All remains quiet on the Penguins' front -- at least publicly -- but speculation about the future of star center Jordan Staal isn't going to disappear.
For the first time since Staal was drafted in 2006, general manager Ray Shero has admitted he is unsure about the future of the "three-center model." For the past six seasons, the Penguins have enjoyed a significant advantage over other teams because of their immense strength at center. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Staal have given the Penguins unprecedented depth at one of hockey's most important positions.
But times have changed, and the Big Three are getting older. In other words, they're due for big, big raises. Keeping them together might not be possible, and if one is to go, Staal seems most likely.
Crosby and Staal both have contracts that expire in the summer of 2013. The Penguins will not trade Crosby under any circumstances and Shero told the Tribune-Review in December that signing him is the top priority of this summer. Malkin's deal expires in 2014.
Staal acknowledged following the season that keeping the three of them happy might be a problem in the future. He seems the most willing of the three to depart Pittsburgh and did nothing to hinder his asking price on a new contract by scoring six goals against the Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Whispers around the league indicate that Carolina is the most likely team to make a huge pitch for Staal in a trade this summer. His brother, Eric, is also a center in Carolina.
The Penguins produced a number of magical winning streaks, but what they did in January was special. Having just lost six games in a row, and playing without center Sidney Crosby, center Jordan Staal and defenseman Kris Letang, the Penguins had fallen into ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. The following day, general manager Ray Shero told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "We're going to make the playoffs." This triggered an eight-game winning streak and the beginning of a brilliant stretch of play from Evgeni Malkin, who produced two hat tricks during the streak on his way to the Art Ross Trophy.
The Penguins' turning point took place right when everything appeared to be perfect. Sidney Crosby returned from his second bout with concussion on March 15 in New York, and the Penguins beat the Rangers that night. Then they destroyed the Devils in New Jersey for their 11th straight win. Something was happening, though. While the Penguins were producing eye-popping offensive numbers, they were also allowing goals at an astonishing rate. They permitted 3.75 goals per game in the regular season following Crosby's return. The Penguins never again found their defensive game, as evidenced by the 30 goals the Flyers scored on them in six playoff games.
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