After knocking off the defending champions to win the Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins could be on the verge of something big.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Penguins team that already has the pieces in place to play for a championship again...and again...and again.
This doesn't come as a great surprise, as speculation about a possible Penguins dynasty has been going on for quite some time. After landing franchise cornerstones Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the 2004 and 2005 drafts, respectively, the Penguins were widely viewed as a team with potential for greatness, if only they could keep their rising young stars in Pittsburgh.
With Crosby and Malkin joined by Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Brooks Orpik on long-term contracts, the Penguins have secured pieces that will help them defend their title and compete for more in the coming seasons.
Of course, keeping elite players in the fold doesn't come easily in a salary cap system, because their salaries can make it challenging to find the right complementary players at the right price. Given the choice, though, any GM would prefer to augment a superstar core rather than try to build a winner from scratch. The superstar base just ensures that the team can play at an elite level when mixed with the right complementary pieces.
General Manager Ray Shero did a terrific job this past season, taking a team that was struggling and changing its fortunes with a coaching change as well as several savvy acquisitions to give Pittsburgh a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup.
So, for now, the Penguins can revel in their championship and brace for a summer that will undoubtedly see some of the championship pieces move on to new locales, but Shero will have no shortage of work to do this summer as he tries to keep and/or add the right pieces to the mix so that Pittsburgh can make a third straight appearance in the championship series.
On the plus side, winning the Cup should help Shero attract more talent to Pittsburgh, possibly at a more reasonable cost, because veteran players that are aiming for a shot at a championship in the upcoming seasons are going to give Pittsburgh primary consideration. With a young championship core already in place, they must.
Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma
Top Prospects: Eric Tangradi (38-50-88, plus-39 in 55 GP; Belleville-OHL), Luca Caputi (18-27-45, even in 66 GP; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-AHL), Dustin Jeffrey (11-26-37, plus-7 in 63 GP; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-AHL), Casey Pierro-Zabotel (36-79-115, plus-62 in 72 GP; Vancouver-WHL), Keven Veilleux (15-33-48, plus-9 in 29 GP; Rimouski-QMJHL)
Winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy capped off an exceptional third season for the league's leading scorer. Evgeni Malkin has exceptionally rare skills, made all the more impressive with his size which gives him an even greater ability to protect the puck. Ideally, Malkin would benefit from more talented wingers. If he can win the scoring title with the likes of Ruslan Fedotenko and Petr Sykora (among others) on his wing, what might he do with an elite finisher on his line?
Sidney Crosby became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup champion, at 21, and his season got a boost with the trade deadline acquisitions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, finally providing him with capable scoring wingers. Much like Malkin, the Penguins would benefit most by pairing Crosby with players that are, if not at his level (let's try and have reasonable expectations here), at least skilled enough to complement him.
Though he managed just one goal in the playoffs, Chris Kunitz does seem like a good fit on one wing; he's a blue-collar player who goes to the corners and front of the net willingly and generally knows what to do with the puck when he gets it, topping 20 goals for three consecutive seasons.
Tyler Kennedy made great progress in his second season, hustling up and down the wing and chipping in offensively, matching his 15 goals with a plus-15 rating. He's a good fit on the third line right now, but Kennedy could slide up the depth chart in a pinch.
After going through a sophomore slump in 2007-2008, Jordan Staal got back on track last season, tallying a career-high 49 points. Staal isn't a naturally gifted scorer, but he's a big strong skater who can create chances with his speed and reach. With Crosby and Malkin ahead of him on the depth chart, the defensively-responsible 20-year-old Staal is an ideal third-line centre.
Following a regular season in which he was a team-worst minus-9, Maxime Talbot was sensational in the playoffs (scoring eight goals and 13 points), perhaps indicating that he can score more than he has in his first three NHL seasons. The challenge, as it's been for playoff heroes in the past, is doing it consistently over the long haul of the regular season.
Matt Cooke provided what was expected, a hard-hitting, agitating presence on the checking line. Expect more of the same next season.
Speedy Pascal Dupuis did manage 28 points during the regular season, his most since 2002-2003, but was ineffective (in fact, scoreless) in the postseason. He's still under contract for a couple more sessons, so Dupuis should have an opportunity to skate regularly on the third or fourth line.
