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Tough Goodbyes

Max Talbot has a special place in Pittsburgh sports history, having scored both goals in the Penguins’ 2-1 Game 7 victory in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final in Detroit.

Talbot, who one year earlier scored in the final minute of regulation of Game 5 of the Cup Final in Detroit to set the stage for a memorable triple-overtime victory, has always been a difference-maker in the playoffs.

This year was no exception; Talbot produced four points in a seven-game loss to Tampa Bay that enabled him to share the scoring lead on a team that was starved for goals. But it might also have been his final playoff series in a Pittsburgh uniform.

Talbot is one of several Penguins who will become unrestricted free agents on July 1. While the NHL salary cap is expected to grow next season, the team is only $3.6 million shy of the current cap of $59.4 million and has several players due raises next season. In other words, it will be a typical summer of difficult decisions for general manager Ray Shero.

Talbot made $1.05 million last season, but he’s not the most highly-paid unrestricted free agent on the team. Pascal Dupuis, who has played regularly on Sidney Crosby’s right wing in recent seasons and who has been an integral part of the Penguins’ penalty-killing units, earned $1.4 million this past season. They are joined by two key members of coach Dan Bylsma’s fourth line: gritty center Craig Adams, who earns barely above the NHL minimum at $550,000, and left wing Mike Rupp, who made $825,000 this season and has provided Bylsma a physical forechecking presence.

Also headed for free agency are right wing Arron Asham ($700,000), whose mediocre regular season gave way to a solid, if brief, playoff run; forward Chris Conner ($550,000), who enjoyed the best NHL season of his career; right wings Eric Godard ($750,000), Alexei Kovalev ($5 million) and Nick Johnson ($500,000); and forward Mike Comrie ($500,000).

Among the players who will become restricted free agents on July 1 are Tyler Kennedy ($725,000), who had the best offensive season of his career with 21 goals and was the team’s most consistent scorer after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went down; center Dustin Jeffrey, who had 12 points in 25 games after being summoned from the AHL when the Penguins were decimated by injuries; and Brad Thiessen, the best goaltender in the AHL this season and a player whose NHL future may be just a season away given the single year remaining on Brent Johnson’s contract.

Of course, Shero has to make his decisions looking at the team’s big picture. During the summer of 2012, Chris Kunitz will become an unrestricted free agent while both Eric Tangradi and James Neal—left wingers who certainly figure in the team’s future—will become restricted free agents. And promising defenseman Simon Despres, already signed, might be just a season away from the NHL.

Today’s NHL places a premium on speed and skill, and Bylsma’s approach places a lot of physical demands on his players. And when the Penguins believe they have young players who can provide that speed and skill and handle the workload, it becomes a question of balancing the experience you lose when cutting loose a veteran with the benefit you gain by tapping the potential of those younger players.

It’s never easy saying goodbye to guys who have been part of a championship team, but neither is there any room for sentimentality when running an NHL team. That’s why it’s likely one or more familiar faces won’t be around when the Penguins open training camp in four months.

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