Immediately after the Boston Bruins swept the Penguins out of the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday, June 7th, Pittsburgh entered an offseason filled with many questions about the team’s future. Would Dan Bylsma be fired? What will the team do with Marc-Andre Fleury? What will become of Dupuis, Iginla, Morrow, Cooke, Adams, and other free agents? And what are the Penguins planning to do with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, two all stars that only have one year left on their contracts?
Three of these questions were answered quickly. General Manager Ray Shero announced yesterday that Coach Bylsma and two of his assistants, Tony Granato and Todd Reirden, were given two-year contract extensions that will keep them in the Steel City through the 2015-2016 season.
In the same press conference, Shero also stated that he has no plans to move struggling goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and believes he can return to his form that helped lead the Penguins to two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals appearances. Whether Shero was being honest, or if he is just trying to build up Fleury’s confidence and possible trade value, is something we can only speculate for the time being.
Then this morning, Penguins fans awoke to the news that reigning league MVP Evgeni Malkin had signed an eight-year contract extension, which will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2021-2022 season.
With Malkin’s extension signed and sealed, Penguins fans should now focus on two things: what will happen with Kris Letang, and which free agents will Shero try to keep in Pittsburgh?
There is no doubt Kris Letang is one of the NHL’s top defensemen. Despite missing 13 games of the shortened 48 game season, Letang was still named a finalist for the Norris Trophy, given to the league’s best defenseman. He averaged more than a point per game this season and led the Penguins in average minutes played per game.
Despite this success, Letang has had his share of struggles in the defensive end, especially in the playoffs against Ottawa and Boston. Many Pittsburgh sports writers and fans will even tell you that Paul Martin, not Letang, was the Penguins best defenseman this season. While Martin makes $5 million annually, there is speculation Letang could demand around $7 million a year when he hits the free agent market next summer.
The Penguins would likely receive great compensation if they decide to deal Letang before he has a chance to walk next summer. Letang is only 26 years old and his game continues to improve every year. Due to the Penguins salary cap constraints and having so many free agents to address, it would not surprise me if Shero tries to move Letang at the NHL Draft, similar to the Jordan Staal situation last summer.
According to the popular NHL salary cap website capgeek.com, the Penguins have almost $8 million in cap space to sign free agents this offseason. I think, along with most Penguins fans, that signing Pascal Dupuis should be, and will be, the organizations top priority. Dupuis has grown into one of the NHL’s premier two-way wingers during his tenure in Pittsburgh, as well as one of the leaders of this team in the dressing room and off the ice. My guess is Dupuis and his agent will try and sign a three-year deal worth around $3.5 million annually.
As for the rest of the unrestricted free agents, Iginla, Morrow, Murray, Adams, and Cooke, the price will have to be right for them to stay in town. Iginla and Morrow are both coming off of contracts that paid them more than $4 million a year, and they will have to take pay cuts to stay in Pittsburgh.
After an embarrassing playoff exit like the Penguins suffered at the hands of the Boston Bruins, change within the organization is inevitable. The Penguins entered the offseason with many questions and doubts surrounding the team, and some of them have already been addressed. How Ray Shero decides to move forward with this group of free agents, and Kris Letang, will speak volumes about the organization. Is a roster shake up on its way, or will the Penguins continue the status quo and hope for a better result next year? Soon enough, these questions will be answered.