Free agents Martin, Michalek join Penguins

Gonchar signs with Ottawa, Hamhuis lands in Vancouver


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This was not, by any means, the way Ray Shero's plan was supposed to work out.

Not even close.

If the pieces had fallen into place the way he was hoping, Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis would have pledged their services to the Penguins well before noon Thursday, and Shero could have devoted the free-agency signing period sifting through a rather suspect collection of forwards posing as top-six wingers.

But Shero concluded well before midday that Gonchar, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with Ottawa, would not accept the two-year contract the Penguins were offering and realized when his exclusive negotiating rights with Hamhuis expired at noon that it was time to explore other possibilities.

Quickly. And, more important, effectively.

And so, shortly after Gonchar joined the Senators -- and well before Hamhuis signed a six-year contract in Vancouver -- Shero had a five-year, $20 million deal in place with Zbynek Michalek, late of Phoenix, and shortly thereafter, a five-year agreement worth $25 million with Paul Martin, formerly of New Jersey.

In the process, Shero gave his defense corps the makeover -- and upgrade -- he had been hoping for.

Whether the group, which also figures to include Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland, is better than it would have been with Gonchar and Hamhuis on the payroll is impossible to say yet.

Shero, though, seems to like the chances.

"I made it clear that we'd like to sign Dan Hamhuis and Sergei Gonchar," he said. "That didn't happen, but I think we're really, really ecstatic to have Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek."

That's understandable, because Martin was regarded by many as the best two-way defenseman available in this free-agent class, and Michalek is an exceptional shot-blocker with shutdown potential.

Both consume major minutes and can work the point of the power play, although neither should be expected to do it as efficiently as Gonchar, one of the top offensive defensemen in recent NHL history.

"Nobody is going to replace Sergei Gonchar," Shero said. "Sergei is an extremely talented offensive player, good for 50 or 60 points."

Martin managed just 11 of those last season, mostly because a broken left forearm he got when struck by a Bill Guerin shot Oct. 24 at Mellon Arena limited him to 22 appearances.

Martin recalled that "I was in front of net, and put myself in a bad spot" when he was injured, and when the fracture didn't heal correctly at first, his rehabilitation took up much of the winter.

He added that he's "back to 100 percent," and obviously does not carry a grudge because it did not stop him from signing here. In fact, Martin declined lucrative offers from clubs like Los Angeles, Toronto and the Devils to join the Penguins.

"I'm excited," he said, citing the caliber of the Penguins' personnel and their new rink as contributing factors.

The Penguins lost another defenseman when Jordan Leopold signed a three-year deal with Buffalo. Another former Penguins defenseman, Mark Eaton, remains an unsigned free agent.

Whether the Penguins will have a new forward on the NHL depth chart by the time the Consol Energy Center opens this fall remains to be seen. Shero and his staff focused on defensemen Thursday; today, they will evaluate the wingers still on the market and decide whether one is worth pursuing.

"We're going to sit back over the next day or so and just see what's still out there, from a forwards standpoint," Shero said.

Bringing back Guerin, who apparently has balked at accepting a reduction in the $2 million he was paid last season, is a possibility.

"I can't say Billy's out of the picture at this point," Shero said, noting that he spoke with Guerin Thursday and that at least one club had inquired about him.

Still, the Penguins will not rule out filling their openings up front from inside the organization, especially if Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal is shifted from center to wing on one of the top two lines.

Shero ran through a list of prospects such as Eric Tangradi, Mark Letestu, Dustin Jeffrey and Nick Johnson, and said, "These guys are deserving of some looks here."

He was quick to add that preventing goals has been more of a problem than scoring them for the Penguins in recent years, which is why improving the defense corps was his top priority.

"I think we've done that," Shero said. "We have a heck of a corps of defensemen who are signed for a number of years. They're at the right age, I think. We're pretty thrilled.

"You can't replace Sergei, but one day, we had to. And it happens to be today."


Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published July 2, 2010 4:00 AM


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