Change Is Coming; But To What Degree?
The first round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers marked the second season in a row that the Pittsburgh Penguins have failed to make it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The problem with this season compared to last though, is it was lost with the team at full strength. This is an issue as this team was tearing the league up for most of the last two months. The Penguins now have a very long offseason with plenty to think about, including rumors that are now flying about their three center system.
Discussing the Staal Rumors – Now, thanks to many media outlets and well respected TSN analyst Bob McKenzie, there are rumors flying everywhere about Jordan Staal leaving the Penguins. Arguably, this has validity. Jordan Staal is a top six forward on any club in the entire NHL, yet in Pittsburgh, he is the third line center. His tremendous two way play and emergence on offense the last two seasons makes him a very valuable piece to the Pens, as well as a very highly wanted trade and or free agent target.
As Staal cannot negotiate his contract till July, the rumors are going to continue to pop up. McKenzie tossed around the idea of playing with brother Eric in Carolina and the Edmonton Oilers are throwing around the idea of trading for him as well. Either way, Staal is due for a contract that will be at least 5 million dollars per season.
How Pittsburgh Can Keep Him – Pittsburgh is in a tough position the next few seasons as Staal and Crosby both are due for contracts next offseason. Crosby will be resigned at almost any price, but Staal must be signed. The easiest way to do this is to guarantee that Staal will become a top six forward, making him Sidney Crosby’s go to winger. His increase in playing time and role on the club would make any player happier, but his contract will have to reflect his importance, meaning, he must be paid similar to James Neal at 6 years and 30 million dollars.
If Staal is to receive this kind of money, Pittsburgh would have to make some kind of trade, freeing up cap space. The most popular name is Paul Martin, the 5 million dollar defenseman who has struggled mightily in Pittsburgh. However, Martin is past 30 years old and still has three seasons on his contract. Chris Kunitz is another name being mentioned as his salary counts for just under 4 million a season. Both will be a difficult sell, but Pittsburgh might be better off taking a loss in the trade to take a win in the cap space.
If He Has To Go – This is something that cannot happen, but now becomes a much more realistic situation. With only one season left on his contract, Staal would not be traded for full value. This means that Pittsburgh would get very little back, small name player and “possibly” a late first or second round draft choice. They will not get any value back for Staal, but if they cannot sign him, anything is more than nothing.
Changing up the roster – Since Pittsburgh only has a few free agents this season, it is possible that none of them are resigned in order to keep cap space open. Matt Niskanen would be the biggest blow as his game has improved greatly since the trade last season. Steve Sullivan was helpful in the regular season, but his play in the playoffs was less than average. He becomes expendable and along with his age and injury history, he is almost a guarantee to go unsigned.
Highly rated prospect Eric Tangradi has shown flashes of stable play. He is a big bodied forward with average speed and skating ability, but can become the needed power forward on a second or third line. His contract is up, but with little NHL playing time, he will not require a big pay day. Another prospect, however, might be ready for the NHL. Beau Bennett, of University of Denver, will officially leave school to join the Pens. He is a 6’1, 190lb forward that could crack the line up if his speed and skating ability are ready. His presence could mean that Pittsburgh is able to dump the contract of a forward, freeing up even more space.
Prospect Simon Despres showed a solid game in the playoffs and regular season and could possibly replace any traded or unsigned defenseman. Another prospect to keep an eye on is Portland Winterhawk’s defenseman Joe Morrow. Selected in the 2011 NHL draft, the 6’1, 206lb defenseman is an excellent skater and has a very powerful shot. If he happens to make the team, Morrow could become the point man on the power play, effectively taking over Steve Sullivan’s spot.
What’s the Verdict? – If anything can be done to keep the big three in Pittsburgh, it must be done. Even if players like Sullivan, Kunitz, Martin, and FA Matt Niskanen have to be shown the door, it should be done. There is no reason to overreact to this playoff loss, but the end of Pittsburgh core is a reason to overreact. All in all, Pittsburgh has to do what is right for the team, but to me, that means keeping Staal at the expense of a few players mentioned earlier.