As free agency nears, talks between Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero and the team's restricted and unrestricted free agents have picked up, decisions are already being made and players have already turned in their black and gold jerseys for the last time.
To the surprise of none, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported forwards Alex Kovalev and Mike Comrie would not be returning to the team this fall. In fact, there is a possibility Comrie could have played his last NHL game because the long-term condition of his hip looks bleak despite surgery at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season.
For Kovalev, Shero brought him to the team as a temporary goal-scorer in the middle of a hot streak who could provide some help in the scoring department, an aspect of the Pens' game that went severely downhill following injuries to both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The deal came with no negative implications, but Kovalev severely underperformed, hence why no one should be surprised he will never wear Pittsburgh's colors again.
But these were the easy choices to make, to let go of the players who are no longer (or never were) an asset to the team.
For most of the remaining free agents, it won't be as easy. Craig Adams, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, Mike Rupp, and Chris Conner were tremendous for the Pens, especially during the second half of the season when injuries seemed like a regular occurrence during games.
Other than Conner, the free agents mentioned in the previous paragraph played 80 or more games in the season. The rest of the team relied on them to carry the offensive load and they performed better than expected.
Without their hard work, there is no way the Pens make the playoffs in the first place. Save Talbot, all of them deserve some kind of a raise in salary and players like Adams and Kennedy are more than due for a raise, especially Kennedy who is still on his entry-level deal.
However, even with the upcoming $4.1 million bump in salary cap, it would be a tight and almost impossible squeeze for the Pens to grant them the raises they would want. Not to mention the Pens have a wealth of talent brewing in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton waiting to be called up and trained to NHL-perfection.
But the Pens still have to take take of their priority signings. I, among many others, considered Craig Adams one of them.
Another look at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, author Shelly Anderson makes it clear that Shero was on the same page but talks that had started between the two were temporarily on hold .
They couldn't agree on terms.
Adams, since the Pens' acquired him in 2009, has been one of the quiet heroes of the team. He's been a winger who plays an effective defensive game as a fourth-liner and penalty-killer. He has also become notorious for being that player who puts it on the line to win, be it blocking a shot from the point during a penalty kill or diving face-first in front of a Nick Lidstrom wrist shot in the final seconds of Game 7.
He has also been quick to receive the 'A' when captains have gone down with injury which speaks to his leadership abilities. After back-up goalie Brent Johnson and Kovalev, he's the oldest player on the team.
Adams has been making $550,000, just over the NHL minimum salary ,and with how many times the Pens called upon him to be the first line center, to take on long penalty kills at the end of games and to play a very physical game, it only makes sense to give the guy a raise.
It does make me wonder how much of a raise he wanted, though. I wouldn't consider going over six-figures for him.
Still, the situation is difficult because the team and fans want to see players rewarded for the sacrifices they have made for the team and the overall improvement displayed in the play of those who were called to do more during the injury plague.
It does seem like this will be the story of the Pens' offseason. Like Adams, Rupp also had an impressive two years with the Pens, putting up 13 and nine-goal seasons, the most in his career. Though Rupp is known more for his physical game over his defense, he played smart hockey on both ends of the rink while maintaining his enforcer-like status.
Kennedy had his first 20-goal season, many of those goals coming when the Pens needed them the most—when Crosby and Malkin were injured. He was among the Pens' consistent goal-scorers.
Dupuis was also up there in the consistent goal-scoring department and he also carried an important role in the penalty kill.
For Talbot, he's been off his game since his shoulder surgery following his two-goal performance that brought a third Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh in 2009. The extensive rehab period could be to blame which is why many believe Talbot's on-ice talents can be replaced with healthier players from WB/S, but many others want nothing more for him to remain because of the energy he brings to the team. He's one of those players you want to have in the dressing room when times are rough.
These are the troubles teams have to face and the Pens will be no different this year.
Head Coach Dan Bylsma did an incredible job pulling talent from his players when he needed, a big reason why he's a top contender for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's best coach. Earlier in the season, he was voted by the NHL Players Association as the "Coach you want to play for."
The Pens, ever since the dark ages of the early millennium, have created an organization and environment that is attractive to players. They make it an effort to keep the players happy and happy players will have more of an incentive to remain on the team for a little less cash.
It worked for Crosby and Malkin who want to be a part of the Pens long-term plan. It worked for defensemen Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin who wanted a successful and stable team.
I'm just not sure if it will work this season. Unfortunately, the Pens will most likely let go of a few players we want to see return.
And this is all before the start of free agency.
Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or questions.
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