Be realistic. We are not trading for Jarome Iginla. We are not sending Geno Malkin to the Kings for Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson, and 11 first round draft choices. There is certainly nothing wrong with fantasizing about a better life, a better world, a better team. But come on, Barney. You and me live in the real world... most of the time. (That's right, we just quoted Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. That is why we do this anonymously.)
Let's look at the Pens' offseason options through the eyes of General Manager Ray Shero. You've got 11 forwards, 3 defenseman, and 2 goalies under contract for the 2010-11 season at a total of roughly $45,953,000. Based on Gary Bettman's recent statement that the cap could rise by $2 million, you're looking at a ceiling of about $58,800,000. OK, you say, we've got $13,000,000 to play with. You can sign Ilya Kovalchuk! Sure you can, if you want to make like Chicago and go over the cap with only 14 players under contract. (Mazel tov on the Cup win, but now you're screwed.)
Fortunately, you're Ray Shero, and that's not how you do things. Let's make a couple of assumptions for the purposes of this exercise. First, you bring back Sergei Gonchar only at your price and on your terms. That's 2 years at $3.75 million per, and it's probably not going to happen. Gonchar is, in all likelihood, gone. Second, you have to resign Matt Cooke for 3 years at $1.5 million per year. You understood this the minute it occurred to you during the playoffs that Cooke and Craig Adams were, for long stretches, the best players on the ice and, at that moment, you also understood that it might be a good idea to keep both of these two warriors on your bench for approximately one-third of the price of a single, heartless Alexander Semin.
Now you're down to $11.5 million, and you still need to sign at least three defenseman and at least one forward. Part of this is easy. By all accounts, Ben Lovejoy is ready, and you can slot him on the third pairing with Mark Eaton for a combined $3 million a year. Just make sure to hold your breath when they get stuck out there against Ovechkin after an icing call next spring. Whatever, you're doing the best you can. You've got $8.5 million left in your pocket. You'd better parse it out carefully, because you're missing a number 1 defenseman and a first line winger. Maybe an additional veteran forward in the event you don't bring back Billy Guerin to play fourth line minutes for Craig Adams money. [Note: please let Billy go, Ray. He seems like a terrific guy "in the room," but "on the ice" he hasn't moved his feet to collect a pass in the neutral zone since 2001.] With all of that in mind, here are 5 guys you're targeting on July 1, if not sooner:
1) Anton Volchenkov, defenseman (UFA).
PRO: You can't really find a better fit. Sure, he isn't a classic number one in the Duncan Keith mold because he brings no offense to speak of. But we're going to live or die with Letang and Goligoski on that front, and this guy is a monster in the defensive zone. He's a shutdown player, like Darrelle Revis. Just stick him out there on an island with Ovechkin.
CON: He's going to be overpaid. Anything more than a $4.5 million cap hit will be tough to take, and he'll likely command at least $5 million. He's only 28, but durability is an issue. He's averaged only 66 games a season for the last three years. His body could fall apart at any moment.
2) Zbynek Michalek, defenseman (UFA)
PRO: No one's heard of him. No way he's banking $5 million a year. But he led the league in blocked shots a couple of years ago, and the 27-year-old has been a steady presence on the Phoenix blueline for 5 years now. We could get a reasonable facsimile of Volchenkov for $3.5 million.
CON: Guarantee you every GM except Bob Clarke is thinking the exact same thing. And, the possibility of him trying this foot deke.
3) Dan Hamhuis, defenseman (UFA)
PRO: Here's another potential number 1 guy who is durable, decent offensively, and shouldn't command a $5 million salary.
CON: He shouldn't command a $5 million salary, but there are people out there who would sign Scott Gomez for $7 million a year. We're not naming any names. And sometimes potential remains unfulfilled. Ryan Whitney. (Cough, cough.)
4) Kris Versteeg, forward (Chicago Caphawks)
PRO: The Blackhawks have to trade this guy. It's not even debatable. He's not Toews, Kane, or Hossa, but he is easily a first-line winger on the 2010 Pittsburgh Penguins. He is under contract for the next two seasons at a cap hit of $3 million. He is durable, gritty, good defensively, and has excellent scoring touch. Put him with Sid or Geno for 80 games and he scores 35 goals. Easily.
CON: There will be a bidding war. Right now the speculation is he'll cost a high second round pick. We don't have a high second round pick. We do have a late first round pick. Do it Ray.
5) Jaromir Jagr, forward (Some team in Russia)
PRO: At 38-years-old, he is light years better than any winger on our roster. Any old school Pens fan who tells you they wouldn't get chills hearing his name announced on opening night at Consol is lying to you. All the talk about Jagr needing to be the man, being jealous of Sid and Geno, and disrupting locker room chemistry is nonsense. He'll be thrilled to be allowed to drift into open space and wait for those guys to feed him the puck. Then he'll bury it.
CON: He seems to be trending back towards a mullet. Pittsburghers don't need any encouragement on that front.