Penguins don't have much wiggle room



Sometime soon, perhaps as early as today, Penguins ownership is expected to reveal whether it intends to pry Ray Shero’s nameplate from his office door at Consol Energy Center.

Shero has been the general manager since 2006, and assembled the final, critical pieces of their Stanley Cup-winning team in 2009.

He also cobbled together the next five editions, only one of which got even halfway to the 16 victories required for a championship.

Penguins players talk about disappointing finish

Sidney Crosby and other Penguins talk about the disappointing end to their season, bowing out in the second round of the NHL playoffs to the New York Rangers. (Video by Andrew Rush; 5/15/2014)

While there were plausible explanations for the first couple of playoff failures — fatigue in 2010, injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in 2011 — the disappointments continued long after the excuses ran out.

Shero tried to tweak his lineup, to varying degrees, each of the past three springs and was rewarded with a six-game train wreck against Philadelphia in 2012, an embarrassing sweep by Boston last year and a Round 2 loss to the New York Rangers that ended a few days ago.

New York’s rally from a 3-1 deficit brought Shero’s job security into the postseason conversation, but regardless of who the general manager is this summer, the issues confronting him won’t change.

The Penguins are not deep enough.

They are not tough enough.

And a case could be made that too many of them had more than a few flecks of gray in their playoff beards.

Identifying personnel shortcomings is the easy part in the NHL today. Addressing them effectively while staying within the confines of the league’s salary cap is the challenge.

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Especially for a team that has committed large sums of money to a small number of players as the Penguins have.

The cap ceiling for 2014-15 is expected to be around $71 million; at this point, the Penguins have about $55 million invested in 14 players — seven forwards, five defensemen and two goalies — who project onto the major-league roster this fall.

That includes these cap hits: Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million), Kris Letang ($7.25 million), James Neal ($5 million), Paul Martin ($5 million) and Marc-Andre Fleury ($5 million).

Shero, or his successor, will have around $16 million to fill as many as nine roster spots, and that bankroll will shrink considerably when restricted free-agent center Brandon Sutter gets a deal to replace the one that carried a $2,066,667 cap hit.

Simon Despres and Jayson Megna, both currently with the minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, also are restricted this summer, and management isn’t likely to let either walk without compensation.

The same is not true of their long list of unrestricted free agents, headlined by Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Jussi Jokinen.

Of those, the Penguins figure to put the most effort into retaining Niskanen, who has developed into a quality two-way defenseman since being acquired from Dallas in 2011.

Jokinen had a strong season and playoffs, and probably priced himself out of the budget in the process, while an injury to Orpik’s right knee — coupled with a cap hit of $3.75 million — likely ended any real chance of him returning.

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The other unrestricted free agents who finished the playoffs on the major-league roster are forwards Lee Stempniak, Marcel Goc, Tanner Glass, Taylor Pyatt, Joe Vitale, Chris Conner and Brian Gibbons, defenseman Deryk Engelland and goalie Tomas Vokoun.

Most would have at least some value to the Penguins for a variety of reasons, from Goc’s defense to the toughness of Glass and Engelland to Gibbons’ speed, but all can be replaced, if necessary.

That doesn’t mean the Penguins will have the cap space to get the upgrades they need, especially with no guarantee that any of their forward prospects will be capable of holding down a full-time job on the third or fourth line here next season.

The modest skill level among the bottom-six forwards was underscored when coach Dan Bylsma dressed winger Beau Bennett — playing with a damaged wrist that limited his effectiveness and will require additional surgery — for 12 of 13 playoff games.

But much as the Penguins could use an infusion of talent on the third and fourth lines — Sutter, who had 13 goals, was the only player who skated regularly on either unit to get more than five — they can’t afford to sacrifice any of the muscle they have there.

What they need, then, are rugged guys with decent hands. Which, in the current NHL, generally cost a few million dollars.

The Penguins have invested heavily in defensemen in recent drafts, and prospects like Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin should be NHL-ready in the relatively near future.

That could give the general manager the flexibility to trade a veteran from his blue line for some help up front because there always is a market for capable defensemen.

Almost any move the Penguins make to patch one major hole will open another. There would be plenty of interest if a Neal or a Chris Kunitz or a Letang were offered around the league, but their departure could create a void the Penguins wouldn’t be able to fill.

This team likely does not need a tear-it-down-to-the-ground rebuild. Crosby and Malkin, both entering what should be their prime years, provide a foundation with few, if any, equals.

Still, given the constraints of the salary cap, there’s no guarantee the lineup can be restored to a championship caliber in a matter of months.

Changing a roster is a lot tougher than changing a nameplate.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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