Lacing Up: Buying Out, Thinking Back
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal: As I write this to you, Matt, I believe that this may be the most optimistic the media and the general hockey population has been about the possibility of an end to the lockout. With the possibility of a one-time amnesty buyout option for all 30 teams, it is conceivable, up to 30 players with NHL experience could become free agents with the stroke of a pen in the next week or so.
While this portion of the deal is meant to give some teams that have a bad salary player (not necessarily a bad player, but at least a player who is underperforming versus expectation/salary) a bit of relief. We’re talking about underachievers and overpaid players, mostly. What this does is prevents a situation like the “Wade Redden Reduction” where the New York Rangers basically buried his contract in the minor leagues and because he cleared waivers, were offered a bit of financial respite.
A situation like this goes against the spirit of the original rule, and while being bought out is not the league’s highest honor, it’s a bit less embarrassing that being dealt back down to the developmental leagues. Anyway, what we should discuss, Matt, is that this small influx of free agents could include some ex-Pens. This isn’t necessarily true that it will be the case, but it is a hypothetical possibility. So, in the spirit of that thought, if you could bring back an ex-Pen who is still playing professional hockey somewhere, who would it be and why?
Matt Paul: Well Josh, let’s just say that it won’t be Billy Tibbotts or Randy Robitaille, neither of whom currently are on NHL contracts, but still play professionally overseas. To be quite honest, there are two ex-Penguins out there who intrigue me quite a bit, despite the fact that both are on the decline.
The first is Sergei Gonchar, currently of the Ottawa Senators. He has one year left on his $5.5 million per year contract, making him a likely buyout option for the up-and-coming Senators, who already have been rumored to want rid of him. The other is Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Malone has three years left on his seven-year contract that pays him $4.5 million annually, making him the fifth highest paid Bolts player. He’s been rumored on the block for several years, at times even being linked to the Penguins.
Now, why do I want two players I said are on the downside of their careers? Simple. Each offers a skill set lacking on the Penguins’ roster.
In Gonchar’s case, his defensive abilities are a shadow of what they once were (and let’s be honest, they were never great to begin with), but he still possesses a powerful, accurate shot and has the necessary vision to make him a top-notch power play quarterback. Assuming the Penguins could sign him for, say $2 million on a one-year deal, he’d be a great addition as a third pairing power play specialist.
As for Malone, he’s a power forward who has a willing and capable large frame to be a net-front presence, either at even strength on one of the scoring lines or on the power play — or both. His big body is showing some wear and tear, breaking down a bit over the last few years, but at $1.5 to $2 million per year on a one- or two-year contract, I’d be thrilled to see “Bugsy” back in the ‘Burgh.
Josh, what are your thoughts of these two, and do you have anyone in mind?
Josh: Especially with all of our recent talk on Malone, I’ve got to say that he’d be at the top of my list. He was a budding specialist with the Penguins who probably wouldn’t have turned into an NHL All Star as a Penguin (or maybe with any other team), but his grit and determination were attributes that made him a pretty popular guy in Pittsburgh. You just gotta love a guy who takes a Hal Gill slapshot to the face and be back on the ice only a few minutes later – as he did in the Stanley Cup runner-up year.
Gonch was a guy I generally remember loving on the powerplay. Truly, though the Pens’ powerplay was statistically great last year for multiple reasons, but it hasn’t been the same since he left. Honestly, the Pens don’t have a guy on the roster right now that I hold my breath when envisioning a slapshot from the point. Letang is the closest thing to that, and his accuracy has gotten slightly better, but let’s get real: Sergei Gonchar was a wonderful shooter from the point (as well as a skilled guy who kept clearing attempts in the offensive zone for the PP’s continuity). I’d be overjoyed to be bringing him back, even if there are a few more miles on him than how we remember him.
Stepping back to my earlier comment, I mentioned Hal Gill and his heavy slapshot that rearranged Bugsy’s face. While he’s not the most likely candidate for a buyout from his current team, the Predators (he’s got 2 years left on his deal at 2 million per, and he’s on a 35+ contract), I think that his defensive presence is something that (much like Gonch) has been missing since his exodus. His physical presence makes up for him never having been the fastest guy in the league. Much like Malone, you can’t teach size. Even on a rental, Gill would be a nice insurance policy for a blue line that looked like it could use all the help it could get last year. Think of it this way – the guy currently makes as much as Tyler Kennedy. Need I say more?
And solely because this is hypothetical, I’ll stretch the bounds of possibility here and add a guy that Gill knows well to the list, a guy that departed Pittsburgh the same offseason and played a very strong defensive game in a different way. That man is Rob Scuderi, who has one year left on a $3.4 million contract in an organization that possesses a considerable amount of defensive talent. When the Pens brought in Zbynek Michalek several years ago, many noted that it was the “replacement” for Scuderi’s function on the Cup Championship team. That didn’t work out, and Michalek is gone. Bringing back a solid locker room presence and a guy like Scuderi who plays an effective stopper role would be further addressing the Penguins’ defensive needs.
