Looking over the Pittsburgh Penguins' current roster of free agents is akin to looking over a dozen individual swatches of cloth spread separately across a table. Even with these players' mostly restricted nature, right now this team is as close to disbanded as it's been since the bankruptcy trial of two years ago.
At this point, the Penguins may either endeavor to re-stitch these pieces together, attempting to manufacture something similar to the garment which wore rather well all the way into the Eastern Conference Finals, or they may appraise each unique piece for its particular worth, then render a decision as to how to proceed for the good of the team.
It's easy to suggest that next year's roster will look eerily similar to the one that finished the season in the Garden State a week ago. The team itself has shown a significant amount of hesitation when it comes to major personnel decisions, choosing to languish over the likes of Tom Barrasso rather than accept the writing on the wall and undertake a much-needed overhaul in both talent and attitude. Yet even if one assumes that it is easier to roll the dice with the bird in the hand it is pragmaticnot to mention practical business sensefor any organization with Penguin-esque finances to evaluate the current value of all their known assets before they move forward.
After all, as valuable as Robert Lang may be in Pittsburgh, he could potentially fetch twice that price in the far off lands of Anaheim, Calgary, or Edmonton. Thus, it would seem that the most logical way to begin constructing next season's team would be to discover not who the team can 'afford to lose,' but rather to ascertain who is indispensable in the Penguin organization.
To this end, the names that jump immediately into frame number three. Flanking Mario Lemieux and bedrocking the Penguins' coming Cup run should be the three essentials of Craig Patrick, Martin Straka, and Johan Hedberg.
When speaking of Penguin General Manager Craig Patrick, the trade that invariably comes from critics is Markus Naslund, the all-star that got away. To which Patrick supporters generally counter with names like Francis, Samuelsson, Kovalev, and a host of others netted for what seem like pennies in retrospect. However, whether his past successes or shortcomings are taken into account or not, it is hard to suggest another general manager in the league one would want in charge of trading the best player in the game at his prime.
Maybe Colorado's Pierre Lacroix could swing it given a bigger bank roll to work with, or perhaps L.A. Kings' GM Dave Taylor has earned his turn at the plate after securing his tin men a heart in exchange for Rob Blake. But would Pittsburgh be willing to take that chance with Jaromir Jagr? New Jersey's Lou Lamoriello has a well-earned reputation for pugnacious frugality, but he generally builds from within, and even if Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke could slap Islander GM Mike Milbury in a sleeper hold and suffocate Long Island from him for a fistful of beads and a black eye, there's no guarantee he could handle the situation with Jagr any better than he's handled the one with Eric Lindros.
Given the entirety of the league to work with, and the fact that without Patrick there is neither Johan Hedberg for this year's playoff odyssey nor Ron Tugnutt for the epic five overtime showdown of a season ago, it is difficult to construct any winning argument which takes Patrick off the trigger for what will no doubt be, given the team's current fiscal structure, the most important trade in the history of the franchise.
Meanwhile, since returning to the Penguins four seasons ago, Marty Straka has missed a total of twenty games in the regular season, and none in the post-season. Even without his point total for the just-finished season (a career high 95), it has become all too obvious over the last few seasons that Straka provides the kind effort, night-in and night-out, which the Penguins cannot be without. Too many times the Penguins find themselves flat, listless, and it falls to Marty to use his speed and energy to help the team climb off the canvas. It shouldn't be that way, but it is and Straka handles it as well as anyone. For this reason alone he is worth more to the Penguins than to most any other team in the league; and when his desire is combined with his on-ice leadership, heart, durability, and much-needed speed, it becomes clear that Straka is irreplaceable in Pittsburgh.
Lastly, it may seem impulsive to build around a 28 year-old rookie goalie named Johan Hedberg, but Hedberg provides two elements not seen in half a decade in Pittsburgh. His ability to handle the puck is elemental to the style Mario Lemieux is familiar with as well as the 'system' Mario seems so eager to sign the Penguins up for. If Lemieux is serious about emulating the Devils' trap or the Red Wings' lock, Hedberg is the goalie to try it with. He deftly handles the puck like Tom Barrasso and easily inspires loyalty and confidence in his mates like anyone but Tom Barrasso.
Why Jean-Sebastian Aubin couldn't win the heart of the Penguins may forever be a mystery, but Hedberg seems to have done just that. He has also known the pressure of international competition and weathered his first NHL playoff campaign with aplomb. This is something that shouldn't be overlooked, as it only motivates those around him all the more, goading each of the Penguins into the belief that next year Hedberg can take the team even further if only given the chance.
With this in mind, he should be committed to. In fact, all three of these cornerstones should be given contracts which sew them up for the foreseeable future and beyond. Build upon them, they are the foundation. Rather than tinkering from the top down, construct from the ground up. This is how champions come about, and this is the rare opportunity the Penguins find lying in front of them this off-season.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and still feels it's time for the Penguins to take a chance rather than play it safe, and should that chance involve the importation of Mike Grier, Doug Weight, Anson Carter, and/or Tyler Wright, so much the better.