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Pittsburgh Can Get Younger & Cheaper, but not Where It Counts

Shero's Penguins relied on elite defensive prospects to bolster the NHL product. Now, those youngsters are going to have to not just supplement the forwards, the offense and the payroll, but save them.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

A lot to digest in Pittsburgh, these days.

Right or wrong, General Manager Ray Shero is a free agent. Jason Botterill is working as the team's interim head of hockey operations. No one is quite sure where head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff still stand.

What everyone at this point is sure of is that the roster is getting older, slower and increasingly more expensive. If Shero and the team's hockey ops staff are the first dominoes to fall, it is only to allow the incoming parties to address those problems with the roster.

One of the most illuminating things to come of the chaos was the meeting-room exchange between the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Dejan Kovacevic and Penguins co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, VP of Communications Tom McMillan and CEO David Morehouse.

Of note, Burkle and Lemieux seemed especially in concert on the notion that the Penguins need to be faster, more ill-tempered, more responsible -- in a word, completely unlike the team they've become.

Burkle would at one point compliment the play of the team's youngsters, who were instrumental in helping the squad survive the regular season. The team handily captured a division title in spite of 500-plus man-games lost to injury.

For their contributions, though, those young players were largely kept in the minors during the team's uninspired postseason run.

At the prompting of whether or not the Penguins roster had become too old:

"That's part of what we're talking about right now with the younger guys," Burkle said. "You can look at the draft and say what we did or didn't do, but we've got forwards and D-men who we have drafted and didn't always take advantage of them or done a lot with them. So we have ended up with an older team.

"When we do see our younger guys, we see a lot more energy, a lot more of what we'd like to see in our game. So maybe those guys at the Garden were playing a little bit ahead of their ability. They made up with their energy."

The Pens are likely still some time away from making any meaningful roster changes. While trades can take place at any time, the NHL Draft and the beginning of free agency are still more than a month away.

Given the Pens' tight cap situation as of now, it is a real possibility that the team will from now on rely on its young players to play meaningful minutes, something they haven't been trusted to do in recent years.

The team may not have any other choice.

If Pittsburgh is to rely on its youngsters, those players will be Shero's products. Those products, largely, are defensemen. The Shero-era draft edict was always clear -- load up on hugely talented defenders, keep the best of the best and move the others for forward help at the NHL level.

True to form, the Penguins have graduated prospects like Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik (Craig Patrick draft picks). Olli Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo were regulars throughout the 2014 postseason. Others, like Joe Morrow, Ryan Whitney and Ben Lovejoy, were traded to bring in help at forward.

That strategy worked, until it didn't.

Despite their lauded defensive pipeline, the Penguins repeatedly signed veteran defenders to expensive contracts. That was a symptom of the team's inability to trust its prospects, and no small part of why Shero is out of a job and Bylsma seems to be hot on his trail.

Paul Martin (2010), Zbynek Michalek (2010) and Rob Scuderi (2013) signed contract extensions totaling $61 million, and only Martin seems likely to fulfill the value of his deal. Deryk Engelland, Douglas Murray and Mark Eaton were brought on board to play regularly and skate in slow circles while names like Simon Despres and Brian Strait were buried in Wilkes-Barre.

The philosophy was preached, but never quite practiced.

For years, that defensive pipeline was expected to supplement the team's talented but top-heavy forward group.

Now, they'll have to save them.

One of Penguins' biggest obstacles is the salary cap. That's true more now than ever, especially in the wake of contract extensions signed by Evgeni Malkin, Letang and other deals for Scuderi and Pascal Dupuis which were locked in a summer ago.

  • Scuderi and Dupuis, both of whom suffered significant injuries this season and who will be on the north side of 35 by next year's playoffs, will count for a combined $7.125 million in each of the next three seasons.
  • Malkin and Letang receive raises totaling $4.55 million that will count against the team's cap for each of the next eight years. Malkin has a full no-move clause. Letang's extension will bring a modified no-trade clause.
  • The Penguins have six players set to earn $5 million or more next season. Those six players count for $40.45 million, or just about 57 percent of the estimated $71 million salary cap set for the 2014-15 season.
The usual prescription for carrying such huge cap hits is to also carry a number of high-impact young players who are still on their entry-level contracts. The Chicago Blackhawks have done so with Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. Torey Krug provided a similar cost-benefit advantage for the Boston Bruins. The Penguins finally allowed themselves to have such a young talent of their own in Maatta this season.

