On the Penguins: Crosby pact will be tricky

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The anticipation about Sidney Crosby's return to work, and everything associated with it, has bordered on breathless for nearly a week.

Every aspect of his impending comeback, it seems, has been discussed. Then dissected. Then discussed again.

• How long he will need to get acclimated to game conditions. (Or, more to the point, if the time required will be better measured in seconds or shifts.)

• Whether having him back might dull some of the urgency in his teammates' work.

• How quickly Crosby and his linemates will jell and, if they don't, how long it will be before he gets new ones.

• Whether getting him back will allow the Penguins to make a serious run at overtaking the New York Rangers for first place in the Eastern Conference, something unfathomable just a couple of weeks ago.

But before Crosby made it known Tuesday that he had been cleared for contact, putting him on the cusp of his second comeback of the season, much of the talk about him had focused on what his next contract will look like.

A pretty obvious topic since Crosby is widely regarded as the best player in the game when healthy but hasn't been healthy often in the past 14-plus months.

Striking a balance between what Crosby can do on the ice and how infrequently he's been able to do it since suffering a concussion in early January 2011 could be quite a challenge for general manager Ray Shero and Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson.

While it's clear that both parties would like to have Crosby spend his entire career here, the best approach for all concerned might be to work on a short-term deal, once negotiations are allowed to begin July 1.

That would allow the Penguins to avoid the risks of committing huge money for a lot of years to a guy who's future is at least a little uncertain, while giving Crosby an opportunity to establish that the concussion/neck problems he's experienced won't have a permanent impact on his performance, thus allowing him to maximize his earnings in the contract that would follow a short-term agreement.

Another plus for both sides is that no one knows at this point what the league's next collective bargaining agreement will look like, so a deal for no more than a couple of seasons would limit the risk of the Penguins paying more -- or of Crosby accepting less -- than would be reasonable under the next labor deal.

Crosby, by the way, is about to get a pay cut.

Not necessarily in his next contract, but in the final season of his current one.

After earning $9 million in each of the first four seasons of that deal, Crosby's salary will drop to $7.5 million in 2012-13.

Chuck Grillo: What those eyes can see

Chuck Grillo, the former Penguins scout, might be the consummate hockey man.

He has spent pretty much his entire life in and around rinks, primarily in his native Minnesota.

His offseason conditioning camp in Brainerd, Minn., has been a must-attend event for countless players over the years -- former Penguins forward Ryan Malone is one who credits the program with giving his career a significant boost -- and Grillo's quick and total recall of the assets and liabilities of players he has watched is remarkable.

Grillo was in town for the Mario Lemieux statue unveiling Wednesday and, at one point, steered a casual conversation toward Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen.

Niskanen hails from Virginia, Minn., so it was no surprise that Grillo could offer a detailed assessment of his game from shortly after Niskanen entered youth hockey to the time he left Minnesota-Duluth to turn pro.

In the process, Grillo brought up what he said used to be one of the most striking features of Niskanen's game. And "striking" is the operative term.

Niskanen, Grillo said, was a punishing hitter during his developmental years, so much so that Grillo invoked the name of Brooks Orpik by way of comparison.

Niskanen entered the weekend averaging about 1.3 hits per game -- down from an average of just under two in 2010-11 -- so he isn't going to show up on any list of the NHL's most frequent hitters.

And at 6 feet, 200 pounds, it isn't realistic to expect him to play the body as often, or as vigorously, as a guy like Orpik, who is 6 feet 2, 219 pounds and has long had physical play as a cornerstone of his game.

At the same time, Niskanen has been solid at both ends of the ice all season, and the confidence generated by his strong play serves to further elevate the quality of his overall work.

Fact is, the quality and consistency of his play in 2011-12 has been such that, if not for the number and nameplate on his sweater, people probably wouldn't know it was the same guy who was struggling so mightily at the end of last season.

So while it probably isn't realistic to expect Niskanen to start smearing opposing forwards on a regular basis, perhaps the possibility shouldn't be ruled out, either.

And if Niskanen does make the big hit a part of his repertoire, the way Grillo says it once was, a guy who was a virtual afterthought going into training camp will become even more established on one of the NHL's deepest defense corps.



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