With the Penguins season suddenly over, eyes shift to next season. And while Jordan Staal (cap hit $4 million) and Sidney Crosby (cap hit $8.7 million) are under contract, they are both set to become unrestricted free agents after the 2012-13 season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a bunch of money committed to future years with Marc Andre Fleury ($5 million), James Neal ($5 million), Paul Martin ($5 million), Zbynek Michalek ($4 million), Brooks Orpik ($3.75 million), Kris Letang ($3.5 million) all signed for years to come.
And it's more complicated than the initial fan reaction of "ooh just trade off Martin and/or Michalek for anything", both of those veterans have limited no-trade clauses that limit where they could be sent without their consent. And those teams probably have their own cap crunches, given that not many players are going to list small market teams as their places to be traded to.
Further, the NHL and the NHL Players Association needs to agree to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. We all remember the last time the two butted heads over the last deal, it cancelled the entire 2004-05 season. When the dust settled the league had a drastically different and new landscape (in laymen's terms) that included a salary cap (tied to a percentage of league wide revenues), all player contracts being reduced 24%. The players also won some concessions, most notably getting a younger age of unrestricted free agency.
While no one expects a very different labor picture than what we have now, the players have fortified with a veteran labor leader Donald Fehr to look out for their best interests. The league, for their part, will surely be looking to lower the player's overall take of the pie, being as the NFL's new agreement sees their players earn significantly less of the relative % of revenue than that of the NHL, currently.
How will that shake out? When will that shake out? No one can no for sure at this point, though we all certainly can hope both sides can find a reasonable agreement without missing any time to another lockout.
All that said, Pens GM Ray Shero doesn't have the luxury to wait that long, he's got to slide two very significant pieces in Crosby and Shero into the Penguins puzzle for years to come. Shero can negotiate new contracts with them starting on July 1, and it's expected that's exactly what he'll do, probably before the new CBA is agreed to.
In Crosby's case, it all comes down to health. Certainly it has to be encouraging that after he returned in March, he was able to return, without any concussion or health hiccups through the end of the season and the intense playoffs. It's still a fairly uncertain future for Crosby, who's always one hit away from a significant issue, but then again we're talking about Sidney Crosby.
Sidney Crosby is worth every penny to the Penguins that they could pay him. From a merchandising and marketing standpoint alone, even if he can only play in 40 games a season, he's worth 20% of the team's salary cap (which is the maximum, in this CBA, that a team can pay any one player). From the on the ice standpoint, he's worth the gamble too, as Crosby's points/game is just as high as it ever was and he's still the best offensive player in the world. Yep, Crosby's negotiation is easy if you're Shero- simply ask the player how much he wants, and for how long he wishes to sign, and boom, it's done. From Crosby's quotes on getaway day, he's comfortable in signing this summer with Pittsburgh, so that's what to expect. Will he receive a raise on salary? Possibly, and probably. The cap has gone up from when he signed four years ago, and again, he's worth whatever he receives to the team.
That's the easy part. Jordan Staal, on the other hand, is a whole 'nother can of worms.
Despite missing time to injury, Staal scored 25 goals this season, and was the Pens best and most productive player in the playoffs. While there's very really doubts about Staal's playmaking, the fact that he can produce without a lot of power play time, his defensive work and improvement on faceoffs will make him quite the commodity. With his size, skills, youth and experience, he'd stand to make a TON of money on the open market from any number of teams that could easily plug Staal into their top 6 forwards and go.
But where does Staal fit in Pittsburgh? When Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy, Staal's been relegated to the 3rd line, gotten a ton of penalty kill time, but not much of the precious PP opportunities that players so covet. Does Staal want to come back to Pittsburgh in a center role, knowing he's likely always playing third fiddle? Or would he be inclined to switch to the wing in order to get in a top 6 role? These are unknown questions that Shero will have to find the answer for.
The dilemma for Shero is in the moving parts. From the core players mentioned above (plus Malkin) he's got $34.95 million tied to seven players. And Shero won't know if his salary cap next year might be reduced to $50 million, $55 milion, if it'll stay at about current levels of $63 million or be beyond that, or anywhere in between. If Crosby seeks $10-11 million, and Staal $5-6-7 million, they'd be getting close to a crunch, no matter what the upper limit is.
So now it's decision time for the core. Especially after seeing Philadelphia be successful in jettisoning off Mike Richards and Jeff Carter all for very young, entry-level type talent. It's a lot easier said than done, and the situations are totally different from the two teams. Though the model is out there.
And it also says a lot that when the Pens won the cup in 2009- Staal, Malkin and Letang were on cheap entry level deals. When Chicago took the title in '10, they too had a ton of contributors making little. Even last season, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand were two of Boston's top forwards. Philly got Jakub Voracek, the pick that became Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn as young top talent for their veteran players, that's the standard.
So we'll have to see how it goes. The Pens have known about these moving pieces for a long time, and it mainly comes down to what Jordan Staal is willing to do. No one can, or should, expect a big time discount (same for Sid). So Shero has to negotiate and figure out a way to make the team the best it can be for 2012 and beyond.