What's next for the Penguins?
When the Edmonton Oilers won their rematch with the defending-champion New York Islanders in the 1984 Stanley Cup final, the victory touched off a run of four titles in five years that turned Wayne Gretzky and company into the dominant team of the late '80s.
Twenty-five years later, the hockey world is wondering whether the Pittsburgh Penguins' seven-game upset of the incumbent Detroit Red Wings marks the arrival of the NHL's first true dynasty since the breakup of that legendary Oilers team.
"It's not as easy as 1-2-3 to win a Stanley Cup. It's incredibly difficult," general manager Ray Shero told NHL.com as the Penguins celebrated their Game 7 victory Friday night in the Motor City. "You have to be good. You have to be lucky."
Both those descriptions apply to Shero, who inherited an outstanding young nucleus from predecessor Craig Patrick and has worked to ensure it remains intact for years — no mean feat in the salary cap era.
Captain Sidney Crosby, who has averaged 1.4 points per game over his four NHL seasons and is somehow still only 21, remains under contract for four more seasons. Evgeni Malkin, 22 and coming off his first scoring title and Conn Smythe Trophy, is locked up through 2013-14. Marc-Andre Fleury, 24, who had a .911 save percentage over the last three seasons, is signed until the end of the 2015 playoffs.
The Penguins also control young penalty killing ace Jordan Staal through 2012-13, reliable winger Chris Kunitz through 2011-12, and will have veteran scoring defenceman Sergei Gonchar back in the fold next season.
Even though he owes mediocre defenceman Brooks Orpik a regrettable $3.75 million US in each of the next five years, and Staal ($4 million annual cap hit) and Kunitz ($3.725 million) aren't exactly working for peanuts, Shero should get some room to improve his team courtesy of a handful of expiring contracts.
The salaries of nine notable players are set to come off the books this summer. Forwards Bill Guerin ($4.5 million), Miroslav Satan ($3.5 million) Petr Sykora ($2.5 million), Ruslan Fedotenko ($2.25 million) and Craig Adams ($600,000) will become unrestricted free agents, along with defencemen Philippe Boucher ($2.5 million), Hal Gill ($2.075 million) and Rob Scuderi ($700,000), and backup goalie Mathieu Garon ($1.1 million).
Each of those players contributed something to the 2008-09 championship, but the Pens are hardly sweating any of their departures. In fact, if they all sign elsewhere it would leave Pittsburgh with about $45.5 million committed to 14 NHL players for 2009-10, according to HockeyBuzz.com.
It's hard to say for certain what the salary cap will be next season, but most observers don't expect the full impact of the recession to be felt on the cap until 2010-11. Using the current $56.7-million limit as a guide, Shero could have something like $11 million to play with (it might have been much more if not for the big raise due Malkin, whose cap hit will rise to $8.7 million from $3.8 million).
Bring back Hossa?
Finding a high-scoring linemate for Crosby could be priority No. 1 when the free-agent signing period opens on Canada Day. The Pens' best player skated with Kunitz and the ancient Guerin in the playoffs, and earlier this season had to endure being flanked by the likes of Pascal Dupuis and Satan, who proved so worthy of the assignment that he was demoted to the minors for a time.
Shero tried to supply Crosby with a top-flight wingman last July by offering winger Marian Hossa a lucrative multi-year deal to stay in Pittsburgh. But the three-time 40-goal scorer spurned the Pens for a one-year contract with Detroit, figuring (incorrectly, it turned out) that the Wings gave him the best chance to win a Cup.
Hossa will hit the market again on July 1, and the Pens might be among the suitors. But if the Slovak sniper gets anything north of the $7.45 million salary he earned this season, that would leave Shero only a few million bucks to fill out the remaining vacancies on his 23-man roster.
The GM could create more cap room by dealing Staal, who would figure to draw some interest. Apart from that, Shero may wish to forget about the big fish like Hossa and Minnesota's Marian Gaborik and instead sign a mid-priced unrestricted free agent (Alex Kovalev? Alex Tanguay? Mike Cammallieri? Ales Kotalik? Nik Antropov?) to play on a line with Crosby and Kunitz. He could then use the rest of his cash to re-sign some of his own free agents and/or add some Red Wings-style depth.
"To win, you've got to have their contributions in the trenches," Shero told NHL.com as the Penguins celebrated in Motown. "Detroit has proved for so many years you have to have the role players and secondary scoring to get to your goal. Those are the heart-and-soul players you have to have to win."
Anything more than a tinkering shouldn't be necessary, if the Penguins' late-season charge is any indication. After Gonchar returned from shoulder surgery on Feb. 14 and Dan Bylsma replaced the stuffy Michel Therrien behind the bench on Feb. 16, Pittsburgh finished the regular season on an 18-3-4 (.800) tear, then went 16-8 (.667) against tough competition in the playoffs.
With Gonchar back on the point and Bylsma turning his talented roster loose down the homestretch of the regular season, the Penguins increased their scoring average by more than half a goal a game, and their power play was one of the 10 best in the league.
As the champagne flowed around him on Friday night, Shero wasn't ready to declare the beginning of a dynasty. But it was hard to argue when he said: "Right now, we're the best team in the NHL."