Pierre McGuire – or whomever gets the Penguins’ GM job – must address the back end

Adam Proteau
Pierre McGuire

In the midst of mounting speculation, Pierre McGuire confirmed to a Toronto radio station Tuesday morning he was in conversation with the Pittsburgh Penguins about their vacant GM job.

If it does come to pass, McGuire’s hiring would make major headlines and lead to heated debates about the choice to bring in a broadcaster who last worked as part of a hockey organization in 1996. But whomever owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle choose to replace Ray Shero is unlikely to be the perfect candidate; there is no executive on the market who is assured of fixing what ails the Pens.

The less immediate, but bigger story – at least, in the sense of what fans will see on the ice next season – is what McGuire or someone else is going to do with Pittsburgh’s key issue heading into this off-season: their defense and goaltending.

Deciding the fate of head coach Dan Bylsma will be one of the first orders of business for the Penguins’ new GM, but the more crucial decisions will be made regarding the future of the franchise’s back end. For starters, a decision on the short-and-long-term status of No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury must be arrived at quickly. If they’re going to amnesty the one year and $5 million remaining on Fleury’s contract, they’ll need a veteran to take his place. Maybe they take a chance on Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller or former Blues netminder Ryan Miller, but they’ll need to rapidly choose before other teams leap into the free agent market and scoop up the remaining talent.

The most important area of concern, though, is Pittsburgh’s defense corps. The new GM has two key focuses there, both of them unrestricted free agents: veteran Brooks Orpik and entering-his-prime Matt Niskanen. Each of those players will be a major gamble. With Orpik, the gamble is on a physical, 33-year-old player who some believe isn’t what he was even two years ago; with Niskanen, the gamble is on a 27-year-old, puck-moving d-man who had a breakout season in 2013-14 (10 goals and 46 points in 81 games), but who hasn’t played at an elite level with any consistency from year-to-year.

In the case of both blueliners, the Penguins could easily overpay to keep them from hitting the open market. But if they did, they’d have to make other moves to keep them from running headfirst into the NHL’s salary cap ceiling. The Pens have $15 million in cap room as it stands right now, but they’ve only got 14 players under contract and also need new deals for restricted free agent Brandon Sutter and a slew of wingers.

Amnestying Fleury will provide more wiggle room, but there’s still a crossroads ahead for McGuire or whoever gets Pittsburgh’s GM gig. And they’ll be tested immediately after accepting it.