Lengthy Lockout Reveals Penguins Gameplan

Brandon Sutter Hurricanes
Brandon Sutter moves into a third-line center role with Pittsburgh (Icon SMI)

There will be a hockey season.

It’ll probably feature a compressed 50-game schedule within the conference to reduce travel demands.  No, it won’t look like the standard 82-game slate, but it won’t impact the playoffs as much as you’d think either.

CBC’s Elliotte Friedman pointed out last year that the playoff race is usually all but decided in the first month of the season anyway:

Spent a few hours on Sunday looking up the post-lockout standings, picking the date of Nov. 1 for each year. During those six seasons, the difference between eighth place and last place in each conference ranged from four to eight points. That early, it’s difficult to create an incredible amount of separation.

Twenty teams who were not in the top eight on Nov. 1 recovered to make the playoffs. That’s an average of almost 3.5 per season. (Just to clarify, the “Top 8” includes any team with the same point total as the eighth-place team. I wasn’t going into tiebreakers so early in the season.)

Doesn’t seem so bad, right? Depends. The safety net shreds for anyone falling too far behind. Of those 20 teams, guess how many of them were more than three points out?

Two. That’s it.

What does that mean for General Managers and coaching staffs?  If your team isn’t ready to go out of the gate, your season could be over with one bad losing streak.

Over the past two years, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero has repeatedly said that he wanted maximum roster flexibility heading into the unknowns of CBA negotiations this summer.  Sidney Crosby was slated to become an unrestricted free agent next July 1 (he’s since signed a 12-year, $104.4 million extension) and Evgeni Malkin will be in the same situation the following summer.  Shero didn’t want to be in a position where he couldn’t afford to keep the two franchise players.

However, with the lockout now in its third month, the rest of the plan Shero and Assistant GM Jason Botterill orchestrated this summer is becoming clear as well.

After the playoffs ended last season, Shero touched base with Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney about the possibility of working out a deal for defenseman Zbynek Michalek.  Trading Michalek — with three years left on his contract at $4 million per — would allow Shero to get assets and also make a pitch for high-priced free agents Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter.  Trading Michalek without receiving an NHL defenseman in return would leave holes though.

The Penguins have the most impressive stable of young defensemen in the league, but prospects like Simon Despres and Joe Morrow haven’t had the chance to show they’re definitely ready for significant NHL roles.  The risks of relying on a young defensive core would only be magnified if goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t find a way to bounce back from his dismal playoff performance.

Shero admitted that during a conversation with Fleury’s agent Allan Walsh about how to motivate the goaltender, he toyed with the idea of acquiring Tomas Vokoun, another Walsh client.  A number of teams were looking for backup goalies and others were looking for starters this summer.  Vokoun was slated to become the premier free agent option and had expressed a desire to be a starter, meaning the Penguins would likely be left with unpredictable backup options like Jonas Gustavsson, Scott Clemmensen, and Dan Ellis.

Sean Couturier Flyers
(Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE)

After receiving permission from Washington Capitals GM George McPhee, Shero quickly negotiated a contract extension with Vokoun and traded a seventh-round pick to the Capitals to acquire his rights on June 4.  At the time, I found the move confusing despite the fact it gave the Penguins options.  Vokoun was certainly an excellent value play at just $2 million per season, but judging the transaction in a bubble was like hating a movie based on the trailer.

I didn’t realize that the strength in goal would allow the Penguins to unload Michalek and gamble with a new crop of young defensemen.  Or that the extra salary cap space gained by the moves would put Shero in a better position when the cap falls to around $60 million next summer.  Or that having two “starters” would be extremely valuable when teams are forced to play four games in five nights on a regular basis this spring.

In hindsight it’s easy to see how timely the Jordan Staal trade was as well.

Even if the NHL season is cancelled, player contracts still advance one year.  Would Shero have been able to get Brandon Sutter, promising defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and the eighth-overall pick immediately before Staal hit unrestricted free agency next July 1?  I’m not even sure he’d receive anything close to that offer if the lockout ended tomorrow.

Maximum return? Check.

Salary cap flexibility? Check.

Shero and Botterill even adjusted their strategy with regards to depth players and the minor-league roster as well.

Out the door went free agents Steve Sullivan (38 years old), Arron Asham (34), Richard Park (36), and Jason Williams (32).

In came Tanner Glass (29), Trevor Smith (27), Riley Holzapfel (24), and Benn Ferriero (25) — players eligible to play in the American Hockey League during the lockout and also more likely to stay healthy during the condensed schedule.

The only hole that remains on the roster is the winger position on one of the top two lines.  The Penguins were in heavy pursuit of Swiss star free agent Damien Brunner before he signed with the Detroit Red Wings.  Brunner, with 48 points in 27 games, is now running away with the scoring lead in a Swiss league that features Joe Thornton, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, and Jason Spezza.

Also on the Penguins radar was J.T. Brown, a free agent winger out of Minnesota-Duluth who ended up signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Brown isn’t as NHL-ready as Brunner, but he would have eventually provided much-needed physicality and scoring up front.

Despite the near misses, Shero will still be in position to capitalize on market conditions when the new CBA comes into effect.

The details still need to be hammered out, but the league will likely operate under a $70 million salary cap this season before falling quickly to around $60 million, depending on league revenues.  Half of NHL General Manager’s have already committed over $61 million in salaries this season.

Following the last lockout, teams with cap flexibility — such as Craig Patrick’s Penguins — were able to scoop up talent that other teams were forced to shed.  With a trimmed payroll, similar opportunities are sure to appear for Shero over the next six months.

Something tells me that’s already in the gameplan.


Email: MJColligan@TheHockeyWriters.com

Twitter: @MikeColligan