Penguins' best chance is now

SCOTT MORRISON

, Last Updated: 8:10 AM ET

On the eve of the Stanley Cup final, Gary Roberts was telling the story about winning his first Stanley Cup.

"I was 23 when I won the Stanley Cup in Calgary," he said. "I remember saying, 'How many more of these am I going to win?' Well, I've waited 19 years to get back to the Stanley Cup final."

The moral of the story, of course, is when you get the opportunity seize the moment, don't take it for granted and don't think that it will happen all the time because it may be never happen again.

That is the lesson of the day for the Penguins, for whom Roberts helped drag back into the series with a 3-2 victory over the Red Wings the other night, eliminating the possibility of an embarrassing sweep.

Now the next-biggest game is upon them tonight, another must-win for the Penguins. Win tonight and there is hope, lose and the end is nigh.

Now, if it should happen that the Wings eventually win this series, given the fact the Penguins are, Roberts notwithstanding, a young and extremely talented group, you don't need a scouting report to figure they will be back to the final again fairly soon, much like those 1980s Oilers, to whom they are frequently compared.

That may indeed happen, but there are no guarantees and logic or common sense would also suggest that this might be the best chance they have at winning the big prize, regardless of their youth and talent, based strictly on the calibre of this team, which they augmented at a steep price at the trade deadline.

After all, a guy like Roberts isn't getting any younger, and the economic realities of the NHL are going to present Penguins management with some huge challenges this off-season and next.

Fact is, these days the riches of the NHL are going to the younger players and the Penguins are going to be hard-pressed to keep a large chunk of this team together.

SIX PLAYERS WILL BE UFAS

Think about it, this summer alone the likes of Marian Hossa, Ryan Malone, Georges Laraque, Jarkko Ruutu, Brooks Orpik and Pascal Dupuis all become unrestricted free agents, while goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is a restricted free agent.

In the case of the goalie, Hossa and Malone, we are talking contracts worth anywhere from $4 million (all terms US) to $8 million, or roughly $17-million plus to sign those three. The others are cheaper, but the money all counts toward the salary cap.

A year from now, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal will become restricted free agents and rich men. The Penguins can start talks a year out, like they did with Sidney Crosby, beginning July 1 and the intent certainly is to get Malkin and Staal locked up long term, but at what price?

Malkin has to make at least in the vicinity of Crosby, whose new deal averages out at $8.7 million, and perhaps more. Staal is going to a multi-millionaire, though not that rich. Say there's another $14 million or so there, plus Crosby's money.

Add it all up and, with Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney on the books for $9 million between them and others under contract and the Penguins will need every inch of the salary cap and then some to keep the gang together.

Obviously, GM Ray Shero and assistant Chuck Fletcher, two of the bright minds in the game, know the challenges that await. And they should be able to find a way to keep the key core of the group intact, but certainly not all of the parts.

Point is, that core with some new supporting faces will still be a successful group, but you just never know if they will be as good as this team has been, and if the stars and moons will align just right in another spring, and that they will make it all the way back.

Carolina and Edmonton reached the final in 2006 and neither has made the playoffs since, not that they had the youthful talent of Pittsburgh.

Tampa won before the lockout and has twice lost in the first round and next month will be drafting first overall. Calgary, which lost in seven games that spring, hasn't gotten past the first round.

So the Penguins' best chance is, and may always be, the one they have right now. After tonight we will know just how realistic that chance is.


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