- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2008

First, the hometown kid and the cult hero left town. In the following days, the prize fighter, the agitator, the backup goalie who saved the season, the training camp long shot and the captain’s high-flying sidekick all joined the exodus.

From April to early June was an exciting time for the Pittsburgh Penguins during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals, but late June and early July were something different. General manager Ray Shero was faced with trying to reshape his roster after a flurry of defections.

Six of the Penguins’ top 13 forwards and the backup goaltender left the team.

“The better you do, the more other teams are going to want your guys,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “We were aware that we had a bunch of free agents, but it was something that we didn’t talk about during the run. Honestly, we didn’t have much time to think about after the season. A lot of the guys were such good friends, and it was such a tight group - that was probably the hardest part.”

While the Penguins and Washington Capitals have both enjoyed success in Phase I of rebuilding a franchise in the “New NHL,” how they fare in Phase II - sustaining the success - remains to be seen.

The Penguins endured post-lockout economic problems this summer. Shero had to let popular role players like Georges Laraque, Jarkko Ruutu and Adam Hall go to teams willing to offer multiyear contracts. The Penguins would have liked to keep Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone but not at a price tag of more than $5 million a season.

Shero pushed hard to keep Marian Hossa, who meshed well with Sidney Crosby, but to no avail. He retained Orpik and gave long-term extensions to Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.

What started as a nightmare offseason ended up looking a little better now that Shero has five players (Malkin, Fleury, Orpik, Ryan Whitney and Crosby) signed through at least 2013. The Penguins also filled in the missing pieces with other free agents. Shero found a new pugilist (Eric Godard), a new agitator (Matt Cooke) and two new wings in Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko.

What the Caps and Detroit Red Wings did this offseason - suffer little roster turnover - will be the exception to the norm in the post-lockout NHL.

“The way you plan against it is try to sign the guys you want to keep,” Washington general manager George McPhee said. “You’re not going to be able to keep everybody in this new cap system, and sometimes when you play well people are more attracted to some of your players and think they are better than they are.”

So do the Caps have a similar fate awaiting them? Although McPhee has locked up Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green, there will be decisions to make in the coming seasons.

The Caps have 10 players who are not under contract for next season. There are unrestricted free agents like Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Donald Brashear as well as restricted free agents like Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz.

While GMs will try to put the best team together they can for that specific season, there has to be long-term planning involved as well. The Caps can’t overspend on any of those 10 players, because McPhee will need expensive extensions for Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin by the next offseason.

“Eventually it will happen, but we have guys that are under contract for two to three years, especially the top guys that are coming up through the system,” Caps captain Chris Clark said. “For the most part, I think we have two to three years to really have a dominant team with this group. Once that point comes, we’ll see what happens. It all depends on how successful we are.”

Success can hurt the chances of keeping the team together. It seems that a preferred model for dealing with the salary cap has materialized around the NHL - identify a group of core players and lock them into long-term contracts and fill out the roster with short-term solutions.

Franchises like Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have young cores, so those teams can expect to contend for years to come. The keys to maintaining success are getting some of the core players to take a little less money than they might get on the open market, complementing them with inexpensive talent (through the draft) or bargains (through free agent signings/trades), and adding players who will not have a negative impact in the dressing room.

“The players we brought in are great guys, so they’ve fit pretty well in the dressing room,” said Penguins forward Jordan Staal, who is due a contract extension after this season. “When it happens, it happens. I am just trying to focus on having a good year, and when the time comes, I am sure it will happen.”

Added Orpik: “It started with Sid. People talk about taking less money - obviously at the end of the day it is still a lot of money - but I think he got the ball rolling taking less money than he could’ve gotten somewhere else, and it has kind of filtered down through with the other guys who have stayed.”

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