Late Friday night after the NHL Draft’s first round completed, a herd of media surrounded one of seven podiums in the interview room of CONSOL Energy Center. The dozens of media members, cameras on their shoulders and recorders in their hands, waited and waited and waited.
At 11 p.m. Eastern, the wait wasn’t for a giddy 18-year-old draft pick. The long wait was for Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who had pulled the trigger on two trades in front of the hometown fans just hours earlier.
One of the deals involved fan favourite Jordan Staal – well, he was a fan favourite prior to turning down a 10-year, $60 million contract offer. A day after turning down that offer, Staal, set to become a free agent in 2013, was traded and suddenly a teammate of his brother in Carolina. The other trade saw defenceman Zbynek Michalek go back to Phoenix after a short tenure in the Steel City.
Shero was the man of the hour, as media scribes asked, in different ways, "Why are you trading Jordan Staal, and why now?"
Then, nine minutes into the press conference, came the inevitable question about the immediate aftermath to the wheeling and dealing.
"Is it possible you could add another impact player in free agency?"
The impact player(s) the reporter was referring to, obviously, was Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter.
In the salary cap era, Parise and Suter are two of the top players to ever test free agency in their prime. Both will likely hit the open market Sunday, the day where stupid money is annually spent during free agent frenzy. Parise and Suter will both command big, stupid money.
With an established core that oozes god given ability, it may seem improbable that the Penguins could sign one of Parise or Suter. The thought of signing both may seem like a video game idea. It certainly seemed that way before Shero created $6 million of cap space with Friday’s pair of trades.
Now it appears the Penguins will be looking to make a free agent splash that could send tremors throughout the league.
According to CapGeek.com, the Penguins are upwards of $14 million under the (temporary) salary cap ceiling of $70.3 million. If they trade away defenceman Paul Martin, as it’s being rumored, that cap space number would rise above $19 million.
It’s not like the Penguins have a lot of needs to address this off-season. Eighteen players are currently under contract for the lockout-threatened 2012-13 season, so they could realistically fit one of Parise or Suter in their salary structure – or both of them, as long as the salary cap doesn’t shrink in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Paying four players over $8 million is a risky proposition for any team, even the perennially-contending Penguins. Sidney Crosby is likely to sign a gaudy long-term extension this summer, while Evgeni Malkin’s contract expires in 2014. The biggest future obstacle pertaining to the core, though, is Kris Letang. The defenceman’s cap hit is currently $3.5 million. If he continues his upward trend, that cap hit could double by the time his deal ends in two summers.
Signing both Parise and Suter (by the way, the two are friends and may decide to team up and play elsewhere) to mega contracts could hamper the Penguins’ ability to keep the core intact. But if Shero gives both of them front-loaded 12-year contracts, it could work.
It would be a tough decision if Shero has to pick just one of them. Parise is an elite forward that could pot 50 goals playing alongside Sidney Crosby for 82 games. Suter, who has a preexisting relationship with Shero, is a top-notch defenceman that has improved in each of his seven NHL seasons. (If you are Pittsburgh, aren’t you looking to give the defence a boost after their first-round debacle against Philadelphia?)
An argument can be made that top-line producers can be found every summer – not of Parise’s ilk, but impact forwards do grow on trees. Most, if not all of the top unrestricted free agents for 2013 and 2014 are forwards. Top-pair defencemen, especially ones of Suter’s prowess, are treated like gold – because every team is searching for one, and they are hard to find.
If you disagree, just look at last summer’s frenzy. A combined $73 million was dished out by defence-starved teams to rearguards Christian Ehrhoff and James Wisniewski. Meanwhile, Dallas signed Michael Ryder to a $9 million contract. All Ryder did was score 35 goals. Ehrhoff and Wisniewski, out of place as "top-pair defencemen," failed to help their respective teams, Buffalo and Columbus, meet lofty expectations.
Since taking over in Pittsburgh, Shero hasn’t been shy to make bold moves here and there. The blockbuster trade for Marian Hossa worked out; the simultaneous signings of Michalek and Martin in 2010, well, did not.
After a bold trade that saw Staal shipped out of Pittsburgh, Shero could again be up to something. His team has entered each of the last three seasons as a top Stanley Cup contender, and each spring the Penguins have exited early scratching their heads.
Shero wants to win the last game of the season like his team did in 2009, and what better way to make a statement than to sign two of the three most coveted free agents (the other being Ilya Kovalchuk in 2010) in the salary cap era?
Like Parise and Suter, Crosby and Malkin are just entering their prime (a frightening thought). James Neal is a perfect complement to No. 87 and 71. Letang is a budding star on the blue line. Marc-Andre Fleury, oft-criticized, can be a difference-making goaltender when he wants to be.
Could Shero possibly add to that uber-talented nucleus by signing Parise and/or Suter in the looming free agent frenzy?
"Yeah, possibly," the Penguins GM said Friday to the aforementioned question about adding an impact player. "We’ll look to do that. We’ll see what happens over the next week and on July 1st."
This summer the Pittsburgh Penguins will sign…