Matt, I know my guys might not be a pipe dream/not the most possible scenarios, but what do you think? And if you had to scrape a little bit lower in the barrel, who would you add to the list?
Matt: Josh, Scuderi, despite his skating inadequacies, wouldn’t be a bad fit. He’s a defense-first defender with absolutely no bells or whistles. While his skating and mobility are far from good, they’re also far from a liability, as he knows his limitations and works within them. Unfortunately, as you said, he’s highly unlikely to be bought out by the Stanley Cup Champions who relied on them heavily in their run last season.
That said, Hal Gill wouldn’t be among the former Penguins I would be keen on seeing return to Pittsburgh. We have fond memories of the “U.S.S Gill,” but we’re talking about a player who was slow and immobile three years ago and who is now closer to 40 than 30. He’s an effective defenseman in the right system, but I’m not sure Bylsma’s up-tempo transition-to-offense-quickly system is a good fit for a player who specializes in standing still and forcing others out of his way.
Speaking of bad fits, is there anyone you don’t want back in the Black and Gold?
Josh: I have two that come to mind, and maybe I’m uncreative, but I’m not talking about guys with bigger names that I think will disappoint. I’m just talking about two hockey players who were in the Penguins organization. The first just always found a way to disappoint me – Andrew Ference. In Pittsburgh, he made a habit of being one of the poorest positional defensemen I have ever seen – and that’s coming from someone who lived through the Josef Melichar era. He’s in Boston and has a Cup, and from what I’ve seen he has made some considerable improvements, but not exactly enough to warrant the $2.25 million he’s slated to make this year. Being that the deal is done after this year, it does make it a possibility that Boston (a team scraping the top of this year’s $70.2 million cap and likely to fire-sale down to the projected $60 million cap for next year) will cut ties with him one way or another soon. Lastly, Ference has made a habit of fighting the Penguins’ stars. He’s dropped the gloves with Crosby twice and Neal once. Though they’ve handled themselves just fine, just gives me a sour taste in my mouth about him.
Going a little bit off the grid on this second one. Though I seem to have crafted memories of Dan Carcillo having played for the Penguins at one point, it appears that while being drafted to Pittsburgh, he never made it out of Wilkes-Barre while he was a part of the Penguins organization. He’s currently a Blackhawk and by no means is he grossly overpaid at $825K, but I think he’s part of a shrinking breed in the NHL that won’t necessarily be missed. He’s a pre-Renaissance Matt Cooke. He’s not just a fighter as Eric Godard was, but he’s an instigator. What’s worse is that he’s coming off major knee surgery and he’s one of those guys whose PIMs might total to half his total ice time and far surpass his point total. He’s a guy that some teams may feel like they need, but the Penguins are not one of those teams.
These ones might have been a bit too easy, Matt, as I’ve picked guys who just simply (in my opinion) just aren’t standout hockey players. And yes, I really would rather have Gill than Ference, though you may disagree. Your thoughts on these two? And anyone else on your “blacklist?”
Matt: Well, Josh, quite honestly, I’d rather have Gill than Ference, too. While Gill is on the downside of his career and doesn’t fit the Penguins system, he at least has had a career that has shown he is capable of playing hockey — despite those who said his “pylon-style” game wouldn’t transition to the “new” NHL post-lockout. Ference, on the other hand, seems to be just one of those guys who hangs around, doing just barely enough to make an NHL paycheck, but nothing worthy of getting any recognition. On defense, those guys generally are spoken of highly, as they always say a defenseman is doing his job when he isn’t being noticed. But there’s just something about Ference I don’t like.
As for my own submission, how about Marian Hossa? Like your blacklisted Carcillo, Hossa currently plays for the Blackhawks — though he’s highly unlikely to be bought out. But, as you mentioned in your lead, this is a purely hypothetical conversation, as we don’t know if there will be a season, and if there is, if there will be a buyout amnesty clause, and if there is, who will be bought out. All that said, Hossa has proven to be about Hossa and the Stanley Cup, and nothing else. While a Cup-driven player is good to have, one who doesn’t care which team he accomplishes his goal with is not. This man has played in Ottawa, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago — going to the Stanley Cup Finals with the final three (and eventually winning in Chicago).
Fact is, though, he was sitting pretty in Pittsburgh with the best player in the world feeding him passes and a long-term offer on the table to assure he finished his career with the best center in the game. Instead, he jumped ship, essentially telling his Penguin teammates that he didn’t think they were good enough to win. So he went to Detroit, where he lost to the Penguins the following season and repeated his routine, jumping to Chicago and essentially telling his Detroit teammates that they weren’t good enough. He finally won the Cup, but the taste in my mouth remains bitter. Sure, he would be an amazing option on Crosby’s wing, but I’d rather pass and see the money spent on a team player.