Another NHL season is in the books. The Pittsburgh Peguins are the 150th Stanley Cup Champion since the trophy's creation in 1893, the Detroit Red Wings became the only franchise in the history of the NHL to lose more than one Game 7 at home in the Cup Final (1945 and 2009). The Blackhawks and Blues returned to the post-season, and the NHL saw its first all-California playoff series in 40 years. It was a great year and an amazing post-season for a league that is still trying to recover from the damage of the 2004-2005 lockout.
So what happens next?
This summer looks to be one of the most exciting in years. This year's draft class is one of the deepest in years (according to "experts," not me) and the free agency market isn't too bare either.
Which leads me to my review of the two Stanley Cup finalists.
Detroit, in my opinion, has the better chance to return to this point next spring. They have only six free agents and have plenty of young and hungry AHL players ready for a chance at the big time. The two big questions for Red Wings GM Ken Holland are Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson. Detroit can't afford to keep both of them and restricted free agent Jiri Hudler. Hossa is the obvious choice to keep, but does he want to stay? If he does, look for Samuelsson and Hudler to find new homes for the 2009-10 season.
Chris Chelios is another UFA-to-be question for Holland. Will the 42-year-old defenseman retire? Or, if he does return, will he continue to play for a low price tag.
Either way, Detroit has no serious issues because Chelios is the only free agent on their blueline and the AHL call-ups of D Jonathan Ericsson, LW Justin Abdelkader and C Darren Helm proved they are ready to play at the NHL level. The only AHL call-up that might not return next year is RFA-to-be Ville Leino, but he is yet another replaceable part in the big red machine.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has nine unrestricted free agents and, assuming everyone stays healthy, will not have the extra salary space to go over the cap like they did last season.
Bill Guerin will likely return and take a serious paycut from his $4.5 million cap number. I would be surprised to see Ruslan Fedotenko leave, especially after he had such a strong playoff run alongside Evgeni Malkin. The question marks up front are Petr Sykora and Miroslav Satan. Sykora faded in the second half of the season, and was replaced by Satan for the playoffs. Satan was sent to the AHL for a month, then was replaced by Sykora in Game 6 of the finals and likely would not have played in Game 7 if Sykora had not been injured. Which one do you keep? Neither had a great year, but both loved playing in Pittsburgh. Sykora reportedly loves playing with Malkn, and the two have had good chemistry the past two seasons. But Satan had the better playoffs.
On the blueline the Penguins risk losing Hal Gill, Philipe Boucher and Rob Scuderi. Gill and Scuderi are, in my opinion, irreplaceable for Pittsburgh (unless they broker some magical deal with Boston for Zdeno Chara or with Detroit for Niklas Lidstrom). That leaves Boucher as the odd man out, and he likely would have left anyways. Boucher can easily be replaced by AHL defenseman Alex Goligoski if the Pens can manage to keep him (Goligoski is a RFA). GM Ray Shero will also need to be careful with his spending this season because next year Sergei Gonchar and Mark Eaton will be unrestricted free agents.
Whatever is left after dealing with those issues will go to RW Craig Adams and G Mathieu Garon or their replacements. If Pittsburgh does keep Garon, he needs to play more. Garon played in only two games after being acquired by Pittsburgh for Dany Sabourin. Yes, Fleury was awesome, but even awesome goaltenders need a backup. Twice in three months is not enough for the amount of money Pittsburgh paid.
The Penguins will also want to find room in their lineup for C Mike Zigomanis. Zigomanis was called up to be a faceoff ace and he did not disappoint. A shoulder injury ended his season early, but he was healthy enough to lift 34.5 pounds of silver Friday night. Zigomanis is also an unrestricted free agent, but should be affordable because he spent most of last year either in the AHL or on long-term injury.