A terrific run to the Stanley Cup final was a real coming-out party for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now the challenge is finding a way to keep at least a good portion of this team together for the future.
Off-Season Game Plan takes a look at one of the teams that, based simply on the number of free agents, figures to be the most active this summer.
At season's end, Sidney Crosby told the Canadian Press, "I think we're all optimistic Ray's going to do the best job he can at keeping everyone together. We had a lot of success. I'm sure he doesn't want to change too much, if he can."
Those last words -- "if he can" -- are perhaps the most important.
Sure, the Penguins would love to have Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone and Brooks Orpik back in the fold since all three were major contributors but, any realist would note, there just isn't that kind of room under the salary cap.
Not only that, but any decisions the Penguins make this summer are going to impact future financial flexibility and this is a team that has to worry about potential long-term deals for Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
It's not like these fiscal pressures come as a surprise. When the Penguins accumulated so many high draft picks, the questions had already started about whether the Penguins could afford to keep them all together.
If not, can general manager Ray Shero find the right mix of replacements to keep the Penguins in the title mix?
That's the challenge this summer.
Ray Shero/Mike Therrien
Top Prospects: Keven Veilleux, Luca Caputi, Ryan Stone, Dustin Jeffrey
The Penguins have a great number of needs up front, but they still have their sensational core of forwards.
The NHL's poster boy, Sidney Crosby, was hindered by a high ankle sprain, yet still managed 72 points in 53 regular season games before tying for the playoff lead with 27 points in 20 games. The injury, combined with the emergence of Russians Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, at least threw Crosby's individual dominance over the league into question.
Malkin rose into superstardom when Crosby was hurt and, his final fade notwithstanding, he either gives the Penguins the league's most formidable 1-2 punch with Crosby or, possibly, the most marketable trade commodity in the league if the Pens choose a more balanced approach for the future.
Though Petr Sykora didn't get off to an ideal start last season, he finished the year strong and his 63 points was his highest total since 2000-2001. A skilled player with a big shot, Sykora is a fine complementary piece to the Penguins' elite talents.
Maxime Talbot has improved every year he's been in the league and the high-energy checker contributes enough offence to be a valuable contributor.
After lighting up the league for 29 goals as an 18-year-old rookie Jordan Staal had only 28 points in his second NHL season, but he's a 19-year-old who goes 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and has 41 career goals. It's fair to wonder just how much offensive upside Staal possesses, but it seems reasonable to expect second-line production in addition to his responsible two-way play.
Tyler Kennedy added some energy to the lineup when he was called up early in the year from the AHL. He's not a pure scorer, but has the instincts to contribute at the offensive end.
That leaves the Penguins awfully shorthanded up front, depending on what happens with their unrestricted free agent forwards.
The biggest concern is Marian Hossa, who capped off a subpar regular season with an excellent playoff performance. Given that the Penguins surrendered four assets to acquire Hossa at the deadline, they probably want to get him re-signed, but if the price tag climbs over $9-million, that could prove to be too much for the Penguins to handle.
Because so many players are set to hit unrestricted free agency, the Penguins' forward lines could be dramatically different next season.
Aside from trying to re-sign their own guys, the Penguins may want to find some inexpensive alternatives on the free agent market. Michael Ryder, Andrew Brunette, Martin Straka, Miroslav Satan, Niklas Hagman or Ladislav Nagy would be among those wingers that might be reasonably-priced options for Pittsburgh.
Top Prospects: Alex Goligoski, Carl Sneep, Brian Strait
Sergei Gonchar remains a top-flight blueliner who is among the league leaders in ice time and points among defencemen. On top of that, he's racked up 94 power play points in the last two seasons and for that specialty alone, he's an extremely valuable commodity.
Ryan Whitney looked like a rising star entering his third season, but his play slipped last season as he went through a few extended slumps. Whitney has the size and skills to be a true No. 1 defenceman, but needs to be more conscientious in his own end if he's going to reach his potential.
Acquired from the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline, big Hal Gill found his niche as a penalty killer for the Pens. His lack of mobility poses problems, but if Gill is kept in the right situations, he can be an asset.
A solid, if unspectacular, rookie season from Kristopher Letang increases expectations for the future and he has the skating and puck skills to produce more offence.
Rob Scuderi plays a no-frills game which limits his highs and lows and the 29-year-old is likely at, or very near, his peak.
Brought in to provide stability on the back end, veteran Darryl Sydor fell into a decreasing role, with his 13 points representing a career low.
With a couple of potential free agent departures, one spot on the Pittsburgh blueline should go to prospect Alex Goligoski, who was very impressive in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's AHL playoff run, scoring 28 points in 23 postseason games.
If Goligoski takes one job, the Penguins may need to find one veteran depth defenceman to round out a unit that should get better as their young blueliners mature.
Top Prospects: John Curry, David Brown
Right up until the the Stanley Cup final, Marc-Andre Fleury's long-term status in Pittsburgh was fair to question, but after his strong postseason performance, it's more likely that the Penguins will attach their goaltending fortunes to Fleury.
Dany Sabourin was respectabe in the backup role, playing a career-best 24 games so there's no reason to change there which means that Ty Conklin, who was stellar as an injury replacement, will likely have to go elsewhere to resume his career rebound.
No first-round pick
The Penguins have approximately $30-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top six forwards, depth forwards, One top four defenceman
What I said the Penguins needed last year: Two top six forwards, Two top four defencemen
Who did they add? Petr Sykora, Adam Hall, Darryl Sydor, Dany Sabourin
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com