When the Pittsburgh Penguins marched to two consecutive Stanley Cup finals (winning the Cup in 2009), future championship success seemed assured. This season, however, the Penguins barely qualified for the playoffs, prompting suggestions that their once-promising championship window is closing.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Josh Yohe believes this spring could be the final go-around for the current Penguins roster, suggesting changes could be coming in the off-season. While rumors recently made the rounds claiming Evgeni Malkin or possibly captain Sidney Crosby could be shopped, Yohe reports the club's organization has no intention of parting with neither them nor goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, unless they ask to be moved.
As for others on the current lineup who were part of the Penguins' last Cup run, Yohe notes questions concerning how the health of top defenseman Kris Letang (concussion) and right winger Pascal Dupuis (blood clots) could affect their playing careers. He also suggests the declining performances of left winger Chris Kunitz and defenseman Rob Scuderi could tempt Penguins management to unload their contracts, while aging right winger Craig Adams probably won't be re-signed this summer.
Changes, however, won't be easy. The Penguins are currently stuck in salary cap hell for 2015-16, with around $60 million invested in 15 players. Even if the salary cap reaches $72 million (a number projected by the league in March), there won't be much room to significantly improve the lineup.
Kunitz, 35, has struggled with an iron deficiency since the 2014 Winter Olympics. Factor in his declining production and $3.9-million annual cap hit for the next two seasons, and he's not an attractive trade candidate. Same goes for the 36-year-old Scuderi, with his $3.4-million annual cap hit through 2016-17 and modified no-trade clause.
AVALANCHE LOOKING FOR ‘D’ HELP
The Colorado Avalanche are expected to improve their defense corps in the off-season. The Denver Post's Mike Chambers believes landing a puck-moving defenseman will be a priority. He notes the Avs were the only NHL team with six 50-plus point players on the roster, yet they were 27th in shots per game (27.9) while giving up the fourth-most shots-against per game (33.2). Feeding the forwards whilst improving their defensive play is a must.
Avalanche coach Patrick Roy acknowledged to Chambers the defense must improve. While Roy and GM Joe Sakic believe the key to their long-term success lies in the draft, Chambers speculates they could look for a puckhandling defenseman via free agency, though they have six blueliners already under contract for 2015-16.
Chambers lists Nashville's Cody Franson, Washington's Mike Green and San Jose's Matt Irwin among possible UFA targets for the Avalanche. Los Angeles' Andrej Sekera and Buffalo's Andrej Meszaros are also on his list of blueline candidates.
The Avalanche have around $58 million invested in their 2015-16 cap payroll, but they also have all their key players under contract for 2015-16. Depending on where next season's cap ceiling ends up, they should have sufficient room to add a skilled blueliner.
They must take care, however, not to overspend, as they have several key players (Ryan O'Reilly, Erik Johnson, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie and Alex Tanguay) eligible for free-agent status in 2016. An affordable option, like Franson or possibly Sekera, might be in their best long-term interest.