Yesterday’s news that Ryan Malone will test the free agent market appears to be a solid indication that his tenure as a Pittsburgh Penguin has come to an end.

So, if that is the case, general manager Ray Shero will have the task of finding at least one winger to fill in his top lines.

With that being said, let’s lay down a few simple stipulations before getting into the possible candidates.

  • Let’s first assume Marian Hossa will return, as the Penguins clearly have made him their priority, and losing him just doesn’t seem to be an option at this point.
  • Also, assuming the offer made to Malone was in the $3.5 million range, we can also assume Shero has roughly $3.5 million to spend on a free agent left winger.
  • Finally, let’s assume at least one of the top-two left wing positions will be filled internally, leaving a maximum of one top-two left wing position to be filled.

Now, let’s look at some of the options…

Talbot and Staal to Fill Them…Both?

Two years ago, Jordan Staal made his way into the history books with an unbelievable run, scoring 29 goals, many of which came shorthanded. He also was the mainstay on Evgeni Malkin‘s left wing for nearly half of the season.

With rumors circulating that Staal is unhappy as a third liner, and with an obvious opening at a position he used to call home, this could be an excellent opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

I can think of a worse second line than a Staal, Malkin and Petr Sykora trio.

And why not give Max Talbot a shot at playing the wing with Sidney Crosby and Hossa? Pascal Dupuis proved that a superstar isn’t needed to help out this duo, but his hands also proved that he probably shouldn’t remain on the line.

Talbot has the speed to keep up, the tenacity to battle in the corners and in front of the net (though no one will mistake him for a power forward), and the hands to convert some of the opportunities he is presented with.

It’s been said that a Stanley Cup caliber team shouldn’t have Talbot on the top line, but I have two answers to this. First, just a year ago, people were saying the same thing about Malone, and Dupuis didn’t exactly hurt their Cup chances on the top line. Second, with potentially six or seven high-paid players on the roster, the Penguins must become accustomed to using second-tier talent as top line players.

50/50 Sounds Nifty

So maybe Talbot isn’t the best choice as a top-line winger, but Staal stays on the second line. That leaves one hole to fill externally.

Have no fear, free agency will be here…shortly. And, with free agency, there generally are a few middle-tier players available who might not cost too much. Don’t believe me, look no further than 2007 when the Penguins landed Sykora for a bargain $5 million over two years.

With the speed and instincts of Crosby and Hossa, the ideal player for their line would also have a nice amount of speed, as well as soft hands to accept passes and bury the puck.

Markus Naslund, _Vaclav Prospal, and Brian Rolston sure would be nice acquisitions, though all three would be looking for salaries in the $4 million range. If Shero can dig up another $1 million, one of these veterans certainly would add a new dimension to the top line.

Taking it down a notch, players such as Michael Ryder, Miroslav Satan, Ladislav Nagy, David Vyborny, Kristian Huselius, Radim Vrbata, and Niklas Hagman would be possibilites in the $3 million or less range.

Then there are the aging, yet still productive second-tier players who won’t command much in salary or years. This list includes: Martin Straka, Martin Gelinas, Andrew Brunette, and Cory Stillman.

Two Is The New One

Or maybe management is fine with keeping Staal as the third line center, thus creating two left wing holes to fill on the top two lines.

If this is the case, Rolston and Naslund from the lists above can be ruled out, and a few names can be added to the mix, primarily to fill the big body role vacated by Malone.

Brendan Shanahan, Ruslan Fedotenko, and Josef Vasicek fit into this mold. There also is a good chance Boston will buy out _Glen Murray_’s contract, making him a free agent, and he too fits the bigger forward mold.

Charting The Players

Tier Player Age Pos Cap Hit G A Pts
Tier 1 Markus Naslund 34 LW $6.000 mil 25 30 55
Brian Rolston 35 RW $2.432 mil 31 28 59
Vaclav Prospal 33 LW $1.900 mil 33 38 71
Tier 2 Michael Ryder 28 RW $2.950 mil 14 17 31
Miroslav Satan 33 RW $4.255 mil 16 25 41
Ladislav Nagy 29 LW $3.750 mil 9 17 26
David Vyborny 33 RW $2.200 mil 7 19 26
Kristian Huselius 29 LW $1.400 mil 25 41 66
Radim Vrbata 27 RW $1.225 mil 27 29 56
Niklas Hagman 28 LW $0.675 mil 27 14 41
Ruslan Fedotenko 29 LW $2.900 mil 16 17 33
Josef Vasicek 27 C $0.750 mil 16 19 35
Tier 3 Martin Straka 35 LW $3.300 mil 14 27 41
Andrew Brunette 34 LW $1.600 mil 19 40 59
Martin Gelinas 38 LW $2.850 mil 9 11 20
Cory Stillman 34 LW $1.750 mil 24 41 65
Brendan Shanahan 39 LW $5.300 mil 23 23 46
Glen Murray 35 RW $5.00 mil 17 13 30

Who Do I Like

With all of the listing out of the way, I would like to detail the players I would like to see at the top of the list.

Obviously, Naslund, Rolston, and Prospal are my top choices, as they clearly are the best players available with the most consistency from year to year. The problem, however, is that the Penguins just don’t have the money to sign top-end free agents, so the top-tier can be ruled out.

That leaves two tiers of players left. First, I’ll eliminate the following players:

  • Nagy: injury prone, inconsistent, unwilling to play a physical game
  • Vyborny: coming off several poor seasons, seems to want to stay in Columbus
  • Vasicek: unproductive as a top liner most of his career
  • Gelinas: too old, on a severe decline
  • Shanahan: fourth line minutes in the playoffs proves his true worth nowadays

Now I’ll list the players I would “settle” for, but wouldn’t target initially (listed from best to worst):

  • Ryder: bad year last year, but he can score goals
  • Satan: little punk, but is experienced and talented; reminds me of Sykora
  • Straka: slowing down statistically, but speed and instincts remain
  • Murray: on a severe decline, but brings plenty of power

And, finally, my list of players I would target on July 1, when free agency begins (listed from best to worst):

  • Brunette: age means smaller salary and fewer years, but stats show he’ll produce
  • Stillman: his two Stanley Cups in recent years prove his value
  • Huselius: plays the perimeter, but knows how to produce points
  • Vrbata: very talented and would be even more productive with talented linemates
  • Fedotenko: no one scores for the Islanders; with a cheap salary, Ruslan could be a great value
  • Hagman: solid player, but not sure he’s truly a top-liner

In Conclusion…

That’s a long read, I realize, but I hope you made it to this point.

What’s important to realize is that superstars clearly are not needed to fill the potential left wing holes.

Malkin turned Michel Ouellet into a productive player, and clearly turned around Sykora’s career, which seemed to be on a decline when he signed with the Penguins last summer.

Crosby obviously can do the same, as he hasn’t had a legitimate winger until Hossa’s arrival this spring.

Of the younger players, several may show an interest in signing cheap, short-term contracts with hopes of boosting their stats for a longer, more lucrative contract in a few years.

The older players may see coming to Pittsburgh as an opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup contender, which may entice them to take slightly less than market value – or their age might have their market value already low.

It’s clear Shero will have his hands full this summer, not only trying to sign his restricted free agents, but also trying to provide his superstars with adequate wingers.

Needless to say, the next month or so should be very interesting and potentially exciting on the business side of the Penguins.