COMMENTARY | For all the frothing cries of change prompted by the Bruins' four-game disassembly of the Pittsburgh Penguins, extending the contracts of head coach Dan Bylsma and reigning MVP Evgeni Malkin was work of the no-brainer variety.
Even if it didn't seem that way.
With the conference finals loss, was Bylsma a candidate to be replaced? Perhaps. His post-Cup playoff tenure has presided over more meltdowns than Homer Simpson, and no Penguins coach has ever outlasted a presidential term.
However, Bylsma had the unequivocal support of his players, and that was good enough for his GM and Penguins ownership alike. Extending his contract put to bed rumors of his job security before they could get out of hand.
That was step one. But with the salary cap about to be reduced and no points to show for his conference finals effort, was Malkin a trade candidate heading into this offseason?
Malkin has been a top-two league scorer in three of his seven seasons with the Penguins, more often than franchise man Sidney Crosby, and replacing his talent through any trade would be a fool's errand. His eagerness to re-sign in Pittsburgh was evidence of his dedication to the team, as he and the Penguins agreed in principle on a max-term contract nearly a month before he becomes eligible to put the deal into ink.
For all the uprooting and facelifting this too-soon offseason is supposed to bring to the Penguins, its first week has been an exercise in stability.
That's the easy part.
From here on out, Shero will have his work cut out for him. The biggest obstacle to contend with is the pending contract negotiation set to take place with defenseman Kris Letang and his representatives.
Letang, 26, will enter the final year of his current deal next season, one which currently pays his $3.5 million per year. That number is wildly out of line with his offensive production (best PPG of any regular NHL defenseman this season) and with the massive contracts handed out to Norris Trophy winners and nominees (see: Weber, Shea and Suter, Ryan).
With Malkin and Crosby now occupying some $18.2 million in AAV over the next nine seasons [CapGeek], Pittsburgh's expert cap-wrangling is going to become even more treacherous. Is there going to be room for Letang to command a $7-plus million contract? Pittsburgh already has more than $30 million in cap space committed to just six players in 2014-15, and the salary cap for that season won't be set until league revenues in 2013-14 have been totaled.
All that aside, the Penguins must decide whether Letang is worth the kind of salary he'll doubtlessly gather on the open market.
For his prolific scoring in these playoffs, Letang was an outright liability defensively. He was on the ice for 7 of the Bruins' 11 goals in the finals and countless more in the first two rounds. At 26, he's still young by the standards of most NHL defensemen.
Pittsburgh will have to decide whether another massive cap hit will be worth waiting out Letang's defensive development, or if moving him will net a Jordan Staal-level of return.
Aside from the looming Letang negotiations, Pittsburgh has 10 players entering restricted or unrestricted free agent status this summer, including clubhouse veterans Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams, Tyler Kennedy, Mark Eaton and Dustin Jeffrey.
There are no easy answers in re-signing those players.
Dupuis has been one of the league's most-effective even-strength goal scorers in the last three seasons, and Crosby will no doubt push for him to be re-signed. But at 34 and at the peak of his free-agent value, Dupuis seems likely to seek a lengthy term in lieu of rich up-front money. Will Shero, who very rarely commits even three-year deals to players in their 30's, be able to compete with the market for the right winger?
Ditto Matt Cooke who, at 34, is coming off two of his most-productive NHL seasons. Cooke was instrumental in pulling the Pens' PK from outright mediocrity in the regular season into a strength through the playoffs, and has been a reliable, effective force on the third line. He'll easily gather three years on the open market. Pittsburgh may be reluctant to go as far.
All this goes without mentioning Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Douglas Murray, veterans and assets who may not fit into the Penguins' salary structure but will no doubt seek new, healthy deals this summer.
With the cap set to drop to $64.3 million, the Pens will have just over $7.8 million in cap space next year with 18 players already signed to the active roster.
The big-picture players have already been taken care of. But it takes a team to compete for the Cup, as the Bruins demonstrated to the Penguins in four ruthless episodes.
Shero's task is to now build the rest of that team around his pillars in the face of a mounting financial squeeze.
James Conley covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and is an Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. He owns the Pittsburgh sports blog Slew Footers and has attended Penguins home games with credentials.
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