Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed with the Minnesota Wild, Matt Carle signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Shane Doan is probably staying in Phoenix, and Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr took the money and are off to Big D. Penguin’s General Manager Ray Shero has his work cut out for him this offseason after another disappointing early playoff exit against the cross state rival Flyers. The number one goal for Shero this offseason is to find an able-bodied winger to play alongside Sidney Crosby for the foreseeable future, but who fits that bill and are there any worthwhile players available this year?

After signing Sidney Crosby to a 12-year mega-deal, Ray Shero will spend this offseason attempting to complete what appears to be one of the more challenging tasks he has faced in his time as the Penguins General Manager, finding somebody to play alongside one of the best centers in the NHL. Since the end of the lockout in 2005, Sidney Crosby has seen a plethora of wingers accompany him on the quest for the Stanley Cup, including everyone from career grinders to all-star forwards, but none have stuck permanently. In the 2010 season, it appeared that GM Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma had finally found the perfect winger set to play with Crosby, in veteran hard-hitting Chris Kunitz and aging veteran forward Bill Guerin (who would be replaced by Pascal Dupuis after Guerin’s retirement). Unfortunately for Crosby, throughout his time off for concussion-related injuries, Chris Kunitz found himself playing on the best line in the NHL, with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, tearing up the league and setting personal bests with 26 goals and 61 points. Keeping Kunitz with Malkin and Neal signifies that there is a significant gap on Crosby’s right side, as Pascal Dupuis will most likely return on the left wing.

Crosby has had some interesting wingers in the past, but this year GM Ray Shero will have to get creative with some possible low-risk, high reward targets that could hopefully find chemistry with Crosby. First, lets look at the wingers that Crosby has worked with in his entire 7-year career:

2005-2006: Armstrong, Hilbert, Palffy.
2006-2007: Armstrong, Ekman, Recchi, Roberts, Malone.
2007-2008: Armstrong, Dupuis, Hossa, Recchi.
2008-2009: Dupuis, Guerin, Kunitz, Satan.
2009-2010: Guerin, Kunitz.
2010-2011: Dupuis, Kunitz.

One interesting takeaway from that list is that the majority of wingers that have flanked Crosby throughout his career are either veteran wingers on relatively cheap deals (Palffy, Recchi, Roberts, Guerin, and Satan) or gritty checking-liners getting a chance to prove their worth (Armstrong, Hilbert, Malone, and Dupuis). Only Marian Hossa (32 games, 12 regular season, 20 playoff) and Chris Kunitz (now slotted in besides Malkin and Neal) can be considered true top-six forwards, although in recent years Pascal Dupuis has more than proved his top-six worth on this team, while playing for one of the lower salaries on the team.

Looking within the organization for a solution

The first place that the Penguins might look for a solution is internally. Although the prospect pipeline at forward is relatively bare for the Penguins, they do have some options within the system.

The first option and probably one of the more controversial options for Penguins fans is Tyler Kennedy. The 25-year-old right-shooting winger from Sault-Ste-Marie was provided with a glaring opportunity in 2010-2011 to step into the spotlight after the Penguins were struck with a variety of injuries, taking out Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, as well as many others. In 80 games, getting top-six minutes and facing the opponent’s best defenses, Kennedy managed 45 points, including 7 powerplay goals. Last year, playing in only 60 games, Kennedy scored 33 points, averaging .55 points per game, almost identical to the 2010-2011 campaign, which earned Kennedy a 2-year, 2 million dollar per year contract. Kennedy might get the first look at Crosby’s wing, as the organization believes he has the potential to fill that top-six gap, but has previously failed to show any glimpses of chemistry with Crosby in short appearances on his wing.

The second option and possibly the one that will make most people say “not again,” is Eric Tangradi. The young, aspiring power forward, acquired in the Ryan Whitney to Anaheim deal along with Chris Kunitz has yet to live up to his billing as a potential long-term solution to the Penguins perpetual winger problem. Playing in only 40 games over 2 years with the Penguins, Tangradi has seen primarily bottom-six minutes in a checking role, but with occasional shifts on one of the top-two lines. Unfortunately for Tangradi, at 23 years old, some fans have become restless waiting for the power forward to show his value at the NHL level. With decent statistics in the AHL, with the Baby Penguins, Tangradi has proven that he has the scoring touch and size that the Penguins are looking for, but has been unable to translate it into success at the NHL level. With the free agency market looking slim, Tangradi might get his best chance to gain quality minutes alongside Crosby, while providing a much need net-front presence.

