Letang signs four-year deal – Penguins in trouble for next year?

The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Kristopher Letang to a four-year deal worth 14 million dollars today. Letang has been somewhat disappointing this season with only 3 goals and 24 assists in 67 games. He is their second most used defenseman with 21:30 of time on ice per game but he is last in shorthanded time on ice per game with only 1:13. 3.5 million per year seems like an awful lot for an offensive defenseman who isn’t producing much offensively.

The Penguins will once again be contenders this season, and, in my opinion, are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference but is this their last real chance at a Stanley Cup? At the end of the season, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold will all be unrestricted free agents. The other 14 players currently on the roster will cost 44.5 million against the salary cap next season.

Over the past two years, the Penguins are 37-33-6 without Sergei Gonchar in the lineup. That record would give them 80 points in 76 games and would currently put them in eight place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins certainly realize how important Gonchar is to their team so, assuming they sign him to a deal that earns him 5 million dollars a year (same as right now), they will have 15 players signed for 49.5 million dollars. If they fill their roster with players making $500,000, their payroll would be at 53.5 million dollars for the 2010-11 season. We still don’t know what the salary cap will be for next year but it would be surprising if it were above that.

The Penguins would basically be replacing Guerin, Fedotenko, Cooke, Ponikarovsky, Eaton, McKee and Leopold with minor league players. That means their fourth line and third pair of defensemen will be composed of minor league players and they will have very little scoring depth after the trio of Crosby, Malkin and Staal. The only way that they can have more depth in their lineup is to let Sergei Gonchar go but as we’ve seen, they can’t afford to do that.

The situation for the Pittsburgh Penguins isn’t nearly as bad as it was for the Tampa Bay Lightning a few years ago but they did make some of the same mistakes. They signed their star players to a lot of money (which is okay of course) but what makes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin so good is that they can make other players better. They don’t need a guy like Chris Kunitz at 3.75 million dollars to be productive.

Marc-Andre Fleury is a good young goaltender but he’s not worth 5 million dollars a year and players like Staal, Kunitz and Orpik are slightly overpaid in my opinion. The good news for the Penguins is that the five players that are taking up almost 30 million of their cap room (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang and Fleury) will continue to improve over the next three or four years.

In conclusion, I believe that the Penguins could be in trouble next season and might even have to fight for a playoff spot but they should be Stanley Cup contenders again in two or three years.

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