Last Sunday, the day after the 2012 NHL draft concluded in Pittsburgh, Ray Shero arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport for a a pre-free agency getaway. Like the rest of us fourth-liners, the Penguins general manager had to go through the grind of pre-flight security.
Given what the he had just pulled off, airport staffers should have given Shero his personal lane and handed him a complimentary cocktail on the other side of the metal detector.
At the conclusion of 2012-13, Jordan Staal, had he remained a Penguin, could have walked. Instead, Shero wheeled Staal to Carolina June 22 for a two-way center in Brandon Sutter, former Boston College defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and the eighth overall pick, which Pittsburgh used to draft defenseman Derrick Pouliot. Later that night, Shero traded Zbynek Michalek to Phoenix, his former club, for Harrison Roupp, Marc Cheverie, and the No. 81 pick.
The result: a perfect No. 3 center, a blue line opening, and nearly $6 million in savings.
If you haven’t noticed, the Penguins plan on being big-time players when free agency opens Sunday. They have enough room to woo Ryan Suter, the best available defenseman.
“I think we’re in a really good position,” Shero said. “I think we have a very good team. We’re well-coached. We have great ownership. We have a great building, as everybody sees.
“But there’s a lot of good teams out there. A lot of good situations. You don’t know what players may do. We have to formulate our game plan this week as to what we’re going to do. But we’re definitely in a better position than we were a few days ago.”
On May 25, 2006, Shero found an ideal situation when he was named Pittsburgh GM. Under previous GM Craig Patrick, Pittsburgh had drafted the cornerstone players that remain in place today: Marc-Andre Fleury (2003), Evgeni Malkin (2004), Sidney Crosby (2005), and Kris Letang (2005). Any wannabe executive would offer up his first-born to inherit such riches.
But Shero has shown why the Bruins pursued his services prior to hiring Peter Chiarelli. He acted without emotion — heck, he traded Staal on his wedding day — when he shipped away a 23-year-old who projects to be a point-per-game scorer in Carolina.
In 82 games last season, Sutter had 17 goals and 15 assists while averaging 17:23 of ice time per appearance. He won 50.5 percent of his faceoffs. He led Carolina forwards with 2:20 of shorthanded ice time per game. He served as an alternate captain. Sutter has some elements of Patrice Bergeron in his game.
Straight up, Staal is a better player than Sutter. But figuring in their salaries and their projected cap hits, Sutter ($2,066,667) provides more value in the No. 3 role than Staal ($4 million), who rejected a 10-year extension prior to his trade.
“I don’t want to be just looked at as a defensive player,” Sutter said. “I want to score goals and do things, too. In the past, I’ve had an opportunity to play a little bit on the power play here and there, and it’s helped. I’m obviously very comfortable on the penalty kill, checking, and stuff like that. I think if you can combine the two, you can turn yourself into a good player.”
This summer, Pittsburgh must improve its team defense. The Penguins had the personnel and experience to make a deep postseason run in 2011-12. But they imploded in the first round against Philadelphia, taking bad penalties and paying for them.
Pittsburgh gave up 30 goals in six games and failed on 12 of 23 penalty kills (47.8 percent).
On June 4, the Penguins traded a 2012 seventh-rounder to Washington for the rights to goalie Tomas Vokoun. They signed Vokoun to a two-year, $4 million deal. Vokoun should push Fleury and be a solid No. 2 option.
On the back end, the Penguins have an elite puck-mover in Letang. But Letang (10-32—42 in 51 games in 2011-12) has a concussion history. They have dependable defensemen in Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Niskanen. But they don’t have a shutdown ace like Suter, who teamed with Shea Weber in Nashville to form the league’s best defensive tandem.
Pittsburgh will have competitors for Suter. Detroit and Minnesota will be in the mix. But the Penguins have a sales pitch that other teams are missing. Suter could share a dressing room with Crosby and Malkin. Players often cite Dan Bylsma as a coach they respect and would like to play for. The Penguins have one of the nicer rinks in the league. Housing in Pittsburgh doesn’t require the type of down payments demanded in Manhattan, Toronto, and Los Angeles.
Most of all, the Penguins are close to making another Stanley Cup run. On Sunday, the day they pursue Suter, Crosby will sign his 12-year, $104.4 million extension. Assuming good health, the contract will take Crosby through the rest of his career.
Crosby could have pushed for more than his $8.7 million average annual value. But he declined a raise in hopes of leaving enough cash free for his GM to sign future teammates.
“Our goal was to sign Sidney Crosby and make him a member of the Penguins for life,” Shero said. ”Hopefully this is going to do that.”
FINER IN CAROLINA
Hurricanes get upgraded
Two weeks ago in this space, Carolina vice president of hockey operations Ron Francis indicated that his club was in the market for significant upgrades. He got one in Jordan Staal, whose worth is reflected in the bounty the Hurricanes had to give up. With the amount of ice time Staal projects to receive — perhaps even alongside big brother Eric Staal — he could become one of the league’s dominant centers.
“He’s only 24 years old,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “He’s still got an upside. I would suspect his numbers will go up.”
The Hurricanes may not be done. Carolina could still use more scoring punch on the wing. Coach Kirk Muller may deploy the Staals as a 1-2 center punch. Or, if Muller wants a top-heavy lineup, Eric Staal could move to left wing and play alongside his brother.
In either case, the Hurricanes would prefer more secondary scoring to complement Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen, and Tuomo Ruutu. Possible UFA targets include ex-Hurricane Ray Whitney, Shane Doan, and P.A. Parenteau. Carolina has money to be a player on the open market.
Whitney, given his ties to the organization, would be the most appropriate fit. There is a history of ex-Hurricanes returning to Raleigh (Aaron Ward, Cory Stillman, Joe Corvo) for repeat tours.
