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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ray Shero's 5 Million Dollar Question by @excitedboberrey


Ray Shero's $5 Million Question


(Mad Chad covered earlier the on-ice issues that could bring Marc-Andre Fleury's time in Pittsburgh to an end. I'll be taking a look at how the off-ice situation can potentially work against him remaining a Penguin)

You know the story by now. The Penguins struggling in their own end during last year's playoffs with both their team defense and goaltending. Ray Shero trading a 7th round pick for the best backup goalie in the league, because he's Ray Shero and he wakes up in the morning and pisses excellence. How the first round series against the Islanders looked eerily familiar and how pucks started going in off the boards, from behind the goal, and off Fleury's feet. Hell, Steiggy could've stopped Casey Cizikas's shot at the end of Game 4, and you know I'd love nothing more than to fire pucks at him to prove my point. Tomas Vokoun came in and righted the ship. It wasn't all smooth sailing, and the defense did revert back to its turnover prone ways at times in Game 6, but he didn't let in those back breaking goals we saw kill this team's morale in Games 2-4. While #VokounaMatata certainly served as a wakeup call to his teams, it had to set off some alarms for his bosses too. Ray Shero and Jason Botterill now have a serious question to answer this offseason, and I believe a perfect storm of circumstances outside of Marc-Andre Fleury's could play a big factor in deciding whether he remains a Penguin or not.


The Salary Cap


If there's anything that we learned from this last lockout, it's that Jeremy Jacobs deserves a wicked right hook straight to the face. Another thing we learned is that the 2013-14 Salary Cap is going down to $63.4 million, a total which the Penguins find themselves $7.9 million under with 9 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goalies under contract. Also Steve MacIntyre, but let's be honest Steve MacIntyre's more worthless than a 3 dollar bill. The Penguins will need to sign either Iginla or Dupuis this offseason, possibly both if they can somehow swing it. We saw what happened at the beginning of the season with a glaring hole in our top 6, and that won't happen again. While Bennett has shown the potential to take one spot next year, that still leaves one wing position open on the top 2 lines. In addition, guys like Cooke, Morrow, TK, Adams, and Murray are free agents, and even resigning RFA options like Bortuzzo and Jeffrey will leave us cutting it close on cap space. This doesn't take into account possible extensions for Malkin and Letang that would go into effect the season after, while all indications are the cap will go back up Malkin could get $2 million more per year and Letang $3-4 million more from their current deals. Marc-Andre Fleury has 2 more years left on his current contract, and that $5 million could potentially be a difference maker either this offseason or next.

The Penguins currently have $7 million of their cap going to goaltenders next season, which is among the highest totals in the league. While it's always nice to have good goaltending, there comes a point in time where it isn't worth the price, both from what your goalies can give you and from losing out on using that money elsewhere. Goalies like Cam Ward ($684k), Chris Osgood ($867k), Antti Niemi ($827k), and Jonathan Quick ($1.8 million) have shown that you don't need to have big time money invested in your starting goaltender to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, look at some of the biggest cap hits at the goalie position. Carey Price at $6.5 million has bad pun written all over it. Cam Ward's now up to $6.3 million and his handicap is down 5 strokes with all the extra rounds he's been getting in. Ryan Miller somehow turned one great season into $6.25 million. Ilya Bryzgalov has been un-bear-ably bad at $5.67 million. Roberto Luongo and Rick DiPietro don't rank quite as high on their cap hits because of the cap circumventing nature of their deals, but is there anyone out there arguing that either of those 2 contracts was worth it?

The Pipeline


Removing Marc Andre Fleury's contract from the books, whether by trade or buyout, would allow Shero to use that $5 million on the rest of his roster. There's significant risk with dramatically altering the goaltending on a Stanley Cup contender many would list as a favorite, but this would leave Tomas Vokoun starting in net for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he's shown throughout his career that he's a more than capable option. Vokoun's a guy who was a top 5 goalie in the league in the years following the lockout but remained underrated because 1) Nashville and Florida were pretty bad teams and 2) he played such a technically sound, positionally correct game that doesn't lend itself to the highlight reel saves that get goalies noticed. The good news is that this style doesn't fall off as quickly and leads to a longer career, which would allow Vokoun to have several more good seasons in net while mentoring a young goalie, and Pittsburgh has a couple that could potentially fit the bill.

Jeff Zatkoff was a guy who was caught in a numbers situation in the Kings system with no room to move up behind Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. After signing last offseason, Zatkoff has put up his best season yet, posting a 1.93 GAA and 0.920 save percentage in Wilkes-Barre in a year where the lockout forced young NHL talent to the AHL level. Another guy with potential is the newly signed Eric Hartzell, the highly sought after Hobey Baker finalist from Quinnipiac. Either guy would give the Penguins a young goaltender they could groom behind Vokoun to eventually take over, but the Penguins are in a position where that might not be their only option.

The Future Defensemen

Over the past couple of years Ray Shero has accumulated quite the collection of young defensemen in the Penguins system, with many of them being the smooth skating type with the good breakout pass that so many teams covet. Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta, Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin, Nick D'Agostino give the Penguins a very strong group of defensive prospects, which also gives the Penguins some solid trade bait. The reality is that all of these kids are never going to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the same time. There aren't enough roster openings, and the likelihood of all those prospects panning out is virtually zero. Also, the further these prospects get out of juniors and into the AHL the more their trade value goes down, meaning the time to trade is sooner rather than later. Take a look at Joe Morrow. Morrow has all the offensive tools teams crave in an offensive defenseman. The Penguins found out once getting him to Wilkes-Barre that getting his defensive game to an acceptable level was going to be a major task. He struggled early on at the AHL level, but for prospects, and especially young defensemen, struggling when initially moving up a level doesn't hurt your value too much. What would have hurt Morrow's value is if his defensive game really was several seasons away from being anywhere close to an NHL acceptable level. If our other prospects start passing him on their way up to Pittsburgh, Morrow's blue chip value is worth pennies on the dollar. Ray Shero saw a project who still had a lot of value and turned him into Brenden Morrow. With the logjam in our system on defense there will certainly be another player to meet the same fate. These prospects give Shero the ability to monitor the goalie situation within the system and make a play for another up and coming goalie if he feels the need.

Bottom Line


I'm not advocating one way or another for what the Pens should do, and the fact is if Fleury had played up to his level of play this wouldn't be a discussion. Despite the difficulties he's faced in the playoffs the past 2 seasons, Marc-Andre Fleury still possesses some of the best athleticism of anybody at the position. He'll only be 29 at the start of next season, and he's shown he can put together long stretches where he's on top of his game and looks VERY good while he's at it. Even with the struggles this is not someone you give up on without a good reason. However, Pittsburgh does have a special set of circumstances. They have a starting-caliber backup goalie who has looked even better when not relegated to the bench for a week at a time, posting a 140+ minute scoreless streak during one such stretch. They have a couple young goalies in the system with promise as well as the means to go out and get another promising young goalie if need be. The way this team has been built puts less pressure on a goaltender to win games and asks that they make the saves they need to make. And the first ever decrease in the Stanley Cap makes getting good production out of your dollars spent even more crucial.

It'll remain to be seen whether or not these circumstances are enough of a reason to force Shero's hand, but whatever happens I can't see Marc-Andre Fleury remaining untouchable any longer. The Pens have made the hard decisions with fan favorites before, whether it was Sergei Gonchar in free agency or Jordan Staal in a trade. It would be difficult saying goodbye to Fleury after all he's done, but Ray Shero has shown he's capable of making that move if it proves to be the best one available.

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