The Game Within the Game

The drama of the Penguins' Stanley Cup run spills over into the owner's box.

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There are a lot of ebullient puckheads in Pittsburgh today, but Penguins general manager Ray Shero might be the most elated of them all. Sort of. Maybe. It’s complicated.

See, as the Penguins prepare to extend their 1-0 series lead against the flashy but flawed Tampa Bay Lightening at the CONSOL Energy Center tonight, Shero is in the midst of an impromptu scientific experiment. Because the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs are the ultimate “What If?” scenario come to life for the Penguins.

What would the world look like without Evgeni Malkin?

Can the Penguins win a Stanley Cup without any discernible superstars?

Is Jordan Staal ready for stardom, or will he always be a supporting cast member?

Precisely how good is Marc-Andre Fluery: Product-of-a-system good or Hall-of-Fame good?

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All of these questions could be answered in the next few weeks, depending on the cranial health of Sidney Crosby. Having a healthy Crosby and Malkin would take a lot of weight off of Shero’s mind, but on the bright side, this rare opportunity for ultimate clarity may never come around again. Remember, Shero will eventually face a serious conundrum when Crosby and Staal come up for new contracts in 2013, with Malkin’s deal expiring the following season. A mere two years from now, the NHL’s strict salary cap ceiling may start to feel like it’s hanging awfully low over the Penguins’ front office.

Who should be the odd man out: Malkin, a Stanley Cup Finals MVP, or Staal, one of the premier two-way defensive forwards in the league? Or should keeping both stars be a priority at the expense of the rest of the roster?

How much money is Marc-Andre Fleury worth?

How much do character guys like Max Talbot matter?

Is the highly-skilled but highly-combustible Matt Cooke essential to the team?

These looming questions have been hanging over the franchise since the 2009 Cup win. Call it the curse of success. It’s incredible how many of these What-Ifs, normally just talk-show hypotheses, stand to actually be answered during this playoff series against Tampa Bay and, hopefully, beyond.

With the team stripped bare by injuries, there’s nowhere for players like Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy and Chris Kunitz to hide. All of them are free-agents in the next two years; and Shero must make a fascinating philosophical decision based on what he sees during this playoff run: Would he rather cross the frozen tundra of the NHL playoffs with one stud horse (Malkin; $8.7 million per season) or with a pack of wolves (Staal, Kunitz and Kennedy; approximately $9 million per season if given new deals)?

Ironically, no one has raised their value this season more than Kunitz, who scored 23 goals and was a +18 in 66 games—many of them without Crosby. When I sat down with Shero in the middle of the season, I gleaned that his overriding philosophy was to let guys like Kunitz walk unless they wanted to sign reasonable extensions before getting close to free agency. When Crosby went down, it was sink or swim for Kunitz. He swambut maybe a bit too wellwhich will make negotiating with him this off-season all the more complicated. And if Kunitz continues to emerge as a leader during a Cup run, inflating his market value? Then Shero will be spiking his victory champagne with Alka-Seltzer. Such is the bittersweet life of an NHL GM.

Perhaps, as the thugnificent Marlo Stanfield once said on HBO’s The Wire, "That’s one of them good problems."

Or as Mr. Omar Little once put it, "All in the game, yo. All in the game."

Shero didn’t have to make such vexing decisions during the Stanley Cup runs in 2008 and 2009 because Evgeni Malkin (2008) and Jordan Staal (2009) were still making meager money on their rookie contracts during those years. That freed up cash for key veterans such as Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Peter Sykora and Gary Roberts. The team no longer has that luxury.

Looking at the Penguins’ long-term contract structure and up-in-coming talent, a future that includes both Malkin and Staal seems increasingly unlikely. That ship may have sailed when Shero invested big money in defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek this off-season.

Shero’s surprising strategy to beef up the back-end, so counter-intuitive to the exciting Penguins brand, is exactly what makes the 2011 playoffs such a fascinating study. It’s a perfect barometer for Shero’s Penguins 2.0.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not products of Shero’s leadership. He inherited them. They’re gifts from above; or, if you believe the conspiracy theorists, gifts from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Many of the cornerstones of this run are hallmark Shero acquisitions. In Game 1, recent Shero buys James Neal, Alexi Kovalev and Aaron Asham buoyed the outmanned but not outgunned Penguins to a decisive 3-0 win. The tandem of Michalek and Martin, who helped make the Penguins the NHL’s top-ranked penalty killing unit in the regular season, shined on both ends of the ice and shackled Tampa’s three-headed monster of Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier.

Number 4 has been all over your television screen for the past month. That’s a crucial development. Because he, along with Martin, will be wearing black-and-gold for the next five seasons. Whether or not numbers 11 and 71 will be all over your television screen for the next five seasons has a lot to do with what happens over the next few weeks.

Can a pack of wolves get you across the tundra?

The stakes are higher than ever, even for those up in the owner’s box.

Categories: Pulling No Punches