PITTSBURGH – If you're Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, is there anywhere you'd rather play than Pittsburgh?
Let's see. You could be paid well. If you're Parise, you could be the long-awaited winger for Sidney Crosby, who just so happens to be your buddy. If you're Suter, you could bolster the defense of a talented team that includes Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. In either case, you could work for good-guy coach Dan Bylsma. You could have a great chance to win the Stanley Cup year in and year out.
Oh, and you could do it all in a U.S. market where hockey matters but doesn’t matter too much – important for low-key American stars like Parise, from Minnesota, and Suter, from Wisconsin.
Parise and Suter didn't seem like realistic options for Pittsburgh a couple of days ago. But now that general manager Ray Shero has cleared salary-cap space by swinging deals at the NHL draft at Consol Energy Center, the Penguins can make a push for at least one of the top unrestricted free agents July 1.
Especially if Shero can clear some more space – by, say, moving defenseman Paul Martin and his $5 million hit – they might even be able to make a push for both.
[Related: Penguins trade Jordan Staal to Hurricanes on his wedding day]
"I think we're in a really good position," said Shero, speaking generally about attracting a premier free agent. "I think we have a very good team. We're well-coached. We've got great ownership. We have a beautiful building, as everybody sees. But there's a lot of good teams out there, a lot of good situations, and you don't know what players may do."
Oh, Parise and Suter will have other options, and excellent ones. There is uncertainty because no one knows exactly what the salary cap will be in the future, with the NHL and NHL Players' Association about to negotiate a new labor agreement. But there is only one Parise on the market, only one Suter. Both are clearly the best available at their positions.
Both could stay with their current teams, the only NHL teams they have ever known. Parise just went to the Stanley Cup Final with the New Jersey Devils, and Suter just went to the second round for the second straight season with the Nashville Predators. But the Devils have ownership and financial issues. Can Parise be certain about their long-term health? And as much as the Predators have made an effort to show they are willing and able to do what it takes to win, is Suter convinced they give him the best chance to win?
Both could go to Detroit or Minnesota. The Red Wings have the cap space to make a splash, and their savvy management has been able to reload for years without high draft picks. They especially need Suter after the departures of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart. The Wild has cap space and Midwestern allure. Minneapolis is Parise's hometown team and close to Suter's home state. But some of the Wings' key pieces are older. How long can they defy gravity? And is the Wild close enough to winning? Does anyone know if the Wild can win long-term?
Both should have other options. Parise could go to, say, Los Angeles. The Kings have cap space and a hole at left wing. They just beat the Devils to win the Cup, and they have a young core. The beach ain't bad, either. But is he a West Coast guy? Suter could go to, say, Chicago, if the Blackhawks can clear cap space by trading Niklas Hjalmarsson and his $3.5 million hit.
[Also: 2012 NHL Entry Draft: Winners & Losers]
No doubt others will be in the mix, or will want to be, and Pittsburgh isn't necessarily perfect. Some teams might be willing to pay more money or do a front-loaded deal – perhaps especially Detroit, with owner Mike Ilitch aggressively trying to keep the Wings among the elite. Parise or Suter – or both – might have to take less to fit into the Penguins' salary structure, and the Pens won't do front-loaded deals, even with a potential lockout looming.
But look at the possibilities:
Parise and Crosby both played prep-school hockey at Shattuck St. Mary's in Minnesota. They didn't play together – Crosby spent one season there right after Parise left, in 2002-03 – but they know each other from that connection and are friends. Crosby can recruit him.
The Penguins found a winger to mesh with Malkin when they acquired Neal in 2010-11. Asked if he could describe the ideal winger who could mesh with Crosby the same way, Bylsma said: "You need a guy who plays his game, is aggressive, hunts pucks, creates, pressures other teams. That's when their line is very good and Sidney Crosby is a great player." Bylsma said you don't need to be an all-star to play with Crosby, but "that would obviously, certainly be a good thing."
Obviously, certainly that sounds a lot like Zach Parise. He plays the same high-tempo, down-low game Crosby does. In theory, they would be crazy-good together on the cycle. Who could match up against the Penguins if they have Crosby and Parise on one line with Malkin and Neal on another?
Shero knows Suter. He was the Predators' assistant GM when they drafted Suter seventh overall in 2003. The thought is that Suter will be more difficult to attract, because he wants to stay in the West and has particular desires. But maybe Shero can sell him on the Penguins and Pittsburgh.
Suter wants to play a prominent role on a good team but doesn't want the spotlight. Well, if you saw the Penguins' disappointing first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers and look at their lineup, you know they need to improve their defense more than anything. Suter could be the steady complement to the flashy Letang on the blue line, the way he has complemented the hard-shooting Shea Weber in Nashville. With Crosby handling the lion's share of the media attention and the other stars sharing the rest, Suter can play a starring role on the ice and keep his low profile off it.
The Penguins should be able to add at least one more big contract, maybe two. Crosby has one year left on his deal and is negotiating an extension. He took less than full market value the last time he signed with the Penguins – five years, $43 million – and likely will sign a cap-friendly deal again. (Malkin's deal is up after the 2013-14 season, but he has said he wants to re-sign, too.)
[Also: Leafs acquire James van Riemsdyk from Flyers for Luke Schenn in 1-for-1 deal]
Shero said the Penguins need to figure out "what's fair for [Crosby] but also help the team out so we can continue to surround these players with good players. That's a conversation I have engaged him with already, and we'll continue to talk to him. We'll continue that next week. He's never been reluctant to help the team out."
The Penguins just traded Jordan Staal, an outstanding two-way player who could become a monster in a larger role with the Carolina Hurricanes. But if it leads to Parise or Suter – or both – the Penguins could be even better than they were before, and they were already pretty darn good despite their disappointing playoff.
When Malkin picked up his first Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player Wednesday night at the Wynn in Las Vegas, the casino's sports book had the Penguins as the favorites to win the Cup next season at 7-1 odds.
The NHL is not the NBA. Stars cannot take over the game the same way, and things are much more unpredictable. But the Penguins could turn into the closest thing the NHL has to the Miami Heat, star-studded, despised by some, burdened by expectations, but the best team in the league on paper. The Heat didn't live up to the hype last year – and still made the NBA Finals. LeBron and D-Wade just won a championship.
If you're Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, what's your decision?
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