Enforcer Eric Godard took his responsibility seriously, dropping the gloves a career-high 21 times, while playing just a hair over four minutes per game in the regular season before hitting the press box for the playoffs. Also under contract for a couple more seasons, Godard appears secure in his role.
The annual search for scoring wingers continues, with Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Petr Sykora and Bill Guerin all headed for free agency. Guerin and Fedotenko, who both performed well in the playoffs, would be great to have back in the fold at the right price.
Shero acquired a terrific young power forward prospect, Eric Tangradi, in the Kunitz deal with Anaheim, and he could push for a spot, but some seasoning on the farm is most likely necessary, rather than asking him to make the jump from junior straight into the lineup of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Otherwise, the Penguins could hit the free agent market looking to secure a veteran or two looking for a chance to win a title. Steve Sullivan, Mike Knuble or Erik Cole could be among the productive veterans who might be decent fits.
Top Prospects: Alex Grant (13-37-50, plus-3 in 60 GP; Saint John, Shawinigan-QMJHL), Ben Lovejoy (7-24-31, plus-42 in 76 GP; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-AHL), Brian Strait (2-5-7, plus-10 in 38 GP; Boston University-HE), Carl Sneep (2-9-11, minus-6 in 33 GP; Boston College-HE)
It was no coincidence that the Penguins' late-season surge came around the same time that Sergei Gonchar returned from shoulder surgery. Gonchar played through a knee injury in the playoffs too, showing real commitment to go with his well-established poise with the puck which is vital to the Penguins' power play.
With Gonchar and Ryan Whitney sidelined at the start of the season, Kristopher Letang took advantage of the opportunity, proving to be an effective, mobile puckhandler. Letang can still improve his consistency without the puck, and he was better in the postseason, but that should come as the 22-year-old matures.
Brooks Orpik is a first-rate rough-and-tumble defenceman, using his strength to battle against the league's top forwards and intimidating the opposition with big hits. Getting him re-signed as a free agent last summer provided much-needed stability to a defence corps that wasn't at full strength for much of the year.
Helping Orpik out on the defensive side of the game, Mark Eaton was relatively healthy, playing 68 games and he duplicated his four-goal regular season with four more in the playoffs. Eaton's a shotblocker who fits well on the third pairing.
Like Letang, Alex Goligoski was handed an opportunity early in the season, but couldn't hold a spot once the Pens got healthier on the blueline. Goligoski has strong offensive instincts and may get another opportunity next season, but his lack of strength leaves him vulnerable in defensive situations against bigger forwards.
Of some concern to the Penguins should be the three unrestricted free agents -- Rob Scuderi, Philippe Boucher and Hal Gill -- all of whom provide reliable defensive play and would need to be replaced if they find better offers elsewhere.
Some reliable defencemen on the free agent market that could fit with the Penguins, possibly at a reasonable cost, would include Johnny Oduya, Paul Mara, Ville Koistinen, Greg Zanon, Alexei Semenov or Kent Huskins though, for the sake of continuity, it would be preferable to get at least one of their own free agents re-signed.
Top Prospects: John Curry (33-15-1, 2.38 GAA, .916 SVPCT,4 SO in 50 GP)
Though Marc-Andre Fleury can go through some rough spots, the 24-year-old came up clutch when it counted to backstop the Penguins to a Stanley Cup. Fleury's rebound control is questionable at times, but he's gaining confidence as he matures and having a Cup win on his resume should only help in that regard. His best should still be ahead of him.
Mathieu Garon only played four games after he was acquired from the Oilers, but the Penguins can surely use a backup of his calibre to push Fleury and fill in if he gets hurt. Whether it's Garon or someone else will likely be based on financial constraints.
30th - Jordan Caron, Ryan Button, Zach Budish.
The Penguins have approximately $45.6-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Two top six forwards, one top four defenceman, depth defencemen
What I said the Penguins needed last year: Three top six forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman
Who did they add? Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Matt Cooke, Mike Zigomanis, Alex Goligoski.
Prospects, draft picks.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca