PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Penguins, long built around some of the NHL’s top offensive players, are paying a lot of money to get better on defence.
The Penguins committed US$45 million on Thursday to sign defencemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to five-year contracts after failing to reach terms with Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis.
Martin, who made $4.5 million with Atlantic Division-rival New Jersey last season, will make $25 million over five seasons with Pittsburgh—the kind of money the Penguins normally pay only to premier offensive players. Michalek will make $20 million over five seasons, a major upgrade from the $1.5 million he made with Phoenix last season.
Martin, 29, was viewed as the top two-way defenceman available in free agency, except for Gonchar. He had two goals and nine assists in 22 games with the Devils last season, missing most of the year and the Olympics after breaking his left arm Oct. 24 in Pittsburgh.
His most productive season was 2005-06, when he had five goals and 32 assists in 80 games.
Michalek doesn’t man the point on the power play like Gonchar—he had three goals and 14 assists in 72 games with Phoenix last season—but plays a lot of minutes, is strong in the defensive zone and is an excellent outlet passer. His deal runs though the 2014-15 season and averages $4 million per year.
Michalek, at 27, is nine years younger than Gonchar, who missed more than three-quarters of the Penguins’ 2008-09 Stanley Cup-winning season while injured. Gonchar also missed 20 games last season.
After the Penguins were eliminated by Montreal in the second round of the playoffs, general manager Ray Shero put an emphasis on upgrading the defence. He also traded a third-round pick in 2011 to Philadelphia for the negotiating rights to defenceman Hamhuis, but he didn’t come to terms on a deal before the NHL free agent signing period began Thursday.
The Penguins made the moves a year after losing the top two defencemen from their Stanley Cup-winning team, Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, during free agency.
“I was pretty clear about addressing our defence. By getting Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, I think we’ve done that,” Shero said. “We’ve got a great corps of defencemen right now that are signed for a number of years. They’re at the right age. From our staff and coaches’ standpoint, we’re pretty thrilled.”
Last week, the Penguins also re-signed forward Matt Cooke, one of the league’s top agitators, to a $5.4-million, three-year contract.
Gonchar signed a three-year contract with Ottawa after the Penguins refused to budge from their offer of two seasons—despite a close-to-midnight phone call Wednesday night from Shero asking him to consider one final proposal. Gonchar played for Pittsburgh for five seasons, and was second to Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom in points per game among defencemen during that time.
Michalek led the NHL in blocked shots with 271 in the 2008-09 season and has 27 goals and 88 assists in 415 career games. He also played for the Czech Republic in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He had a career-high 28 points with four goals and 24 assists in 2006-07 with Phoenix.
The deals left the Penguins with about only $2 million of salary cap space for the 2010-11 season—giving them little room to add a proven forward, seemingly a priority after they became overly reliant upon stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin last season.
“There didn’t seem to be those kind of guys (forwards) who are going to make a difference for the kind of money they were looking for,” Shero said. “We’ll take a look and maybe we can do somebody on a one-year deal at a low number.”
With Martin and Michalek under contract, the Penguins have an average of $16.25 million committed to their top four defencemen—including Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang—over the next four seasons. Letang, who signed a $14-million, four-year contract late last season, or Alex Goligoski could move into Gonchar’s role as the primary point man on the power play.