Okay, the first two pieces of the free agency puzzle have been settled for the Pens. But in this extra tricky puzzle, some pieces have to be removed to make room for others. It's not like you dump the entire box on the coffee table, open some wine and have at it. If you put the wrong piece in the wrong place, that in itself makes three other pieces impossible to wedge in. It's very frustrating!
So now we know Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts won't be in the building when we raise the 2007-2008 Eastern Conference Champions banner, unless our first home game is against Tampa Bay. And that's fine. In just under two seasons, Gary Roberts came in, showed a bunch of young pups how much energy you need to expel to win in the playoffs, started his own religion and made $2.5 million a year. That's a lot to pay for eleven minutes a night. Roberts probably could've played more than that, but we had so much third and fourth line depth that were quietly gritty. With all of the remarkable furor and hand wringing over the Pens' cap situation, Roberts was simply making too much money to stay around.
As for Malone, he is a good young player and nice guy to have on your team. He took a puck to the face in the Finals and only missed a shift or two. He has incredibly soft hands and can stickhandle in a phone booth, as they say. He learned to box during last summer and really showed that he could fight and stick up for his teammates over this season. He's not afraid to show his ween to the ladies three nights a week. When he has his confidence going, like say, when he's skating next to Evgeni Malkin twenty minutes a night, he can be a real force. But when he doesn't have his confidence going, like say, for half of every season he's played so far in his career, he can be completely invisible.
Through the first 33 games of last season, Ryan Malone had 14 points. I am not dyslexic and I did not mean to type 41. 14 points. He was bouncing from line to line and looked totally lost. In four seasons, his point totals were 43, 44, 31 and 51. Now, in fairness, those first two season saw him scoring 20 goals for the worst team in the league and in his third season, he missed 18 games. Malone is young and getting better, there's no question about it. But it wasn't until the last 42 games, when he was paired with Malkin regularly, that he put up 38 points.
If we had one more year of contract left, we could put Malone with Malkin for and see if he puts up 80 points or 40. But, as you may have heard, we don't have one more year. This was decision time, and with guys like Daymond Langkow and Jeff Carter (!) getting $5 million a year recently, Malone was going to be much too expensive for us if he flopped.
Although Steve Stamkos is probably definitely as good or better than Malkin and totally ready to be Tampa's second line center, that potential Malone crash is now Tampa Bay's problem, and my God, are they set up for a lot of problems. I mentioned this earlier, but it was driving me insane that everybody assumed the Pens had to be chopped up and sold for parts while ignoring potential cap problems in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Although the conventional wisdom has Pittsburgh trading Jordan Staal tomorrow just to avoid him having a good 08-09 season that will drive his theoretical price up, that same wisdom has the Rangers signing four different $5 million defensemen. Why isn't anybody wondering who the Flyers will trade so they can afford Briere ($8 million), Richards (5.6), Gagne (5.25), Carter (5), Hartnell (4.2) and Timonen (7) while keeping Braydon Coburn in two years? By the way, that's $35 million for six players, leaving $20 million under next year's cap for the other 15 guys that fill out an NHL roster. Wait, Biron makes $3.5 million, so make that $16.5 million for 14 players. But please, keeping wondering how we'll keep Ruutu, Hall and Staal, by all means! Maybe people don't worry about Philadelphia's cap situation because they just assume the Flyers will never win a Cup so it doesn't matter. I dunno.
Or maybe it's because Tampa Bay's new owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, have rendered all other salary cap issues quaint. Koules produced a movie called Saw and kept the rights to it when no studio wanted it. The Saw movies franchise naturally made a lot of money and Koules made enough to buy a hockey team. After keeping Passion of the Christ, maybe Mel Gibson should buy a rugby club.
Koules is already shaping up to be the Mark Cuban of the NHL, meaning he'll spend his first five years signing name players before realizing you can't build a team through free agency, then he'll pare back his spending. Hell, since the NHL has a hard cap and not a luxury tax, it might not even take him five years. This team could be strapped by 09-10. Lecavalier is making $7 million and that's about to go up to $8 with his new deal. Marty St. Louis comes in at $5 million and South Side Johnny Malone makes $4.5. But that's not all, folks! They also have the rights to Vinny Prospal and Brian Rolston. Prospal had 71 points last year and Rolston had a 79-point season a few years ago, so they may want more than Malone. But heck, Saw 5 is in the works, so let's give them $5 million each. In return, hopefully one of them will play center, since Rolston, Malone and Prospal are all left wings.
Man, with $28 million tied up in their first two lines, Tampa had better move Dan Boyle and his $6.667 per season. So what if that makes Shane O'Brien their best defenseman? Man, how will they keep this team together? Paying both of your goalies less than a million helps, I guess. Karri Ramo and Mike Smith won't help you win, but they will help you stay under the cap. Unless Smith ends up being as good as thought and needs his own $4 million a year.
But yes, the Penguins have the biggest cap problems in the NHL. God, I can't wait for tomorrow just to end the free agent speculation. And I can't wait for next season, when Tampa Bay misses the playoffs with the 4th highest payroll in the league. I promise you Ryan Malone doesn't crack 60 points next season. He might not even get #1 power play time with Lecavalier, Prospal, St. Louis, Boyle and Rolston.