Out of everyone in attendance at Consol Energy Center last Friday, Ray Shero became the biggest winner at the draft.
Even after Jordan Staal appeared to whittle his trade value down to nearly nothing, Shero was still able to strike a deal with Hurricanes' GM, Jim Rutherford, sending Staal to Carolina for a pick, a prospect and Brandon Sutter.
Shero wasn't done.
Later in the night, he traded Zbynek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes for a couple of prospects. The move was seen as more of a salary dump, clearing up $4 million in cap space. By the end of the first round, the Penguins reduced their payroll to roughly $55 million, clearing $15 million in cap space with the assumption that the salary cap will reach $70 million this upcoming season.
With $15 million to spend, the Penguins are now in prime position to pursue elite talent in free agency. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the top free agents this summer and both are rumored to be of high interest to the Penguins.
Parise is a friend of Sidney Crosby and many believe the Penguins are the favorite to sign him when free agency opens up on July 1st. Adding a 30+ goal scorer to Sidney Crosby's line would make last year's highest scoring team even more dangerous.
On the other hand, Parise can be seen as more of a luxury than a need. After all, the Penguins were bounced in the first round of the playoffs because of shoddy play on defense. Ryan Suter would certainly upgrade the defensive core of the Penguins. Suter, paired with Shea Weber in Nashville, became part of one of the top shutdown defensive pairings in the league. Not only is Suter sound defensively, he also possesses excellent offensive skills. Last season, he finished with a career high 46 points.
While signing both players is unlikely, the Penguins still have plenty of other options to upgrade both sides of their team. Players like Bryan Allen or Filip Kuba could provide a big body on defense while Ray Whitney or Shane Doan could provide a scoring touch with a veteran presence.
Regardless of how Ray Shero decides to attack this free agency pool, he cannot afford to miss. With $15 million and only a couple of roster spots to fill -Pittsburgh has 18 players signed- the Penguins have a golden opportunity to add enough talent to potentially become a dynastic team. But they need to make the right moves.
While Ray Shero has been extremely successful with trades, his free agent signings have left a lot to be desired. In the summer of 2008, the Penguins were unable to retain Marian Hossa after trading for him in the previous season. To be fair, Shero was successful in signing Matt Cooke and Ruslan Fedotenko who became role players during the 2009 Stanley Cup run.
In 2010, the Penguins traded for Dan Hamhuis's rights only to see him sign with Vancouver on the first day. Pittsburgh attempted to patch holes by signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. While both players had a solid first season with the Penguins, by the end of their second season they were appropriately named cap-casualties.
The Pittsburgh Penguins need to nail this year's free agency period. Ray Shero did a tremendous job moving players at the draft. He not only got a fair return for Jordan Staal, but he freed up a ton of cap space to get another big name that can hopefully put the Penguins over the top. If Shero lets Suter or Parise slip through his fingers the way others have, the Penguins' quest for the cup will become that much more difficult in the coming seasons.