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Tough decisions in store for Penguins

Sidney Crosby - and Evgeni Malkin - were held without a point in four Eastern Conferecne final games against Boston. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Sidney Crosby - and Evgeni Malkin - were held without a point in four Eastern Conferecne final games against Boston. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Boston Bruins stunning sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Eastern Conference final has everyone in the Penguins organization struggling to explain how the NHL's highest-scoring team managed only two goals against the Bruins in four games.

Coach Dan Bylsma is bearing the brunt of the criticism, which began before Game 4 and has intensified, with some pundits believing he should be fired.

GM Ray Shero won't comment on his off-season plans (including Bylsma's fate) until his press conference on Wednesday, though he has supported his coach in the past.

If Bylsma loses his job he won't be unemployed for long. The New York Post's Larry Brooks believes he would top the Rangers list of prospective candidates, while Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province thinks the Canucks would be interested.

As for the roster, speculation over goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's fate began before Game 3, as Bylsma's decision to stick with backup Tomas Vokoun prompted Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to claim Fleury had lost the Penguins’ trust.

Since he backstopped the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup, Fleury has struggled in the post-season, giving up 40 goals over his last 10 playoff starts. After losing the starter's role to Vokoun, he's become the subject of trade and buyout rumors.

Buying out Fleury would free up his $5-million cap hit for the next two years, providing some much-needed cap space, but also putting Shero in the market for a suitable replacement.

It's been suggested Shero should pursue Vancouver's Roberto Luongo or Buffalo's Ryan Miller. Given their expensive cap hits for next season ($5.3 million for Luongo, $6.25 million for Miller), plus the length of Luongo's contract and Miller's free agent status next summer, Shero could consider more affordable options.

Vokoun is signed through next season at an affordable $2 million. Some observers suggest he should take over as the starter next season, while Shero replaces Fleury with an affordable young goalie who can be groomed as Vokoun's eventual replacement.

Malkin is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, which may explain why, prior to Game 4, TSN's Darren Dreger suggested the 26-year-old could become a trade target.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi, Shero and J.P. Barry (Malkin's agent) intend to open contract talks this week, with both sides keen to reach an agreement soon. Malkin also has a no-movement clause in his current contract, which kicks in next season.

Ownership has instructed Shero to re-sign Malkin, the cost of which could reach the league maximum of eight years and $102.88 million, for an annual cap hit of $12.86 million.

Malkin accepted a “hometown discount” when he signed his current deal in July 2008 at an annual cap hit identical to Crosby's $8.7 million. It's possible he’ll do it again.

The new CBA cracks down on front-loaded, long-term contracts. If Malkin were to accept less than market value, his average annual salary could still be more than Crosby's, but the Penguins captain apparently has no problem with it.

Crosby hasn't been mentioned in trade rumors and there's no expectation he'll be shopped. Given his injury history, it only makes sense for the Penguins to keep Malkin in the fold.

The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch cited a league executive suggesting the Penguins could move James Neal or Chris Kunitz to free up cap space for Malkin's new contract.

Kunitz, like Malkin, is an unrestricted free agent next summer, so there's no need to trade him next season to make room for Malkin's new contract. The Penguins also have $24.6 million in cap payroll invested in just five players for 2014-15, so there's no reason to move Neal's $5-million annual cap hit.

Like Malkin and Kunitz, Letang is also eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. He wants to remain a Penguin, but Rossi reports he wants at least a five-year deal with a full no-trade clause, while management believes he'll want at least $7-million per season.

Despite his own concussion history and poor performance against the Bruins, Letang is the Penguins best puck-moving defenseman and is among this year's Norris Trophy finalists. Finding a suitable replacement if he departs via trade or free agency would be difficult.

Shero must also determine which of this summer's free agents he'll retain, as well as find sufficient cap space to keep them.

The Penguins have roughly $7.8 million available to re-sign or replace Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray, Craig Adams, Mark Eaton, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.

Rossi claimed Shero loves Iginla, but not how he was used by Bylsma during the playoffs. If Iginla wants to remain a Penguin, he'll have to accept a significant pay cut from the $7 million he made this season. Morrow, Murray, Adams and Eaton aren't expected to return.

Dupuis wants to stay, but could cost up to $4-million per season. Rossi reported Cooke is seeking a three-year deal, but Shero is only offering two. Kennedy (a restricted free agent) struggled to regain his 21-goal, 45-point form of 2010-11, and could become trade bait.

Shero's efforts to load up for a Stanley Cup run this season failed, but he retains the confidence of ownership. He now faces what could be his most challenging off-season as Penguins GM.

Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).

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