With some players attending to injuries and others mulling their future, the Penguins are in transition between evaluating their second-round exit from the playoffs and solidifying a plan for 2010-11.
"It certainly is time to lay the groundwork for next year, and we're starting to do that," general manager Ray Shero said Friday in a wide-ranging interview.
Shero said the team's returning players are expected to be healthy in time for next season, although defenseman Brooks Orpik likely faces surgery for an unspecified injury in his abdominal area he has had for several months.
Top-line left winger Chris Kunitz might be able to avoid surgery for a torn groin muscle he dealt with through at least the playoffs, Shero said.
Those players are locked up for next season, and Shero does not expect changes among the assistants -- "I'm very happy with our coaching staff," he said -- but there could be some roster turnover with eight players eligible for unrestricted free agency if they are not re-signed by July 1.
Shero said his No. 1 priority among those eight is top defenseman Sergei Gonchar, 36, who closed out a contract that carried a $5 million salary-cap hit.
"He's one of the better defensemen in the league still," Shero said. "It's trying to find the right fit, cap-wise and with term. ... Once we get more into it, we'll find out if we can make a fit."
The Penguins got good news when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the salary cap is expected to rise by about $2 million from its current $56.8 million. There had been concern about a possible precipitous drop in the cap for 2010-11 because of the sour economy.
Another priority for Shero among potential free agents is winger Matt Cooke, who combines strong physical play with some skill. Shero said at 32 and coming off a strong season in which he matched his career high with 15 goals, Cooke might have to makes some choices between staying with a contending club where he is comfortable or pursuing a large, long-term contract for family security.
Shero indicated that the Penguins and winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who had a disappointing season with a career-low 11 goals and was a healthy scratch at times in the playoffs, have pretty well decided to part ways.
"I think [Fedotenko] will probably will look elsewhere," Shero said.
The same could happen with Jay McKee, a seventh or eighth defenseman in his lone season with the Penguins.
"Jay McKee probably wants to play a higher level, but we're still talking," Shero said.
One potential free agent who intrigues Shero is Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was acquired just before the trade deadline in early March as a winger for center Evgeni Malkin.
Ponikarovsky, though, struggled mightily to produce, with two goals in 16 regular-season games and one in 11 playoff games.
"I don't think we've closed the door on [Ponikarovsky]," Shero said. "We have to see how things work out for us.
"Why it didn't work, we don't know, but whether it's with us or somebody else, he'll bounce back."
Shero said winger Bill Guerin, who turns 40 in November, has made his intentions clear.
"Billy wants to play," Shero said.
"I think Billy is like a Mark Recchi. They're very competitive guys. We just have to sort things out and see what the fit is."
The Penguins' other potential free agents are defensemen Mark Eaton and Jordan Leopold. Ben Lovejoy, their top prospect on defense, is eligible for restricted free agency.
Shero said that in recent meetings with his staff, there was a lot of discussion about why the Penguins were inconsistent through the regular season and lost in seven games in the second round to Montreal.
One aspect they considered was fatigue after the team advanced to the Stanley Cup final the previous two years, winning the title last year, and had five players who went to the Olympics in February.
"Dan [Bylsma, the coach] and his staff did a great job trying to prepare the team," Shero said, noting that they talked with other coaches from various sports about defending a title, and Shero spoke with Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert.
"Once you have to go through it, you find out it's difficult. The inconsistency or the focus -- we felt that when they needed they had to do it, they thought they could do it. They always felt they could find it."
Shero's theory is that the Penguins did not have a dominant player or two against Montreal as they had in each of their five previous playoff series -- goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round of 2009 against Philadelphia, center Sidney Crosby in the next round against Washington, Malkin in the Eastern Conference final against Carolina and Fleury and center Jordan Staal in the final against Detroit.
Crosby tore through Ottawa in the first round this year with 14 points.
"In the second round, we didn't really find it -- one player to step up," Shero said. "We've got to just bounce back."
NOTE -- The Penguins made a minor trade, acquiring Swedish goaltender Mattias Modig, 23, from Anaheim in exchange for a 2010 sixth-round draft pick, and signing Modig to a two-year, entry-level contract. Modig spent the past four seasons playing in Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League in his hometown.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721.