A Whirlwind Five Years
Almost exactly five years ago, the Penguins won the NHL's 30-team lottery draft to determine the order of the 2005 entry draft. At the time, most remaining fans were simply overjoyed that the ten-month lockout that ruined the 2004-05 season was over. For Pens fans, it was a special treat to win the right to draft "The Next One," as he was known then.
The Pens' rebuild had already given them Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin as top draft picks for three seasons worth of losing, but Crosby put them over the top.
Since then, the Pens have said goodbye to Mario Lemieux as a player, secured the funding for a new arena, engaged in the planning and construction of said arena, and won the Stanley Cup. For his part, all Crosby has done is become the youngest captain in NHL history, won a scoring title and MVP, and scored the overtime, game-winning goal in the Gold Medal Game of the Olympics.
That's what you'd have to call a whirlwind five years.
Social Media And Pro Athletes
In this era of social media, there's an extra door that professional athletes can open to their fans. From the Penguins, Max Talbot has an infrequently updated twitter account, and prospect Eric Tangradi's weekly Twitter-based trivia games give out prizes and recognition for correct answers.
The NHL king of Twitter is ex-Penguin Paul Bissonnette. The 25-year-old made himself a cult hero in Penguin farm cities Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre for his antics - like getting suspended for wearing a professional wrestling championship belt during warmups. And it was no different with tech-savvy fans when the outspoken Bissonnette started tweeting a few months ago.
Bissonnette posted frequent updates on topics from "bums" to his love of the night life to how, in his opinion, women are less funny and less intelligent than men. Often vulgar, Bissonnette offered a raw, honest look into a professional athlete's mentality. Recently he made a controversial comment about Ilya Kovalchuk and deleted his account soon after - either thinking wiser of it, or being told by someone (agent, team, league) that his antics were too much for public consumption.
As Justin Bourne points out, this is a shame. The NHL needs to market characters and players with personality. Bissonnette isn't one of the better players in the league, but he's arguably the most open and funniest. His opinions are crude and his language isn't G-rated, but that shouldn't mean he should stop talking.
Don't Look For Pens To Test Contract Limits
Speaking of Kovalchuk, don't expect the Penguins to ever sign a guy to a salary cap-bending contract like New Jersey tried to. Some teams have done this - Marian Hossa with Chicago and Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen with Detroit all have contracts that the players are unlikely to finish out. Why the NHL is only now putting its foot down is a different story, but no one is quite sure how these deals will be handled during the next round of the dreaded Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, needed before the 2012-13 season can begin.
Under current rules, a contract can only be extended once there is one year left on it, so the Pens won't be able to sign Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin before a new CBA is in place. Most everyone expects the new CBA will, at minimum, have measures to limit how much the contract values from year to year can fluctuate. This should close the current loophole used to extend contracts with "dead" years at the end, which helps with the average salary cap hit of the contract.
Further, the new agreement could include contract limits, perhaps limiting contracts to five years. The players will probably fight on this issue, but as we saw in the 2004-05 lockout, the owners hold the cards and can be patient enough to break the players.
Hopefully this time the owners and league can do a better job of protecting them from themselves.
This summer's round of salary arbitration is in full swing, with the news the Atlanta Thrashers have decided not to accept a ruling that would give forward Clarke MacArthur a $2.4 million salary. Arbitration is a process for restricted free agents to make their case for a salary and the team to counter with a case for a lower salary, with a neutral party then deciding what's appropriate. The player elects the process, and he's stuck with the result. As seen in MacArthur v. Atlanta, the team can walk away from the award, which makes the player an unrestricted free agent.
The process isn't usually a constructive one: teams usually end up paying more than they'd like to, and players (who attend the hearing) are often shocked at the lengths a team may go to spew negative details about their abilities in the court-like setting. Former Penguin Martin Straka actually was brought to tears after Pittsburgh carved him up in a hearing a decade ago, and Bobby Holik knew he wanted to test free agency after New Jersey trashed him.
The Penguins are lucky none of their identified franchise players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury) will ever see an arbitration hearing. However, next summer Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy could be two RFA's bound for arbitration, which brings us back to the curious case of Clarke MacArthur.
In terms of age, size, playing styles and roles, MacArthur is more similar to Kennedy. At 25, MacArthur is the age now that Kennedy will be after next season. Both are third liners and have almost identical NHL career stats:
MacArthur: 208 games played, 44 goals, 44 assists
Kennedy: 186 gp, 38g, 41a
Talbot: 306 gp, 44g, 43a
If MacArthur can put together a case for $2.4 million, what could either Penguin do? MacArthur has played exactly zero NHL playoff games, while "Mr. June" Max Talbot has 29 points in 59 games, and Kennedy has 13 points in 54 games - and this doesn't even take into account their contributions to a Cup-winning team.
It's far too early to worry about whether this will be either Talbot or Kennedy's last season as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but with the arbitration process possibly looming, it may not be a surprise if this time next season the Penguins have tough decisions on their hands whether or not to bring them back.