This past spring, the Pittsburgh Penguins had probably the easiest path the Stanley Cup Finals that I can ever remember. Ottawa, Montreal and Philadelphia, none of which would have even qualified for the playoffs in the Western Conference. It looked promising, but they fell flat. The same can be said for the Penguins off season. The Penguins wanted to bolster their defense and were rumored to be interested in guys like Anton Volchenkov and even traded for the rights to Dan Hamhuis. On July 2nd came, the Penguins didn't get either. Not only did they not get neither Volchenkov or Hamhuis, but they also lost their best defenseman, Sergei Gonchar as well.
I understand that Gonchar is 36 and he was looking to remain a Penguin until he was almost 40, but so what? Its not as if Gonchar's skills were clearly diminishing. As I mentioned in my previous post, Gonchar had just 4 less powerplay points than Crosby and played in 19 less games. He was second in the NHL in powerplay assists. If you thought the Penguins had problems on the powerplay before, how well will they do without one of the league's best powerplay quarterbacks? I know a lot of you expect Kris Letang to "step it up" and be that guy but I haven't seen any evidence of him being able to do that. Gonchar finished with 30 powerplay points last year in 62 games. Letang played in 73 games and finished with 5. They played on the same powerplay unit together. Gonchar got points, Letang did not. Gonchar has that big heavy shot that you need on your powerplay. Letang has a big heavy shot too, unfortunately most of the time, that shot is smacking off the glass.
The Penguins did manage to snatch up a couple of defensemen though. Not the ones they wanted, but Shero was determined to not let that cap space burn a hole in his pocket. He signed Zbynek Michalek, a shutdown stay at home shot blocker from Phoenix for $4 mil a year for 5 years. So they let Rob Scuderi, who does the exact same thing for less money, walk away last year and they get this guy. Devoting that much money for that long to a guy that just blocks shots is a little puzzling. Mark Eaton, who is a smart shot blocking defenseman went to the Islanders for $2.5 mil.
Shero wasn't done yet though. Rather than sign Gonchar for $5.5 mil for 3 years, he goes out and gets former NJ Devil Paul Martin for $20 mil over 4 years. That's right, instead of having one of the best defensemen in the league for just a half mil more, he signs an offensive minded defenseman that is nowhere near as good as Gonchar. Five million a year for 4 years for Paul Martin?? He's a fast skater and a decent passer, but he's actually worse than Gonchar defensively (which is the reason a lot of yinzers wanted Gonchar gone) and his shot isn't impressive. He's been the Devils go to guy for offense from the blueline for several years and the most points he's ever had in a season was 32. Martin missed almost the entire year with an injury in 09-10 and the Devils finished with the second best record in the conference, so he won't exactly be missed by them.
What Ray Shero needs to understand is that there's this thing called a "salary cap". In a "salary cap" era, you need to make smart decisions. You're not going to be able to fill all of your team's needs, you're going to have holes somewhere. When the Penguins signed Crosby, Malkin and Staal to big contracts, they made it apparent that this was going to be an offensive minded team. Get what you can defensively and spend money on forwards. Acquire players that will enable you to get the most of your big investments (Crosby, Malkin, Staal). When the Penguins won the Cup in 09, Eaton, Gill, Scuderi, Orpik and Letang were all under $4 mil. The bulk of their cap space was spent on forwards, as it should be. The Penguins are now in a bad spot. Outside the big three, what do they have? Kunitz? Cooke? Talbot? If guys like Cooke and Talbot are playing on your second line, you have problems. However, they don't have any cap space left to sign anyone thanks to Shero's wasteful spending. It should also be noted that Volchenkov and Hamhuis each signed deals worth $4.5 mil, which means the Pens could have gotten the defensemen they wanted for the same price they got Michalek and Martin.
I hope you like look of this Pens team, because barring a blockbuster trade or a huge raise in the salary cap, this team is pretty much set (or stuck) for the next 2-3 years. I keep hearing Pens fans say they'll be alright because Eric Tangradi will be on the big club this year. The same Tangradi that scored just 17 goals in the AHL last year?
Even though Ilya Kovalchuk isn't signed yet, its being rumored that the teams interested in him are trying to sign him to one of these huge contracts (10-15 years) that lower the cap hit. Kovalchuk is looking at a $5-6 mil cap hit because of this. If *I* was in Shero's place going into the off season, I would have re-signed Gonchar and Eaton. Then traded Fleury and his $5 mil a year contract. He's not $4 million better than Brent Johnson and its been proven by the Wings, Flyers and Blackhawks that you don't need a high priced goalie to win in the NHL. Finally, I would have made a strong pitch to sign Kovalchuk to one of those mega deals. The $5 mil they're spending on Fleury SHOULD be spent on a much needed goal scoring winger. Kovalchuk is one of the best scorers out there and would be far more valuable to the team than Fleury is now.
Ray Shero is failing as the Penguins GM. It doesn't take a genius to know that you need to re-sign Crosby and Malkin when their contracts expire. The money he's paying Staal is too much for his current role on the team and the money he's spending on Fleury, Martin, and Michalek is unbelievable. He's had 5 years to get a winger for Crosby and aside from the brief stint he's had with Hossa, his best linemate has been Chris Kunitz who's never had more than 60 points in a season. That's pretty pitiful considering names like Heatley, Kovalchuk, Gaborik and Kessel have all been up for grabs in the past couple years. If the Penguins are going to head back in the right direction, its going to take big moves, moves that Shero has proven he doesn't have the stones to make.