Now that Evgeni Malkin has been re-signed, general manager Ray Shero’s focus turns to two players on opposite ends of the spectrum.
On one hand you’ve got Kris Letang, the talented but inconsistent Norris Trophy nominated defenseman. He’s got skating ability and puck skills in spades and will command a healthy pay raise on his current $3.5 million contract that runs through 2013-14. Shero will have to see if he can sign Letang for a reasonable amount to the team, or he’s likely to trade Letang much the same as he did with Jordan Staal last summer.
On the other end of the spectrum there’s Pascal Dupuis. The quiet first liner. Running partner of Sidney Crosby. Dupuis has been a staple on the Penguins for the past five years, playing on any of the four lines and either wing position, and even some center this season for a few games in an injury pinch. Dupuis, and not Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow will have to be the first unrestricted-free-agent-to-be that the Penguins look to sign, if possible. Here’s why that is:
Impressive goal production
In the past two seasons, (a stretch where Crosby has missed 72 games) Dupuis is tied for 9th in even strength goals in the entire league, ranking ahead of more heralded (and higher paid) teammates in James Neal and Chris Kunitz. Look deeper at who has scored in short-handed and ES situations and Dupuis ranks 2nd in the league, behind Chicago captain Jonathan Toews in goals scored.
Dupuis has been a rare player to improve his production into his 30’s, a rarity, but one that makes sense. He’s playing more minutes in a top six forward role in the past few seasons, where throughout most of his early career he was a lower line grinder/role player. Dupuis doesn’t have elite hands, but he does have above-average skating ability and mental understanding of positioning and has been able to parlay that into production. Dupuis is also an effective player as a forechecker and often wins battles along the walls and behind the net to continue cycling plays. Extending plays and keeping pressure on the opposition often results in more zone-time with the puck and eventually more shots and opportunities to score.
What does this fancy chart mean? If you’re new to fancy stats, it’s ok- the bigger and darker the bubble, the better for how the player did in terms of Corsi. The bigger and redder, the worse. If it’s neutral in size or color, so was the play in terms of Corsi. The position on the chart depends on where on the ice they started their shifts and a measure of Quality of Competition that they faced.
The above paints a very flattering picture for Dupuis, he’s near the top, meaning he played some of the toughest minutes of any Penguin forward at even strength. He’s towards the left, meaning he often had to start shifts in his defensive zone, which makes sense for a coaching staff looking to spring Neal and Evgeni Malkin with better starting positions and using the more two-way lines centered by Crosby and Brandon Sutter to draw tougher assignments. Dupuis’ Corsi, Corsi Rel and GVT stats are all strong, especially relative to his teammates.
In short, Pascal Dupuis was a guy the Penguins could start in the defensive zone, and he would still end up getting more shots on the other goalie than on his own (unlike the red-bubbled Sutter and Matt Cooke, who saw started defensively but surrendered more shots than had shots for.) Dupuis, while a beneficiary of playing with Crosby, also maintained high marks while Crosby was out for ¼ of the season with his broken jaw.
Dupuis signed a two-year, $3 million contract ($1.5 million cap hit) before the increased production of his past two seasons, which almost surely will have him at least double his pay. Dupuis also just turned 34 years old and has completed his 13th year as a professional. This will likely be his last best chance to strike with a big NHL contract. Reports say he’s looking for a four year deal, which the Pens will have to weigh carefully. Sure Dupuis is one of the team’s better skaters and better conditioned players, but how will that hold up as he advances in age to a 38 year old player? Hockey is a young man’s game, and the tenant of Dupuis’ game- speed- is likely to dwindle in these years. However, he still can be an effective player at the NHL level and as cliché as it is to say, he can “make up with smarts” in terms of positioning with maybe losing that half-a-step in later years. That said, hockey is a quick game and losing even a fraction of a step can go from scoring a goal to having a younger, faster defenseman getting a stick on you or the goalie getting in position to make a save. Once Father time catches up with a pro, it's often swift and never defeated.
Still, Shero and the Pens need to pay for future performance, not the past results, which is unfortunate because Dupuis has rattled off two very, very solid seasons and become an integral part of the Penguins on the ice and in the lockeroom.
For the Penguins tight salary structure, the shorter the contract the better. If they can negotiate with Dupuis to three years and keep his average salary in the $3 - $3.5 million range, it would seem to be a very fair deal for team and player alike. If Dupuis wants to, he could easily go into UFA and get the 4th year in his contract and probably more money. He has roots in Pittsburgh and good reason to stay. It’ll have to be worth his while, but given how he’s played recently, the Pens should move quickly to give him that reason.