The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the more aggressive teams in free agency this summer. Much has been made of General Manager Ray Shero's work revamping the defense by giving Paul Martin $25 million over five years and Zbynek Michalek $20 million for five years. At least on paper, adding those two players to Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski gives Pittsburgh one of the best defensive groups in the NHL.
One area that hasn't received as much consideration this off-season has been the forwards. Bill Guerin, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Ruslan Fedotenko all floated into free agency, and though they had varying levels of success, all three played important roles on the top two scoring lines in Pittsburgh.
True, the Pens finished fifth in the NHL in goal scoring last year, and they will return seven of their top ten scorers in 2010-11 (Guerin, Fedotenko and Sergei Gonchar being the departed). But their current depth chart shows the Pens have only five top six forwards (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Jordan Staal). That leaves a sizable hole; after all, Guerin did score 21 goals and play an important part of net-front presence on the first power play unit. The lack of another top six forward will also draw either Staal or Malkin out of his natural center position as well.
So who will fill the last spot in the lineup? The attention paid to the defense has come at a hefty price, and the Penguins have precious little space under the salary cap. The players left in the free agency pool that the team can afford, including Guerin, Marek Svatos and Patrick O'Sullivan, aren't exactly overflowing with skill. All of them come with some warts and aren't locks to be quite as productive as the Pens need.
Internally, the Pens have some options, but none of them are guarantees, either. Max Talbot is finally healthy, but also has never scored more than 27 points in a season. Talbot's consistency has been questioned before, and will be again; all things considered he's probably better suited not to be in a top six role for long periods of time.
Tyler Kennedy has shown some real ability to score in bunches. Consistency and all-around talent level have been issues with him too, and he has also had problems with injuries. The Pens have given Kennedy almost no power-play time, and hardly bumped up his ice-time or responsibility during his years as a pro, which might indicate that Kennedy isn't in consideration for a top line role.
Youngster Eric Tangradi is impressive, but his professional resume consists of 17 goals in 65 AHL games. Asking Tangradi to play on a top line with Crosby or Malkin right out of training camp would be like having a novice swimmer repel out of a Coast Guard helicopter to save a drowning victim. The story could have a happy ending, but more than likely, both are going to sink.
Mark Letestu, Nick Johnson and Dustin Jeffrey are accomplished AHL scorers and have much more experience than Tangradi, but they too would have issues in big-time NHL roles.
Of course, it's only August and there's plenty of time to sort this out. There's always the option of riding the hot hand and shuffling things often. A signing could be made at any time, perhaps with the Pens giving Guerin one more go or taking a chance on a skilled yet troubled player like O'Sullivan. A trade seems less likely - the Pens would have to deal salary, and it looks as if they like most of the players in most of the roles they have.
There are more questions than answers right now in the haze of summer, but the Penguins still have some pieces of the puzzle to arrange with their forwards before they look to make another run at the Stanley Cup.