The Pittsburgh Penguins waited four days for the biggest fish in this year’s free agent pond, Zach Parise, to make a decision on his future. And, by the time the star winger and defenseman Ryan Suter headed to the Minnesota Wild in tandem Wednesday, the Penguins were down a couple of free agents of their own, as gritty fourth-liner Arron Asham headed to the New York Rangers and Steve Sullivan, who skated on Sidney Crosby’s wing last year, accepted a deal with the Phoenix Coyotes.
But if Penguins fans are concerned about a team that has – on paper, at least – gotten worse, not better, since getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, GM Ray Shero provided a voice of reason.
“We’re a ways away from the start of the season,” Shero said. “We’re going to do our homework and see if we can upgrade our team and see what the summer brings us.”
Pittsburgh got a solid third-line center in Brandon Sutter to slide into the role vacated by Jordan Staal, and added another physical third- or fourth-liner via free agency in Tanner Glass. But the club still has clear needs, particularly on Crosby’s wing and on a defensive unit that struggled in the playoffs, then lost steady Zbynek Michalek via trade.
That’s why Shero made “very competitive offers” to Parise and Suter and, despite losing out, has no regrets for investing the time in the two best players available.
“We made a decision on [Steve Sullivan] yesterday that we were going to move on anyway,” Shero said. “I was in constant contact with his agent and he told me a couple of teams he had offers from. Obviously we were waiting for Zach, but we made an internal decision that Sully should take one of those offers and encouraged him to do so.
“There’s not a Suter/Parise out there, so that’s what we were waiting on, and everybody else [making offers was] in the same boat. Other guys were signing, but they weren’t at this level, that’s for sure. They’re both obviously really good players, and these guys are hard to find.”
The Penguins will continue to look at available free agents but, with the best players in this year’s shallow pool off the market, will likely look to upgrade their team via trade.
“In terms of where we go from here in filling spots, you’re not going to find a Ryan Suter out there; he was available as a free agent and a lot of teams were after him. We like our defense the way it is and, if there’s a chance to upgrade, we’re going to do that. But there’s a lot of teams that are looking for defensemen right now, and they’re difficult to find. So, we’ll go with what we have at this point, and the same thing up front.
“We’ll see what’s available. I don’t know who’s looking to trade what, and what the cost is, so we’ll see what happens. The one thing we do have now, which we haven’t had in a while, is cap space. So that’s a thing we can bank on moving forward, and we’ll see where it takes us.”
And, if the Penguins’ needs can’t be addressed externally this summer, Shero said he’s in no rush.
“If we don’t fill that hole, somebody’s going to get the opportunity. We’ve always talked about TK [forward Tyler Kennedy] and his ability to move up, and maybe it’s time for him to do that. Maybe it’s [2010 first-round draft pick] Beau Bennett in time. And we’ve got younger defensemen here that need a chance to play.”
While Shero seeks out opportunities to make the Penguins a better club, he said he feels pretty good about a team that will welcome back this year’s league MVP in center Evgeni Malkin, a first-team All-Star in winger James Neal, and, they hope, captain Sidney Crosby for a full season without concussion symptoms.
He can also remember a time four summers ago when the Penguins missed out on resigning the free agent they wanted, but went on to have no regrets when they won the Stanley Cup.
“We would’ve loved to have [Parise], but this is the way sports are these days, and players get to pick where they want to go,” Shero said. “It’s no different than Marian Hossa, who left here a number of years ago. He thought he had a better chance to win a Stanley Cup and he signed a one-year deal with Detroit. I respected that as well, and I like how that turned out for the Penguins.
“The most important thing, and my job as a GM, is to have the best team possible. You have to be patient, and … if there’s a trade that makes sense for us, you never know what’s going to come your way.”