Ray Shero’s plan for the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins became a little clearer Sunday morning.

According to the Penguins’ official website, the team has come to terms with James Neal on a six-year contract extension.

The average salary cap hit per season is $5 million, which will run through the 2017-18 season.

At first glance, I absolutely think this is a great deal for the Penguins. Assuming he stays healthy and has either Sidney Crosby (hopefully) or Evgeni Malkin setting him up, Neal could be a 35-40 goal a year guy.

Keep in mind, he’s only 24-years-old and will be hitting his prime during this deal.

At $5 million a year for a guy like that, I’m not complaining one bit. Time will obviously tell if this is a good deal or not.

However, the focus now has to shift to players currently on the roster as the Penguins try to manage their salary cap figures for the future.

Assuming the new CBA discussions go well and that the salary cap remains as a fixture in the “New NHL,” the Pens have a couple of large contracts looming.

Both Jordan Staal and Crosby will be entering the final years of their current contracts next season.

Currently, Staal is making an annual salary of $4 million, while Crosby is being paid $8.7 million. (Courtesy CapGeek.com)

Shero can’t start negotiations with either player until July 1, but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that Staal will be looking for a bit of a raise.

Perhaps he will seek a salary not necessarily equal to, but in the ballpark of Neal. Maybe $4.5 to $4.75 million? This is just pure speculation at this point.

Assuming Crosby also gets a raise, the Penguins will be dealing with seven contracts of at least $4 million (Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Staal, Fleury, Martin and Michalek) heading into the 2013-14 season.

At their salaries for the 2012-13 season, the Penguins will be paying a total of $40.4 million to those seven players.

Granted, the team is pretty well set heading into next season with only Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham, Richard Park and Brent Johnson slated to become unrestricted free agents.

Matt Niskanen and Cal O’Reilly are slated to become restricted free agents as well.

However, heading into the 2013-14 season, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, Tyler Kennedy, Dustin Jeffrey and Ben Lovejoy will all be seeking new contracts.

To have $40.4 million tied up at minimum presents some salary cap issues and could lend itself to Shero having to make a move or two to ice a complete and competitive team.

Figure Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang are all making at least $3.5 and the math suggests that someone may need to be moved.

In my opinion, the leading candidate to be moved is Martin. Fans have been all over him for the duration of the season and with good reason.

He hasn’t been playing close to the same level he played at last season and has looked completely lost on the ice at times.

Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres was one Martin would like to forget as he was a minus-four. Normally, I don’t put a lot of weight into the plus-minus rating as I think it’s a very loaded stat and can be easily manipulated.

However, Martin earned every bit of that rating yesterday from being out of position and not making good decisions around his own net.

I think the problem or at the very least, the perception that Martin is not performing, is due to his hefty paycheck.

The potential problem in trying to trade him is that he’s owed that contract for another three years after this season.

At $5 million, you expect the player to perform to the level deserving of that kind of contract. Last year, I had no issues with the deal once he got in the system and got used to playing with Michalek.

Now, Martin and Michalek have been broken up, with Martin dropping down to the third pairing with Deryk Engelland/Ben Lovejoy.

Meanwhile, the man who appeared to just be thrown into the Neal trade has asserted himself as a top four defenseman with this team.

Matt Niskanen has improved leaps and bounds over where he was last year. Much like Neal, I think this boiled down to getting used to being in a new city and having to learn a new system.

I’ve also heard people pointing fingers at Michalek this season, which personally, I believe is foolish.

However, the situation presents a sort of “chicken or the egg?” question.

Has Michalek been playing poorly, or has Martin’s play made him look bad by default?

I’ll let you decide.

In any event, I’m not sure what deals the Penguins may pursue leading up to the trade deadline. I wouldn’t be upset if they brought in another gritty forward who isn’t afraid to go to the net and score garbage goals.

A net-front presence was sorely lacking in their first round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. Dwayne Roloson had a very easy time of it in the cage and that’s never a good thing in the playoffs.

In conversations with other Penguins fans on Twitter, I’ve seen names such as Paul Gaustad (hat tip to self-described Gaustad super fan @ErikBlevins for making a case for him) thrown around.

I wouldn’t be opposed to taking a chance on Gaustad. At 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weighing 225 pounds, he could certainly create a lot of havoc in front of opposing goaltenders.

He’s a faceoff machine and won 16 of his 23 draws against the Penguins Sunday. He also scored a goal by being around the crease hunting for rebounds.

That is exactly the kind of play and player that wins you games in the playoffs. You have to pay a price if you want to have your name etched in silver.

At the end of the day, I won’t be upset if the Penguins decide to sit tight and go into the playoffs with this current roster.

Tyler Kennedy should be back in plenty of time to get his game legs back before the playoffs.

Of course, there’s always the hope that Crosby can get back into and stay in the lineup for the playoffs as well.

Like I’ve said before, if you can add arguably the best player in the world to your lineup without having to give up anything, that’s a deal any general manager, coach or fan in the world would love to make.

We’re gearing up for the best part of the year and the trade deadline signifies that the playoffs are just around the corner.

The next few days should be interesting to see how much more of Shero’s plan comes into focus.

You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice

For More Penguins Coverage Check Out Puck Talk With Popchock.


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