PITTSBURGH - It seems hardly fair, but it's the Stanley Cup runners-up that have the off-season from hell. The NHL champions are pretty much all set for next season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins face many questions as they try to keep together a core that was the class of the Eastern Conference this season.
"Yes, it's going to be a challenge for (GM) Ray Shero to keep our team together," said part-owner Mario Lemieux.
Star winger Marian Hossa, who had a strong Stanley Cup final, is an unrestricted free agent July 1. Will he take less money to stay on Sidney Crosby's wing or will he cash in as the marquee name on a lukewarm free-agent market this summer?
Other unrestricted free agents include forwards Ryan Malone, Pascal Dupuis, Adam Hall, Georges Laraque, Gary Roberts and Jarkko Ruutu and defenceman Brooks Orpik. Malone, who had a breakthrough season, may fetch up to US$4.5 million on the open market. But does the Pittsburgh native want to stay home and take less?
Star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent and will need a big raise on the $1.6 million he earned this season while blossoming into a franchise netminder. The Penguins need to make Fleury the first priority. Given the lacklustre market for unrestricted free-agent goalies, Cristobal Huet and Jose Theodore aside, the 23-year-old Fleury is a prime target for an offer sheet July 1 if he isn't signed by then. Especially since Huet and Theodore may re-sign with their respective clubs before July 1.
Star centre Evgeni Malkin still has another year left on his entry-level contract but the Penguins will attempt to sign him to a big extension this summer, just like they did with Crosby last summer. Malkin is looking at anywhere from $8 million to $9.5 million a season. Crosby's new deal, which averages out at $8.7 million a year, kicks in next season.
Between all the unrestricted free agents and the new deals for Fleury and Malkin, something has to give.
"With the salary cap era now, you have to make choices and make sure you build your team according to the salary cap and make some tough decisions," said Lemieux. "Which I assume we're going to face in the future. With the young talent that we have in Pittsburgh, it's going to be difficult to make it all work."
"But Ray's been great for us since he came here," added Lemieux. "He built this team to give us a chance to win this soon. I'm sure he'll make the right decisions at the right time."
The Cup champs? No sweat. Defenceman Brad Stuart, a trade deadline addition, is really the only off-season concern. Four years and $16 million would probably do the trick for Stuart. The Wings have close to $40 million committed to their roster with a salary cap expected around $56 million.
"We have cap space," said Wings GM Ken Holland. "I want to talk to Stuart. He filled out our top four nicely and he's an unrestricted free agent."
Holland said he'll also feel out 43-year-old goalie Dominik Hasek and 46-year-old blue-liner Chris Chelios.
"If Dom has the energy and really wants to play, I'm prepared to sit down and enter into consideration," said Holland. "He and Ozzie have got a real good relationship."
Valtteri Filppula, an underrated centre on the Wings' second line, is a restricted free agent and should be re-signed without any issue.
So essentially, other than Stuart, the core of this Wings team will all be back next season. A scary thought for the rest of the NHL.
"For the most part, everyone is signed," said Holland. "We're in pretty good shape. And we've got some good kids who are chomping at the bit to get in."
The Wings aren't going away, folks.