Can Penguins keep this talent over long haul?

Updated: November 1, 2006, 1:13 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It sure seemed like the Pittsburgh Penguins were in a terrible rush, as though everything suddenly had to be done all at once. For a few days, it was just like those times when your 5-year-old breathlessly rushes into the house and tries to tell you every single thing that happened on the playground that day.

"And Sidney Crosby is going to be a restricted free agent after next season and how are we going to win the Stanley Cup and Evgeni Malkin -- did you see his goal against Brodeur last week? -- is going to cost a fortune to sign and can we keep this team together long enough to win a Cup and how about seven years from now when Malkin and Jordan Staal are both unrestricted free agents and do you think the new arena is going to happen and can we watch Sidney's shootout goal from last season against Jose Theodore one more time, pretty please?"

Evgeni Malkin
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesA preseason shoulder injury hasn't slowed Evgeni Malkin, who has five goals and four assists in nine games.

Whoa, slow down there. One thing at a time. One thing at a time.

And stop wiping your nose on your sleeve.

But perhaps Penguins GM Ray Shero was indeed the cool customer in the eye of the storm this week as the club decided what to do with Staal, an 18-year-old who should be playing for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League but is apparently insistent on being good enough to play in the NHL right now.

"I can't say that was part of the plan," Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Usually, when you draft these 18-year-old players, they come to camp, play a couple of exhibition games and you sit down with them afterward -- send them back to junior and tell them what they need to work on."

It just seemed like everything about the Penguins' future had to be decided this week when, in reality, only one issue was at stake: Staal's immediate future as an NHLer.

And given how well Staal has played, how hard a decision was it, really?

"I mean, the kid has three shorthanded goals," one NHL general manager said. "And they don't even have a rink."

The point the GM was making, of course, was that in these ever-changing times, the present matters most and the future is too tough to contemplate because it might be drastically different. Particularly when it comes to the NHL, a league that has turned itself inside out and upside down over the past 15 years.

Still, when you're a team that's been as bad as the Penguins for as long as they've been bad and now suddenly has this wealth of young hockey riches, it's probably easy to want to make it all happen immediately.

And there are always more than enough people out there willing to help you worry. For example, there was Vancouver GM Dave Nonis this week saying the new rules for unrestricted free agency were "a joke" and citing Crosby as just the type of player who would elude the grasp of the team that drafted him once he became a superstar.

"Pittsburgh is going to put seven years of development money into [Crosby] and he can leave when he's 25," said Nonis. "I think if you assemble a good team, fans want to see that team stick together for more than one or two years. Our current agreement does not lend itself to that."

So should the Penguins be worrying?

Going into this season, the club already knew for sure that Crosby was not only going to be a top player, but that they had landed a truly sublime talent.

Then came Malkin, extricated out of Russia amid controversial circumstances. Drafted a year before Crosby with the second overall selection, his maturity as an athlete showed when he shook off the effects of a preseason shoulder injury and scored five goals in his first five NHL games while teammate Mark Recchi compared him to a young Mario Lemieux.

What a one-two punch. Crosby and Malkin. A reenactment of a previous Pittsburgh stage play starring Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

But then Staal injected himself into the discussion, surprising everybody, as did goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, also a former first overall pick who ignored a so-so training camp and has been one of the NHL's best in this young season.

Crosby. Malkin. Staal. Fleury. All Penguins, all right now.

What made the scenario as complicated as it was exciting, however, is that the Penguins live in a very different world now than the Edmonton Oilers did when they were compiling youthful talent or the Quebec Nordiques when they were culling terrific youngsters from the draft year after year and preparing to move to Denver.

At their respective times, the Oilers and Nordiques/Avalanche didn't have to worry how much it was all going to cost them down the road or whether they'd be able to keep their talented young teams together. When the Oilers were drafting players such as Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and Mark Messier, they were operating in a world in which teams could basically keep players as long as they wanted to and pay them as much as they wanted to.

In a league that now puts limits on how much a team can spend on player salaries, a league that has steadily lowered the age at which players can freely choose the team they wish to play for, the Penguins do have to worry to some degree about the future and how they can keep their stars long enough to accomplish something meaningful.

Given their precarious financial future in Pittsburgh with a new arena still a dream, it's not that much of a stretch for a pessimist to see the Penguins down the road as a hockey version of baseball's Montreal Expos, forced to sell off stars year after year before finally pulling up stakes and moving out of town.

Those issues crystallized with the Staal decision this week because it became easy to envision the fairly tight schedule the Pens are operating under.

Crosby will be a restricted free agent after next season and an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012. Ditto for Fleury. Malkin and Staal, in theory, could be on the same timetable, restricted free agents after the 2008-09 season, unrestricted in 2013.

All those possible scenarios, then, complicated the Staal decision because one option for the Penguins was to send him back to junior hockey before he played his 10th game, thus avoiding the activation of his entry-level salary. So, instead of Staal being a free agent in '09 with Malkin, it would be pushed back one year, as would unrestricted free agency.

What Shero undoubtedly understood, however, is that it was pointless to dwell on those future problems.

He had a player, Staal, who was clearly ready to play now, although he can still send him back to Peterborough later if the NHL proves too tough. Moreover, worrying about unrestricted free agency for Crosby, Fleury, Malkin and Staal seems even more pointless given all that will occur sometime after the current collective bargaining agreement expires. The NHL might be operating under entirely different rules by then. Heck, the Penguins might no longer be in Pittsburgh. Chris Chelios might even be retired.

So why worry? Focus on trying to win now.

That said, Shero will have to do some serious managing over the next few years as he tries to oversee the Penguins payroll as the financial demands of these young players skyrocket. Crosby will be a "max" player after next season, entitled to 20 percent of the cap, and Malkin might be in a similar situation a year after that.

This, of course, is what the new CBA was supposed to create, a level playing field that would allow the better managers to distinguish themselves by the quality of their work, not the size of their budgets.

Down the line, Shero will surely have to make tough decisions regarding his young stars. Maybe he won't be able to keep all of them.

This, however, won't be that different from what has happened in the past with teams that developed championship clubs by accumulating piles of young talent.

Take those Nordiques. They drafted Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros first overall in consecutive years, but when they won it all as the Colorado Avalanche in 1996, none of those players were on the roster. All had been traded for various reasons and in exchange for packages of varying quality.

The New Jersey Devils certainly didn't plan on losing Brendan Shanahan to free agency when he was only 22 years old in 1991, just four years after being the top pick in the draft. But when the Blues signed Shanahan, the Devils argued that they should be compensated with defenseman Scott Stevens, and Stevens ended up wearing the "C" for three Cup winners in East Rutherford.

In 1997, Tampa Bay drafted Paul Mara seventh overall and envisioned him as a future Norris Trophy winner. Four years later, however, the Bolts peddled Mara to Phoenix in a deal that brought goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to central Florida. Three years later, the Lightning were Stanley Cup champs with Khabibulin between the pipes.

So the future of the Penguins and their ability to win a Cup can't be solely dependent on whether Crosby, Fleury, Malkin and Staal all continue to play for the team. In fact, it seems highly unlikely that all four will be there if, and when, the Penguins win the third title in team history.

It's cold and calculating, but all four young men are simply athletic assets; it's up to Shero to move those chess pieces in the most profitable manner.

And right now, he certainly doesn't have to be in a hurry.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.