The last internal option, which I believe could gain serious traction throughout the season, depending on success in training camp and in the minors to start the season, is Beau Bennett. After missing time in his sophomore season at the University of Denver with a wrist injury, Bennett agreed to a 3-year entry-level contract with the Penguins in April. In only 47 games at the University of Denver, Bennett scored 13 goals and 25 assists, but still needs to work on his defensive game. Most likely Bennett will start the season in the AHL, while other options are explored for Crosby’s wing, but if other options do not work out, we could see Bennett getting a significant look in the top-six, as early as November.

Scouring the market for semblance of a top-six forward

With Zach Parise, Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr, and PA Parenteau off the market, many Penguins fans are wondering what’s left for the Penguins. The 2012 UFA market is slim with forwards with top-six potential, without health or other issues. Looking at the available forwards, there appears to be three forwards who meet the potential for a buy cheap, high-reward acquisition that could turn into long-term solutions with the Penguins.

First on the list of players the Penguins should be interested is Peter Mueller. Only appearing in 32 games last year for the Coyotes, Mueller tallied 16 points, but was eventually held out with severe concussion symptoms. Coming off of a 2-year contract worth 2 million dollars per year, Mueller might be the perfect fit for a long-term solution on Crosby’s wing, as long as he can stay healthy. After a strong rookie season with the Coyotes, scoring 54 points, Mueller had back to back mid-30 point seasons playing on average 70 games a season. Although Mueller is listed as a center, he has seen considerable time playing on wing in both Phoenix and Colorado. The main concern with Mueller will be his health, but as Steve Sullivan proved last year, past health issues are not always a reason for concern and Mueller has the talent to make an extremely strong showing alongside Crosby, especially on what most are expecting to be a dirt-cheap contract.

The next player that the Penguins might consider as a short-term stopgap, with long-term potential is Polish winger Wojtek Wolski, who has been with 4 teams in the last 3 seasons. The 26-year-old winger spent last year primarily as a healthy scratch on the New York Rangers, then as a secondary contributor on the Florida Panthers, putting up 9 points in 22 games and providing assistance to the Panthers shootout lineup. In his first four full NHL seasons, with the Colorado Avalanche, Wolski scored 4 straight 40+ point seasons, skating on Colorado’s second line. After being traded to Phoenix and reports of a negative attitude, contributed to Wolski going to the New York Rangers in exchange for Michael Rosival. Failing to ever break through New York’s strong depth at forward, Wolski was sent to the Panthers in exchange for a prospect and a 3rd round pick. Coming off of a contract with a 3.8 million dollar per year cap hit, Wolski will be expected to take a contract similar to Brad Boyes to prove he can stick in an NHL top-six again.

Lastly, and by far the most controversial option, is Alexander ‘Sasha’ Semin. Turning in consecutive 54-point seasons, after an 84-point season in 2009-2010, Semin is definitely the most intriguing forward remaining in the UFA market. The first thing that most Penguins fans will think of when they remember Semin is that he was a Washington Capital and in 2008, Semin said this (of Sidney Crosby):

“What’s so special about [Crosby]? I don’t see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there’s nothing else. Even if you compare him to Patrick Kane from Chicago … [Kane] is a much more interesting player. The way he moves, his deking abilities, his thinking on the ice and his anticipation of the play is so superb. I think that if you take any player, even if he is “dead wood,” and start promoting him, you’ll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill.”

Moving beyond that quote, Semin is by far the most talented goal-scoring winger remaining on the market and he shoots right, another feature the Penguins top-six severely lacks. Unfortunately, it appears likely that although Semin would be an ideal fit, with his shoot-first mentality and sneaky slap-shot, for Crosby’s wing, the personality differences and friendship with Malkin would mean that Semin would be more likely to ride shotgun with Malkin and Neal, leaving Kunitz and Dupuis for Crosby’s wing. Coming off a 1-year deal with the Capitals making 6.7 million dollars, Semin will probably be hard-pressed to find similar money, especially on longer deals, and will probably end up close to the 5-6 million dollar range over a 3-5 year contract.

The do nothing option

Lastly, if Shero doesn’t see any wingers of worth out there in the free agent market, he may hold steady and save the cap space for a rainy (or snowy) day in February, where it appears that a solid group of top-six wingers will be available as rentals at the trade deadline. Here’s a list of 2013 UFA wingers the Penguins might be interested in, if they have not signed with their current teams by the trade deadline:
– Jarome Iginla
– Patrick Elias
– Corey Perry
– Ryan Getzlaf
– Joffrey Lupul
– Scott Hartnell
– Brendan Morrow
– Nathan Horton
– Ryan Clowe
– Michael Ryder
– Simon Gagne
– David Clarkson

There’s no guarantee that any of these will still be available in late-February, but there’s more than a few wingers there that would be great targets to potentially become Crosby’s Kurri.

Let’s Go Pens!