On the Penguins: On to a new backup plan

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This does not figure to be a particularly frantic offseason for general manager Ray Shero, whether it begins in a couple of weeks, a couple of months or sometime in between.

He won't have the salary-cap space to go after any of the big-ticket free agents who might be available -- not that Shero makes a habit of that, anyway -- and isn't facing the loss of any high-impact players from his own team.

Steve Sullivan, who will be 38 in July, and fourth-liners Richard Park and Arron Asham are the only forwards on the major league roster eligible for unrestricted free agency -- Eric Tangradi will be restricted if not re-signed before July 1 -- while Matt Niskanen is the only defenseman who has spent the entire season in the NHL who needs a new contract, and he will be restricted.

The Penguins will be allowed to open negotiations with Sidney Crosby July 1 and if that happens -- which is far from certain, since the NHL's labor agreement will expire many months before Crosby's deal does -- things could get interesting because of his spate of injuries the past two seasons.

In general, though, it should be a rather subdued summer.

It is possible, however, that Shero and his staff will decide to revisit the backup goaltending situation for the 2012-13 season, and possibly beyond.

A year ago, the plan of succession seemed clear. Brent Johnson, who is about to qualify for unrestricted free agency, would give way to Brad Thiessen, who was finishing up a season during which he earned recognition as the top goaltender in the American Hockey League.

Seemed like it would be a seamless, perfectly logical transition.

Thiessen, though, is having a fairly ordinary season in the AHL, and did nothing during five appearances in the NHL to suggest that he should be getting steady work at this level.

Johnson, meanwhile, has struggled and just returned from a 17-game absence due to an undisclosed injury.

That doesn't guarantee he's no longer able to be effective in the NHL -- if guys didn't have down seasons, there wouldn't be Comeback Player of the Year awards -- but at 35, there's no guarantee that he can, either.

The Penguins, of course, could decide to bring Johnson back for another season and, because Thiessen will be restricted this summer, they can keep him around a while longer if they still feel he has the potential to become a reliable contributor someday.

If they look elsewhere for a No. 2 goalie, there are two key criteria he must meet: He has to come relatively cheap -- it's hard to imagine the Penguins paying $1 million or more for a backup -- and he has to be content with getting just 15 or 20 starts while maintaining a solid level of play.

Woe for the ones that got away

The NHL's regular season is entering its final week, and the jostling for a favorable playoff position -- or, in some cases, any playoff position -- has gotten especially vigorous.

But while every point seems particularly precious, the obvious reality is that the ones earned in March and April don't count for any more than those picked up in October and November.

Over the course of an 82-game season, every team surrenders points it wishes it could have grabbed, particularly when they were lost to a lesser opponent.

The Penguins, who had been chasing the top seed in the Eastern Conference for weeks, were reminded of how much that stings last week when they absorbed a pair of 5-3 losses to a New York Islanders club that was playing for nothing more than pride and to stave off formal elimination from the playoff race.

Those aren't the only do-overs the Penguins would like for 2011-12, however. Here's a look back at some of the other games whose outcomes they could have, and possibly should have, altered:

Oct. 9: The Penguins give up the tying goal with less than five minutes to go in regulation at Edmonton, then lose in a shootout, 2-1.

Nov. 3: They fail to protect leads of 2-0 and 3-1 at San Jose and yield two goals in the final 12 minutes of the third period before losing, 4-3, in a shootout.

Nov. 12: The Penguins overcome a 3-0 deficit in Carolina, only to surrender two goals during a span of 124 seconds late in the third period of a 5-3 loss.

Dec. 16: Backup goalie Brent Johnson stops just 14 of 19 shots at Scotiabank Place before giving way to Marc-Andre Fleury for the third period of what became a 6-4 defeat by Ottawa.

Jan. 10: The Penguins spot the Senators a four-goal lead in the first 26 minutes, and don't exactly storm back after that in a 5-1 humbling at Consol Energy Center.

March 18: The Penguins, riding an 11-game winning streak, go into Philadelphia and turn in two sensational periods but stumble in the third, allowing two early goals and eventually losing, 3-2, on a Scott Hartnell goal with nine-tenths of a second to go in overtime.

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