“Eric could move to wing and play with Jordan. That’s an option Kirk will have,” said Rutherford. “But by moving Brandon [Sutter], that makes that harder to do. We’ll still be looking to see if we can improve our team.”
Squeezing Malkin in
On their current deals, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have identical $8.7 million annual cap hits. But if the next collective bargaining agreement stipulates a decrease in the cap, Malkin may not be able to re-sign in lockstep with Crosby. Malkin is signed through 2013-14, and can be officially re-upped no sooner than July 1, 2013. “He’s the reigning MVP of the league,” said Penguins GM Ray Shero. “They’re like two kids you’re equally fond of. When the time comes, we hope to make Geno happy as well. We’d like to make him a Penguin for a long time when the new CBA is in place. The new rules will dictate what we can and cannot do.”
A new Leaf?
With Marblehead native Cory Schneider officially in the fold as of Sunday (three years, $12 million), Vancouver will continue to work on swapping goalie Roberto Luongo. Armed with a no-trade clause, Luongo would prefer to land with Florida, his former club. He lives in Fort Lauderdale, which, depending on traffic (thanks, bluehairs), can be 20 minutes away from the BankAtlantic Center in nearby Sunrise. Hard to believe, however, that the Maple Leafs won’t continue to push for Luongo. The Leafs can’t afford to be without a go-to goalie (James Reimer and Ben Scrivens don’t qualify) heading into training camp. Secondary need is a wide-shouldered center to drop Mikhail Grabovski down to the No. 2 slot. The Leafs have nearly $13 million in cap space, according to capgeek.com.
The Predators continue to wait on whether Ryan Suter will re-sign. Nashville has cap space for him, even with captain Shea Weber (restricted free agent) due for another extension. But with Suter’s future unclear, the Predators did the wise thing and re-upped ex-Bruin Hal Gill for two more years at $4 million total. It’s a fair deal for both sides, as Nashville needs a shutdown defenseman regardless of whether Suter leaves. Gill’s future partner could be hot-shot puck mover Ryan Ellis.
Window of opportunity
Even when Bruins signee Niklas Svedberg was bypassed in his NHL draft years, the Swedish puckstopper always wanted to play North American hockey. “I always wanted to come over here and play since I was a kid,” Svedberg said. “I’m really happy to be here. I’m going to work hard to try and work my way up to the NHL.” The 22-year-old Svedberg played for Brynas of the Swedish Elite League for the last two seasons, but NHL interest perked up after the 2011-12 postseason. With Svedberg in goal, Brynas won the league championship. “It was a good window for me,” Svedberg said. “We had a really good playoff. We had a really good team and we won it. That helped me sign here, probably a lot.” Svedberg will kick off his North American career in Providence, where he will battle with Michael Hutchinson for the No. 1 job.
Lots of green on blue line
The shallow pool of available defensemen had an impact on Dennis Wideman, who was scheduled to reach UFA status Sunday. On Wednesday, Calgary acquired Wideman’s rights from Washington for Jordan Henry and a 2013 fifth-round pick. The Flames then signed Big Money Wides to a five-year, $26.25 million extension. The ex-Bruin, wheeled to Florida in the Nathan Horton trade, was a third-pairing defenseman for Washington in the playoffs. Wideman had zero goals and three assists in 14 games while averaging 20:44 of ice time per appearance. Have always admired Wideman’s game. He logs big minutes, absorbs hits, and makes crisp outlet passes. Don’t have an issue with his salary, but the term should scare the Flames. Wideman has never been a strong skater. At the end of his Calgary deal, he will be 34. There won’t be much tread left on BMW’s tires then.
On Friday, Terry Murray was named coach of the Adirondack Phantoms, Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate. Murray was ousted as Kings coach midseason and replaced by Darryl Sutter. Murray’s hiring represents the latest Flyers transaction involving former Kings personnel (and vice versa). Kings GM Dean Lombardi was a pro scout for the Flyers. Los Angeles assistant coach John Stevens used to man the Flyers bench. Assistant GM Ron Hextall is better known as the former fiery Flyers goalie. Of course, there was the blockbuster trade last year that sent ex-Flyers captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles in a package that included Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn.
Three of the top five picks from the 2006 draft have been traded from their original clubs: Jordan Staal, Erik Johnson, and Phil Kessel. Four of the top five selections from the 2002 draft are no longer with their first franchises: Kari Lehtonen (Atlanta), Jay Bouwmeester (Florida), Joni Pitkanen (Philadelphia), and Ryan Whitney (Pittsburgh). If Columbus trades Rick Nash, that will make it 5 for 5 . . . Scary thought for the rest of the league: Sidney Crosby is training hard to be fit and report for training camp. He was unable to do either of those things last summer and still lit up the Islanders in his return on Nov. 21, 2011 . . . Somewhat surprising to see Brad Boyes among the 31 members of the NHL Players Association’s negotiating committee. Three summers ago, Boyes, Andrew Ference, Matt Stajan, and Mike Komisarek were the committee that reviewed the work of ex-NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly, ultimately leading to his ouster. In the wake of Kelly’s removal, some players voiced concern over how the decision was made without proper input from the rank-and-file . . . The NHLPA is offering a good deal to its members. If any player wants to attend a negotiating session, the union will pay for his flight and hotel room. With most of the sessions scheduled to take place in Manhattan, players from the New York area are encouraged to attend. Can just picture Henrik Lundqvist submitting his mileage . . . Below-the-belt move by Toronto and Philadelphia to pull off the James van Riemsdyk-Luke Schenn trade hours after the draft’s conclusion. Most writers were well into their post-draft hydration when the news broke. Heard in the sparsely occupied Consol Energy Center press box when the deal went down: a loud expletive. Captured the moment perfectly.
Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report. Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.