Pens’ Free Agency Decisions Take Shape

Halfway through a too-long offseason for the Pittsburgh Penguins – their longest in the past four years – the club’s 2011-12 roster is starting to take shape.

Unlike last season, when GM Ray Shero made a splash on the opening day of free agency by signing two of the highest-profile defensemen on the market, the Penguins aren’t expected to look outside their organization to fill many needs. Instead, in the days leading up to July 1, Pittsburgh started to make decisions on its own personnel.

Coming back are:

  • Craig Adams, who signed a two-year deal June 9 with an average annual salary of $675,000. A waiver-wire pickup for Pittsburgh two years ago, the 34-year-old Adams has established himself as one of the club’s best defensive forwards, leading the Penguins and their league-best penalty kill in shorthanded minutes per game.
  • Pascal Dupuis, 32, who also re-upped with Pittsburgh for two years on June 28 at an average of $1.5 million per year. Dupuis was hardly the headliner in the 2008 trade-deadline deal that brought him to Pittsburgh from Atlanta – that was star acquisition Marian Hossa. Now, however, with Hossa and the players who went the other way in the deal long since moving on, Dupuis remains a reliable, versatile two-way forward for Pittsburgh. His speed and tenacity on the forecheck have made him a frequent winger alongside Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ top line.
  • Arron Asham, who signed a one-year deal worth $775,000 on June 29. The 33-year-old winger joined the Penguins last summer and quickly became a fan favorite due to his toughness and willingness to drop the gloves. After missing time due to an early-season shoulder injury and late-season concussion, Asham showed a knack for clutch offense in the playoffs, stepping up with a team-high three goals in Pittsburgh’s first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As free agency approached, however, some high-profile players looked to be joining Eric Godard, Mike Comrie and Alex Kovalev on their way out of Pittsburgh:

  • Max Talbot, 27, who was drafted by the Penguins in 2002, came up through their minor-league system and scored two of the biggest goals in franchise history in Pittsburgh’s 2-1, Game 7 win in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, turned down a three-year deal from the Penguins and is headed to the open market. Although the forward struggled with injuries and offensive production over the past two seasons, he remained one of the club’s top penalty killers and a key personality in its dressing room. “I expect Max Talbot to hit the market,” Shero said. “I wish him the best, and he will never be forgotten in Pittsburgh.”
  • Mike Rupp, 31, the big (6-foot-5, 230-pound) forward from nearby Cleveland who married a Pittsburgher and has made the city his home, isn’t likely to continue wearing Penguins black and gold professionally. Rupp brings toughness, durability – he missed only two regular-season games in his two years with Pittsburgh – and occasionally chips in some offense, with his 19- and 17-point seasons with the Penguins being the best of his NHL career so far. Rupp is expected to command a significant raise from the two-year, $1.65-million deal he signed with Pittsburgh in July 2009 and, with the signing of Asham, it’s clear the team expects Rupp to test the market.

Then, there are the question marks:

  • Tyler Kennedy, 24, entered last season looking like the odd man out in the Penguins’ competition for forward spots. He ended it with a breakout year in which he racked up 21 goals and 24 assists for 45 points – all career highs. Drafted by the Penguins in 2004, Kennedy has been a third-liner for most of his Pittsburgh career, enjoying success with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke on what has often been called the best third line in hockey.  Last season, he took advantage of long-term injuries to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and thrived in an expanded role during the second half. A restricted free agent at the start of this summer, Kennedy didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins so – barring a last-minute signing – would hit the market unrestricted on July 1. Shero has made it clear that keeping Kennedy is his first choice, but he’s likely to remain a third-liner in Pittsburgh, and could be receptive to being paid like a top-six forward by a team that would use him in that role.
  • At age 39, Jaromir Jagr is the biggest enigma in this year’s crop of free agents. That’s not surprising, considering that Jagr made a career out of being one of the most enigmatic superstars the NHL has seen. What is surprising is that, after three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, the future Hall of Famer appears to be giving serious thought to coming back for a year to the league where he won two Stanley Cups as a teenager – and, just maybe, to the city where he achieved those successes, along with five scoring titles and a Hart trophy as the league’s MVP. Pittsburgh has made a one-year offer, believed to be around $2 million, to Jagr, who was reported to be in New York as his agent, former NHLer Petr Svoboda, also negotiated with the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens. Jagr has also received a call from his former teammate and the man he calls his idol, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma thinks Jagr would be a natural fit into the Penguins’ system. “If you watched Jaromir play in the World Championships, his play down low is outstanding,” said Bylsma, himself a recent Jack Adams trophy recipient as the NHL’s coach of the year. “We’re a team that wants to play in the offensive zone. There’s a speed part to our game, but it really lies largely in playing in the offensive zone and wearing teams down. I don’t think he’s missed much of a beat in that regard to his game. Hypothetically speaking, that’s where I see him fitting in.”

With July 1 right around the corner, the Penguins will soon have a better idea of where – and whether – all the remaining pieces of their free agent puzzle fit in.

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