After the Penguins fell embarrassingly to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Ray Shero stated that changes would be made to the team in the offseason. This news was rather unsurprising considering the Penguins severely underachieved with a relatively healthy roster; a roster proclaimed by many across North America to be the Stanley Cup favorite by a wide margin.
Now, due to the disappointment of 2012, coupled with the previous two seasons in which the Penguins failed to get out of the second round, Ray Shero faces an offseason that could make or break his future with the Pittsburgh Penguins. As general manager, Ray Shero's job rests solely on his ability to improve the team and bring them another Stanley Cup. For Pittsburgh, it means improving a rather soft defense while attempting to keep all the superstars on the roster past the 2013 season and also drafting future stars to create a steady pipeline of prospects.
To further analyze Shero's monumental summer, let's break this down into three parts:
Other than Jordan Staal in the 2006 draft, Shero hasn't selected any impact players. Simon Despres (2009) will finally get a chance to start in the NHL this season, and Joe Morrow (2011) looks to have an exciting future in the NHL, but that's about it. This year doesn't help with the 2012 draft class less than excitable once you get past the first 5-10 picks. Of the three major parts, this department is of the least importance considering the Penguins' stars are still incredibly young.
The NHL draft is generally a crapshoot, especially when selecting in the bottom half of the draft. As fans or media members, we really have no idea who will work out in the future. But the scouts should have at least an idea. So should the general manager.
Jordan Staal and Sidney Crosby will be free agents at the end of the 2012-2013 season unless Shero is able to re-sign them beforehand. Rumors have already been swirling that Sidney Crosby is ready to sign a ten year deal as soon as he is eligible. Jordan Staal, on the other hand, is an enigma.
Staal is coming off a team leading six goal performance in six games against the Flyers in the Eastern Quarterfinals. Despite missing 20 regular season games, Staal finished with a career high 50 points, notching 25 goals and 25 assists. On a team that features two other centers that possess talent unmatched by the world, Staal is still a priority for Shero to re-sign. On Tuesday, he told the media that he was not listening to trade offers and was more focused on trying to get a deal in place to keep Staal in Pittsburgh for a long time.
Unfortunately, Shero may have to listen to offers from other teams. Jordan Staal could help a lot of teams as their top center and it has already been rumored that Staal has expressed an interest in having a bigger role on a team where he is not overshadowed by elite stars.
On the open market, Staal could probably command a salary of 7-8 million a year and a team like the Maple Leafs would gladly pay. Is he worth that much? It depends on the salary cap and the new CBA. And therein lies the problem: Shero has no idea what the new CBA is going to allow and there is no way of knowing what the 2012-2013 salary cap will stand at this time.
Staal will be Shero's biggest challenge this offseason. He has several options to choose from, each equally difficult. The only unacceptable option is to let Staal go to free agency at the end of next season. There would simply be no excuse to let go of a then 24 year old superstar without a hefty return.
Paul Martin is another question mark. Martin had a disastrous 2011-2012 campaign and saw Simon Despres perform admirably in his stead during the playoffs. With three years remaining on his contract, Martin is now a $15 million eyesore and Shero may be looking to dump him before heading into next season. If the Penguins hope to improve their defense, trading Martin would be a step in the right direction.
The financial flexibility of the Penguins depends on how Shero handles the issues previously listed. If the Penguins can rid themselves of Paul Martin and his hefty contract, their options will open up; a winger, a stay at home defenseman, or maybe more cash to throw at Staal and Crosby. And yet, again, this is all based on the salary cap and new CBA.
Since we're still in June, it is far too early to speculate on which free agents could potentially be future Penguins. However, the list of Penguins that are soon to be free agents is much more manageable.
As a restricted free agent, Matt Niskanen will be the Penguins' top priority while UFA's Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham, Richard Park, Steve MacIntyre, and Brent Johnson may be gone. MacIntyre had no value with the Penguins, spending most of his time in Wilkes-Baare, Asham embarrassed the franchise for his barbaric actions in Game 3, Richard Park was a regular healthy scratch, and Brent Johnson was just replaced by Tomas Vokoun. Steve Sullivan had the best season out of this group. However, given how injury prone he has been over the years, it may not be in Pittsburgh's best interest to re-sign the soon-to-be 38 year old winger.
The next three months for Ray Shero will need to be his best. He cannot afford to take the Penguins, as they are presently constructed, into the next season and expect a better result. His decisions will not only determine the fate of the 2012-2013 Penguins, but also the organization's future. The motto over the last few years has been "In Shero we trust". As doubt starts to creep into the minds of Penguins' fans, can Shero reinforce the thought that this is the best team in hockey?