The big question: To stay or not to stay?
Craig Adams looked around an otherwise empty Penguins dressing room Sunday morning, knowing some players wouldn’t be returning to the Stanley Cup champions next season.
He remembers how the 2006 Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes were “affected big-time” after center Matt Cullen and defenseman Aaron Ward signed free-agent deals with the N.Y. Rangers.
“I’ve been through it before: you always lose a couple guys that you don’t want to lose,” Adams said. “It’s tough when guys play as well as they do and win the Cup. There’s always somebody out there that wants to give them a nice raise.”
Left wing Ruslan Fedotenko recalled the frustration of winning the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in ’04, only to see goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin sign a four-year, $27-million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks following the NHL lockout.
“I felt like he should stay, but it was part of management’s decision who they wanted to keep and who not,” Fedotenko said. “They went a different way. I was pretty disappointed at that point, to be a player and see that our goalie left.”
While the Penguins aren’t in danger of losing any of their superstars — centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury are locked up in long-term deals — Adams and Fedotenko are two of 10 complementary players who become unrestricted free agents July 1. They can only take a wait-and-see approach to whether general manager Ray Shero makes it a priority to re-sign them this summer.
“I would like to come back,” Fedotenko said, “but we’ll see what plans they have for me.”
Fedotenko and right wing Miroslav Satan were among the veterans who signed one-year deals with the Penguins in hopes of resuscitating their careers and winning the Stanley Cup. In that regard, they considered theirs a mission accomplished.
Now, they will find out whether the Penguins can afford to re-sign them or turn instead to lesser-priced forwards. Or if another team puts a higher price on their Cup experience.
“It’s part of the business,” Fedotenko said. “Nobody gives you a raise when you’re 30th in the league.”
Yesterday, the Penguins’ free agents professed to be too immersed in celebrating the Cup to concern themselves with the future.
“We’ll take care of that stuff later on,” right wing Bill Guerin said. “I’m not even thinking about it right now. I’m just thinking about where the next party is.”
Guerin knows it’s inevitable the Penguins will lose some players.
“Nowadays, everything is so tight money-wise with the salary cap that guys have to put themselves in situations where they’re going to succeed the way they want,” Guerin said. “Some guys want to play for the Cup every year. Some guys want a nice weather climate. Some guys getting the opportunity to play more, that’s important. Everybody’s got a different agenda but, for me, the opportunity to keep winning and the opportunity to win this year was everything. I think when free agents look at possible places to go, everyone is going to look at Pittsburgh because of the players that they have here and the opportunity that they’ll get.”
If the Marian Hossa saga in the Stanley Cup Final taught the Penguins anything, it’s that there is no such thing as a sure thing on the free-agent market. Where Hossa signed a one-year deal with Detroit because he believed it gave him “the best chance to win the Cup,” these Penguins have one NHL title on their resume.
“You never know what is going to happen,” Adams said, referring to former Penguins Hossa, Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu and Ty Conklin leaving via free agency. “If this Penguins team had missed the playoffs this year, those guys wouldn’t be talking about regretting anything. You can stick around and say you want to win X-amount more Cups here, and that’s not the way things turn out.
“Or you get what happened to me. I signed a three-year contract and I got traded (to Chicago). I don’t think you should ever blame a guy for leaving, because there’s no guarantees if you stay.”