Despite having the two best offensive players in the game who've racked up 3 scoring titles in the past 7 seasons (and almost certainly would have made it 6 of 7, if not for various injuries), the Pittsburgh Penguins haven't been close to winning the Stanley Cup since they won it now five years ago.
Add antsy ownership to the equation that's desperate to get a winner while they can, and it's time for change. The award winning general manager has been dismissed, the coach is in limbo and now all eyes turn to what can the Pens do to get better results on the ice.
Some sort of roster shakeup is definitely in the works, but what will it be? The Penguins have $55.1 million dollars committed to 14 players next year, with Gary Bettman giving a recent rough estimate of the salary cap being in the $68-69 million range next season. Several key players of the past (Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen) are set to become unrestricted free agents and there's not enough room to keep them.
No matter, the Pens need to get younger and wouldn't have wanted to bring everyone back even if they had no salary cap restraints. Beyond the team's top free agents, who else might the new GM look to deal to shake the roster up?
Letang would be the big fish to trade. His eight year contract extension for $7.25 million a season kicks in next year. In July Letang has a 12 team no-trade clause kick in and he also cannot be waived (NMC). Until then, there are no restrictions on what the Pens can do, trade-wise. It is believed Ray Shero had a handshake agreement not to trade Letang before the partial NTC kicked in....But Ray Shero doesn't work here any longer.
When Letang is at his best, he's a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman that play an absurd amount of minutes, is capable lead rushes up the ice and produce close to a point per game in long stretches. When he's at his worst he's a defensive liability and a mentally weak player prone to mistakes.
Far too often Letang has been off the ice. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Letang has missed (87) almost as many regular season games as he's played (123) due to various injuries including multiple concussions and of course the stroke from this past January. Doctors seem assured it was a freak occurrence that may be in his rear view mirror for good, but no one can say if it'll be a cloud lingering over his head.
It's hard to imagine teams lining up to pay good value for a talented but oft-injured player with such a huge medical flag...Who, oh yeah, carries a huge cap hit of $7.25 million over the next 8 years. For better or worse, the Penguins may have to keep Letang on the team next year, unless some team out there is really buying in to him. Possible but seems unlikely.
The best summer to trade Letang probably would have been last summer. With his new, expensive contract and medical history, Letang doesn't seem likely to fetch his true value in a trade.
Is the juice still worth the squeeze for the Penguins to keep James Neal? Neal is under contract for the next four seasons (through 2017-18) at a $5.0 million cap hit. He has a limited no-trade clause and can block trades to a list of 8 teams in the league, which he submits to the Penguins.
What Neal has been doing as a Penguin is scoring a ton of regular season goals. Since his running mate Evgeni Malkin came back from knee injury, from 2011-12 on James Neal has scored 88 goals in 179 regular season games. He's been a remarkably consistent player in the past three years, you could almost set your watch to him scoring .5 goals/game (.5, .525, .46). That kind of production is nothing to sneeze at or discard flippantly.
However, anecdotal tales are piling up against Neal. There's the suspension for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head, and not being very contrite about it. There's the slashes and high-sticks, like the one drawing a $5,000 fine. He takes bad penalties that seemingly end up being costly. Off the ice, whispers are everywhere about Neal being a problem child with a bad attitude, difficult to work with for arena and team personnel. Like this from Empty Netters:
When a team-initiated Twitter campaign involving Neal was hijacked by fans primarily from Boston and Philadelphia, he protested his involvement in it with team employees in front of several members of the media. While Neal has no obligation to be an agreeable human being, particularly with those in the media, it's apparently a significant enough problem that Penguins management and teammates have addressed him repeatedly about it.
It remains to be seen if this is true, or even an issue for the incoming regime. Neal is an amazing offensive player, he's young and signed for a reasonable rate. The Penguins haven't exactly had the greatest offensive wingers, so trading the best one away would be a huge step back, barring the return being a similar offensively gifted player.
In a perfect situation, maybe the Pens can get a similar return that the Flyers got for Jeff Carter or Mike Richards - which ended up netting them two nice, young offensive pieces for each. But maybe that's not an option in the current trade market.
Trading Neal would be a shakeup for the team, but the danger to make the Pens worse and not better is definitely a risk. If the Pens trade Neal, they're probably going to give up the best player in the deal and usually the team that gives up the best player doesn't end up "winning" that trade.
Martin has one year left on his contract, with a cap hit of $5.0 million and has a limited no-trade clause. He will be a free agent in the summer 2015.
One way or another, the new Penguins GM is going to have to make a decision on Paul Martin this summer. If he wanted, he could talk contract extension with the player who's probably been the Pens most consistent and steady defenseman in the past 2-3 seasons. Or, the Pens could sense that the young pipeline of defensemen are nearing NHL level and move to clear Martin's cap hit off the books a season early and get some value for this asset. Lastly, they could let him play out the season and see where Martin (and the prospects) stand after another year.
Martin, 33, also has injury concerns. He's broken three bones in the past 14 months and played through an ankle injury last playoff. Overall in the past two seasons he's missed 57 out of 130 regular season games. Defensemen don't usually get more healthy as their careers advance, and be it through bad luck or injury concern, Martin has been on the shelf a significant portion.
With Niskanen and Orpik likely gone, the team might not be looking for the complete continuity overhaul of replacing so many defensemen (especially if Letang is being shopped as well). This might bode well for Martin at least returning to Pittsburgh for the 2014-15 season, and seeing if he can stay healthy and give other prospects like Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot a season in the minors that they might need for their development anyways.
Sooner or later though, the Pens defensive youth movement needs to fully roll out if those young guys do develop into NHL options, and Martin will be gone from the team. The Pens would be wise to get something for him before he goes. That, and some cap relief, could happen this summer if the new GM so chooses.