PITTSBURGH – At the very moment the Detroit Red Wings were holding their Stanley Cup parade Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins were saying goodbye and heading off into a shorter-than-usal off-season.
The next time they meet, some won’t be wearing Penguins uniforms, a certainty given the NHL salary cap that prevents good teams from staying together for a long time.
“You want to say goodbye to everybody because a couple of these guys we battled with won’t be there next year and we’ll have to play against them,” forward Max Talbot said. “That’s the sad part of hockey.”
For the Penguins, knowing this team can’t stay together – coach Michel Therrien called it “a really tight family” – created the same kind of disappointment that followed their 3-2, Game 6 loss to Detroit in the Stanley Cup finals two days before.
The players shook hands, wished each other a good summer, packed up equipment bags that were loaded with their uniforms and several large team photos and met with Therrien and, in some cases, general manager Ray Shero.
Shero figures to have a difficult off-season as he tries to keep the key components of one of the NHL’s youngest but best teams. Among those who could leave via free agency are forwards Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque, Pascal Dupuis, Adam Hall and Jeff Taffe and defenceman Brooks Orpik and Mark Eaton.
With star Evgeni Malkin and 19-year-old forward Jordan Staal both about to enter the third and final years of their entry contracts, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury eligible for restricted free agency, it’s not possible for all to return.
Hossa, who had a team-high 12 goals during the playoffs, is likely on top of Shero’s must-keep list. But Hossa also figures to be the most expensive free agent to re-sign, and that may make it difficult to give Malkin, Staal and Fleury the kind of money they could make on the open market.
A year ago, Crosby re-signed for less money – an average of US$8.7 million per season through 2012-13 – to help keep the Penguins together. Hossa, who meshed so well with Crosby after being added at the Feb. 26 trading deadline, is willing to do the same thing.
Hossa expects his agent, Rich Winter, to start talking with Shero soon.
“I’d rather take less and play on a good team,” Hossa said. “Hopefully, I can return here and be part of this organization but, with the salary cap, I know how hard it is. There’s lots of players to be signed, so we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Among the least likely to return are Malone and Orpik. Despite their contributions to only the third Stanley Cup finalist in Penguins history, they’re likely to make more on the open market than Pittsburgh will pay them.
Roberts, still a fan favourite at age 42, may retire rather than move on to another club. Ruutu, Laraque and Dupuis may get multiple offers as free agents. Losing Orpik, Ruutu, Laraque and Roberts would substantially reduce the Penguins’ physical presence.
“I think we’re all optimistic Ray’s going to do the best job he can at keeping everyone together,” Crosby said. “We had a lot of success. I’m sure he doesn’t want to change too much, if he can.”
Crosby and Therrien agreed the Penguins’ inexperience proved to be a major factor in their Stanley Cup finals loss.
Each of the final four games was decided by one goal, but the Red Wings put the Penguins in a big hole by outscoring them by a combined 7-0 in the first two games in Detroit.
“We were trying to feel it out a little bit. Before we knew it, we were down 2-0,” Crosby said. “We wanted to work so hard and making sure that didn’t happen, we didn’t focus on what made us successful. We got caught running around and chasing a little bit.”
Therrien said, “When we got to Detroit, it was a different feeling, a different pressure. Those first two games over there, our guys were tense.”
Still, Therrien is proud that a team with so many players in the early 20s competed well against the NHL’s deepest, most experienced and most successful team.
“They’re 20 years old, 19, 21 years old, and they’ve got tremendous potential,” Therrien said. “But we have to remember they’re still 20. … Next year, those players will have that extra year of experience and that will help them and, for me, I’m going to use them a little bit differently – but still not like a player who’s 28, 29, 30 years old. In two months, they’re not going to gain five years of experience.”
Notes: Crosby, who disclosed after last season’s playoffs that he had a broken foot, said he had the “normal bumps and bruises.” … Therrien’s contract is up after next season. He hopes to meet shortly with Shero to discuss an extension. .. Crosby on the playoff run: “We gained a lot of experience pretty quickly.” … Roberts was not on hand for the season-ending player meetings with Therrien.