Was that title reference appropriately non-topical enough? As 2008 Oscar nominees go, I was torn between that, "Slumdog MAXionnaire" or "MILKxime Talbot." I think I made the right choice.
Alright, I admit, I'm stalling. We're all stalling. Why? Because as Penguins fans, there's an unpleasant truth we're collectively ignoring. We have all, consciously or not, completely buried the simultaneously inconceivable and inevitable notion that there may not be a place for Max Talbot on the 2011-12 Penguins.
Talbot currently makes $1.05 million and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Since the start of December 2010, Talbot has produced exactly three goals and seven assists in 47 games - more than half an NHL season. This marks a modest but still largely-insignificant statistical rebound from his injury-marred '09-'10 season when he managed just two goals in 45 games.
In the last two seasons combined, Talbot has 10 goals and 15 assists in 118 games. Granted, this includes his hobbled '09-'10, but it also includes the past three months of 2011 when his role and ice time have been expanded. Since the 2011 All-Star Game, he's been averaging 15:55 of ice time per game, nearly two full minutes more per game than during his healthy '08-'09 campaign. He's been an effective piece of the Pens' penalty-killing unit this year, but his production over the past two seasons even by third- or fourth-liner standards has been noticeably underwhelming.
Additionally, the Penguins' Salary Cap picture in 2011-12 figures to be extremely tight; assuming the return of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the full-season additions of James Neal ($2.875 cap hit) and Matt Niskanen ($1.5 mil), and the offseason restricted free agency of Tyler Kennedy (certain to receive a raise on his $725,000 salary), the Penguins' current roster would, if each unrestricted free agent besides Kovalev were retained at the exact same pay rate, be over the current salary cap. Even if the cap increases next season, the Penguins will assuredly have to shed payroll in one area or another, and spending $1-$1.5 million on fourth-line role-players - even uber-fan-favorites with penalty-killing skills - just doesn't seem like a plausible option.
Here's where the case gets tricky: If we were talking about literally any other player in the NHL - any 27-year-old, UFA-to-be fourth-liner posting a second-straight subpar season on a cap-strapped club with roughly 10 absolutely essential contracts already on the books for next year - then this would be a no-brainer, and that player wouldn't be retained. But this is Max Talbot, and this is the Pittsburgh Penguins. To call Talbot a "fan favorite" in Pittsburgh is an understatement of superstar proportions. After his 2009 Stanley Cup heroics and ongoing unmatched rapport with Pens fans, Talbot's status in the 'Burgh defies run-of-the-mill sports terminology; "god" might not be the entirely correct term, but it's at least on the right track.
So what are Ray Shero's offseason alternatives if he decides the Pens cannot let Talbot go?
1) The Pens could re-sign Talbot and let the rest of their veteran UFAs walk - this would mean waving goodbye to Pascal Dupuis, Alexei Kovalev, Mike Rupp, Arron Asham, and Eric Godard. However, Rupp, Asham, and Godard (and Mike Comrie) figure to be out of the Pens' plans regardless of Talbot's status, and letting them go would barely free up any cap space versus the Wilkes-Barre players or cheaper veteran alternatives that Shero would bring in to replace them. It would basically come down to signing Talbot at the expense of Dupuis, and while Dupuis is older and certainly not irreplaceable, he's still unarguably been a more effective player than Talbot over the past two seasons.
2) The Pens could trade either Chris Kunitz or RFA-to-be Tyler Kennedy. This wouldn't be a move solely to fit Talbot under the cap, obviously, but an unrelated hockey trade that would also in turn free up the cap space for the Pens to re-sign some bottom-line veterans like Talbot and Dupuis (or retain Kovalev at a reduced rate, or bring in other bottom-liners of the Glen Metropolit School of Random Immortal Bottom-Line NHLers). Kunitz has one more year on his deal at a $3.725 cap hit, which is close to league-appropriate, plus he's been extremely effective this year and likely wouldn't fetch much in a trade - to acquire Simon Gagne (one year at $5.25 mil left on his deal), the Lightning only had to surrender a fourth-round pick and fringe NHL defenseman Matt Walker. Kunitz's salary would be more palatable to suitors, but it's unlikely he'd bring much more in return than Gagne, a recent 30-goal scorer.
Trading Kennedy would make even less sense, as he's still only 24, still under team control, and currently in the midst of a probable 20-goal campaign, and his RFA salary likely wouldn't be much more expensive than Talbot's. Kennedy would probably fetch more in the open market than Kunitz, but he's been one of the few Penguin third/fourth-liners who has notably stepped up his game in the absence of Crosby and Malkin, and trading him primarily for salary relief wouldn't make sense.
3) The Pens could re-sign Talbot at a reduced rate. This would be the storybook scenario for the Penguins and Penguin fans, and it would allow Talbot to stay in a place where he's more beloved and famous than he'll ever be anywhere else, but it also might require the former Cup Finals hero to leave $1-$1.5 mil on the table, and that might be asking a little much of a player who's already given the organization plenty. Would Talbot accept $700,000 annually from the Pens if a younger team looking for leadership like Tampa or Minnesota or Phoenix offers him three years and $6 million? And similarly, would the Penguins even want to pay for Talbot at all when they've got such an effective young crop of skill players and potential role players coming up through their system?
None of these options seem particularly palatable, or even plausible. So does this mean Talbot's gone for sure next year? Many of my similarly Talbot-concerned friends keep repeating the mantra, "Let's wait and see what he does in the playoffs." The emotional part of me really wants to agree with this sentiment, but that's also what we said about Ruslan Fedotenko for two years, until there finally came a point where we all had to admit that a player's past playoff heroics can only buy him so much leeway when his day-to-day production just isn't there.
Max Talbot's situation presents the ultimate in sports "Practicality vs. Emotion" conflicts, and right now, I just don't see any way this resolves with all three parties - Talbot, the Penguins, and Penguin fans - completely satisfied. Which is why, until someone absolutely has to make a decision, we'll just keep stalling. Wait, I just thought of another bad one - how about, "Frost / MAXon"? Should I go back and change the title? Gonna have to give this one some more thought.