The Penguins have a number of these players waiting in the developmental pipeline. Those players are all defensemen, and this team does not want for defense.

Keep in mind, it wasn't the oft-maligned, Bylsmatic defensive breakdowns that sent the Penguins packing in the last two postseasons. The offense failed to produced more than a half-goal per game in last year's Conference Finals (after posting more than 4.00 goals per game through two rounds), and they dried up again this year.

The Pens scored just three goals in their final three contests of their series against the Rangers and collected one power play goal through seven games.

Narrative-killer Marc-Andre Fleury posted consecutive shutouts in Games 2 and 3, and the team held the Rangers to 15 total goals -- the fewest any Penguins team has ever allowed in a seven-game playoff series.

The offense betrayed that defensive effort, and that seemingly inexplicable but wholly familiar goal drought was apparently the straw that broke Consol's back.

There might still have been changes in store if the Penguins had lost in either the Conference or Cup Finals in a similar, meltdown-y fashion, but now that changes are underway the team is going to find it hard to address its problems with scoring and forward depth by, as Burkle mentioned, "taking advantage of" its up-and-comers.

If the Penguins are to find cost savings, young legs and hungry talent from within the organization, it will be on defense. Of this year's top-eight group, Engelland, Orpik and Matt Niskanen are likely to move on. Letang, Martin, Bortuzzo and Maatta are assured of their places on the roster, and Scuderi is going to be mentioned in every trade prayer rumor between now and training camp.

We had more grit and character when we had all our kids up. Remember that? - Ron Burkle, via Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. May 2014

That's three, perhaps four spots that are going to open up among the top-eight. Between Orpik, Engelland and Niskanen (who is attractive but likely to price himself out of town), the Penguins have more than $6.6 million likely to come off the books. Move Scuderi, and the number jumps to something more than $10 million.

That's four vacated roster spots that could be filled by any combination of entry-level contracts (Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot) and low-cost, pending RFA's (Despres, Philip Samuelsson). Combined, four players on such contracts might not equal much more than $4 million in combined salary.

"Frankly, the salary cap situation is going to [bring young players to the roster] anyway," Burkle told the Trib. "With a cap system, you can't just have a bunch of senior people on the team.

"You can't afford to."

Pittsburgh is in a salary cap fix that's only going to get worse, and management knows it. Good, young players aren't just a luxury for Cup teams. Increasingly, that's become the only way for a star-laden roster to continue to have depth. The locker room is in dire need of roster players who are young and hungry to prove. The top-six is in dire need of help from below. Above all, the payroll is in absolute need of cost savings.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, that need is greatest where their talent is most shallow.

Outside of Bennett, Brian Gibbons and Jayson Megna, most of Pittsburgh's forward prospects have fewer than 10 games of NHL experience, if any at all. None of their forwards, besides Bennett, are projected to be impact NHL players. Bennett is the only one among them with any sort of pedigree, and he has been unable to avoid injury throughout his professional career.

To belabor the point of trust, the speedy Bennett was scratched in favor of Tanner Glass in the decisive seventh game against the Rangers.

As of now, the Penguins have just 14 players signed through next season. Seven of those fourteen are forwards, and the team has just under $16 million in cap space to fill out their third and fourth lines -- not to mention the three defense spots that have already been vacated.

In building out the forward group for the coming season, the team is going to have to turn to free agency to get any kind of established NHL talent. There's just no help coming from Wilkes-Barre.

That means the defense is going to have to be built from within.

Shero and his staff did the work of gaining Pittsburgh's defensive army-in-waiting. Those players will have to gain the trust of his successor. The Penguins just don't have any other choice.