Rarely are the plans of a franchise so obviously on display. Pittsburgh’s crystal ball is a little less cloudy, though, thanks to this week’s acquisition James Neal. Quietly, Monday’s moves previewed the composition of next season’s team.
With a salary topping $2.8 million, Neal’s roster spot for the 2011-12 year will result in the dumping of one Penguin in particular–Max Talbot. The game seven star has posted just eight goals in his last 108 regular season games. The organization has extended him the benefit of the doubt thanks to his Stanley Cup heroics, but a cap hit of $1.05 million marks too steep a price to retain a penalty killing specialist on a team full of penalty killing specialists.
Talbot’s prospects were also dampened by rookie Dustin Jeffrey’s emergence. The 6th round draft pick can play center and wing and has tallied seven points in just 14 games this year — a far better percentage than Mad Max’s 14 points in 63 games. Talbot’s has received his reward for his Finals performance, and that was a roster spot all year. Don’t expect it to continue past the post-season.
As far as the salary cap is concerned, removing the Talbot and Goligoski contracts makes room for Neal’s salary. Replacing an offensive defenseman and Olympic prospect, on the other hand, is a tougher issue.
Previously, whispers of Goligoski’s weak physical game may have scared teams away with questions about his shut-down defensive ability leaving many fearing that he would be a bust.
This year, perhaps unexpectedly by some, it wasn’t just his offensive skills that had Goose at the top of many team’s wish lists.
Concerns of Goligoski’s lack of physicality, defensive assuredness, and late season disappearing acts did just that — disappear. He was on track to fill the offensive skates of Sergei Gonchar, as evidenced by Kris Letang’s deference to him on most powerplay rushes. Factor in Crosby’s proven ability to single-handedly carry first-line offensive expectations, and the trade for a young, elite winger looks even more questionable.
Now, flashback to the 2008-09 season. After posting 99 points in his first two full NHL seasons, Ryan Whitney is shipped to the Anaheim Ducks. His replacement: Alex Goligoski. The Penguins hardly missed the future American Olympian on the way to two Stanley Cup Final appearances.
Thankfully for Penguins fans, this story has a sequel.
Blue chip defensive prospect Simon Despres will star as the newest elite Penguins defenseman. His already strong offensive game has steadily improved this season. With 11 goals and 34 points through 37 QMJHL contests, he is on pace for the best totals of his career.
The bottom line is that Penguins General Manager Ray Shero would not have dealt Goligoski if Despres wasn’t ready. His impressive pre-season showing and absurd potential have him pegged for a roster spot next season.
If Despres progresses as expected, a logjam on defense next year may mean new Penguin Matt Niskanen could be left out of the rotation. While scooping up available NHL defensemen at the trade deadline has been a trend for Shero, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Niskanen buck that trend by getting shipped out at next year’s deadline. Ultimately, his value is simply not as high as prospects such as Despres and Ben Lovejoy.
Lastly, filling out the roster will be Eric Tangradi, the highly rated prospect involved in the Whitney deal. Tangradi should be ready for the NHL ranks next season. His skill and Ryan Malone-like style makes for a perfect fit on an Evgeni Malkin/Jordan Staal line. Even if Tangradi needs another year of development, Matt Cooke is capable of thriving in the same position which would leave Neal as Crosby’s scoring winger.
It is also not unlikely that Alex Kovalev could sign a one-year deal keeping him in Pittsburgh. Crosby’s wing is the only position for the Russian superstar though. With Chris Kunitz still in the mix, Neal could drop to the second line and bully the offensive zone with Staal and Malkin. If Kovalev finds a different home however, expect to see a dangerous 1-2-punch featuring a Crosby-Neal-Kunitz and Staal-Malkin-Tangradi/Cooke line. The losses of Talbot and, pending Kovalev, Pascal Dupuis allows a Jeffrey to pair with Mark Letestu on the Pens’ third line.
Unfortunately, Penguin’s fans still have to endure a lengthy playoff run this year before looking ahead to next season.