Sidney Crosby won't get a high-profile winger to play with if the Pens have to shed salary instead of adding it. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs as the favorite to win it all, but were eliminated from the opening round by the Philadelphia Flyers in six games.
Despite a powerful offense led by centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and right winger James Neal, the Flyers successfully exploited the Penguins’ defensive weaknesses with a run-and-gun offensive style.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (one of the heroes of the Penguins’ back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup final in 2008 and 2009), struggled throughout that series, while the blueline failed to contain the Flyers attack.
General manager Ray Shero wasted little time in the off-season shoring up his goaltending, signing free agent Tomas Vokoun to share the duties with Fleury.
Vokoun struggled last season in his one-year stint with the Washington Capitals and is keen to atone for that poor performance. He won’t unseat Fleury as the Penguins starter, but is a suitable insurance policy if Fleury struggles again.
Shero dealt center Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes and defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL 2012 entry draft weekend as cost-cutting measures. That sparked speculation he was clearing cap space to bid for unrestricted free agent defenseman Ryan Suter or left winger Zach Parise.
The Penguins were on Parise's list of preferred destinations, but the allure of playing on Crosby’s line wasn’t strong enough to overcome the call of the Minnesota Wild.
Shero next set his sights upon UFA right winger Shane Doan, but Doan ultimately decided to remain with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Other scoring forwards linked to the Penguins in the summer rumor mill included former Capitals right winger Alexander Semin (who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes), right winger Rick Nash (dealt from Columbus to the New York Rangers), Anaheim Ducks right winger Bobby Ryan and Minnesota Wild right winger Dany Heatley.
Shero also tried to find a defense partner for Kris Letang by making a failed bid for Suter, who ultimately joined Parise in Minnesota.
Blueliner Paul Martin was also shopped, but after failing to land a suitable replacement for Michalek, Shero decided to retain Martin.
It was believed the Penguins GM would try to pry Keith Yandle away from the Phoenix Coyotes, but the Desert Dogs have resisted the temptation to move him.
By the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement Sept. 15, the Penguins still lacked a talented winger for Crosby’s line and an upgrade on defense.
They possess several promising young defensemen (Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, Joe Morrow, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and, eventually, 2012 first-rounders Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta) in their system. One or two of them stepping up could provide that much-needed blueline depth.
Finding that long-elusive scoring winger for Crosby, however, remains a challenge.
With a payroll of roughly $61 million for 2012-13, the Penguins could be squeezed if, as expected, the salary cap drops to $59 million for this season under a new CBA.
Even if the Penguins were allowed to remain over the cap for this season, Shero must ensure he doesn’t take on too much salary or risk weakening his roster depth when forced to shed salary the following season to become cap compliant.
Should a new CBA be implemented in the coming weeks, Shero wouldn’t be in a good position to take on a big salary by signing a high-salaried player cut by clubs trying to get under the salary cap.
A trade might be a better option, but at this point, it could cost him one or more of his promising young blueliners.
Shero could wait for the trade deadline, when non-playoff clubs are willing to dump pending UFAs for cheap returns.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 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 Kukla's Korner.