Guerin? No Alexei Ponikarovsky? No Ruslan Fedotenko? No Jordan Leopold? No Jay McKee?

No problem.

I hear you screaming, Gonchar fans. Sorry. It's time to part ways. Gonchar is 36. It's hard to say he's indispensable on the power play when it ranked 19th in the league this season and 20th last season, when it struggled so badly against the Canadiens, going 4 for 25 in the final six games, including 0 for 6 in Game 7. It might be different if Gonchar would take a one-year deal. But he wants more. The Penguins should thank him for five fine, fun years here and move on.

Guerin also deserves a big thank you for his role in winning the Cup. Another contract is another matter. He will hit 40 in November. You know what they say, right? Time stops for no one. Guerin is terrific in the dressing room -- captain Sidney Crosby adores him -- but he shouldn't have a place on the Penguins' 2010-11 roster.

Nor should Ponikarovsky and Fedotenko.

When the Penguins traded high-end prospect Luca Caputi to Toronto to get Ponikarovsky in March, they did so with every expectation of trying to do a new contract with him. That thinking had to change when Ponikarovsky showed them little in 16 regular-season games (two goals) and less in 11 playoff games (one goal). He was so bad that he was scratched for Games 5 and 6 against the Canadiens.

Fedotenko was worse. He was a healthy scratch for seven of the 13 postseason games. You want him back? I didn't think so.

Nothing against Leopold and McKee, it's just time for the Penguins to look for a tougher, better defenseman on the free-agent market. Do you realize they don't have even one defenseman who can fight? It's also time to go with one or two of the young guys in the system. Ben Lovejoy, for sure. Perhaps Deryk Engelland. Maybe Robert Bortuzzo down the road ...

Don't get me wrong. I'd still try to find a spot for Eaton. I like that guy. So smart. So steady. So serviceable. You hardly ever see him out of position or make a mistake. If his price isn't outrageous, he definitely should be brought back.

The same is true of Cooke. He's much more than just an "agitator," a description that he despises. "An agitator, to me, is someone who gets 10 points a year and does his job. I like to think I contribute more to the team than that," he said a few weeks ago. Cooke had 15 goals during the regular season -- playing mostly on a formidable third line with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy -- and was one of the Penguins' best players in the playoffs with four goals. He's also a superb penalty-killer.

There's no question Cooke wants to stay. "I love it here. It's an amazing place," he has said. But that price thing frightens me with him. He might have played so well that the Penguins can't afford him, if not because of the dollars, then because of the years. That's what happened with Ruutu. The Ottawa Senators trumped the Penguins' two-year offer to him by giving him a three-year, $3.9 million contract. Cooke is a much better player than Ruutu. There's a good chance another team will make him an offer he can't refuse.

Good for Cooke, if that happens.

Not so good for the Penguins.

Not the end of the world, though.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published May 21, 2010 4:00 AM


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