By Kelly Haugh
As the Pittsburgh Penguins march through the Stanley Cup playoffs without superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pens fans are looking for another hero to step up…namely one with “superstar” as his nickname. And why not? Max Talbot is a legend in the ‘burgh for a reason, the fan favorite who steps up when the biggest games are on the line. Maybe that’s why Pens fans are ignoring the sad fact that this year’s playoff run might be his last chance to wow us in a Pens uniform.
Talbot will become an unrestricted free agent July 1 on a team already strapped for cap space, and he’s not the only one. Pascal Dupuis, Mike Rupp, Craig Adams, Alex Kovalev, Eric Godard, Chris Conner, Aaron Asham and Mike Comrie will all be free to sign elsewhere after the deadline passes but, though fans may miss a lot of those guys if they go, none will sting quite as much as the loss of “Mad Max.”
Talbot’s personality and willingness to make fun of himself in local commercials made him an instant fan favorite; his fisticuffs and shushing of Philadelphia’s fans that catapulted his team back from a 3-0 deficit to take Game 6 – and the series – of the first round of the 2009 playoffs made him a hero; his two goals in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals made him a legend. Pens fans will forever celebrate the mythos of Max Talbot with the same reverence they reserve for “The Save,” but it’s his work ethic, devotion to charity and embracement of all things Pittsburgh that led the fans to adopt him as an honorary Pittsburgher.
Like many of the current Penguins, under that playoff beard lies a genuinely good man with a heart of gold, but there’s something special about Talbot. He’s endeared himself to the fans in such a way that it’s unfathomable to think of him in anything but black and gold, but thanks to the current crop of free agents, Pens fans may have to get used to it.
With so many valuable players and so little cash to go around, Penguins GM Ray Shero is sure to have his work cut out for him. The current playoff games may be these players’ final chance to show management why they deserve a roster spot next season, which makes every time they step onto the ice a little more special. But in true Penguins fashion, the future free agents aren’t thinking about that stiff competition. Their focus is on only one thing: bringing home another Stanley Cup.
An April 17 Post-Gazette article posited that Talbot, Dupuis and Adams may very well be competing for the same roster spot, a matchup that underscores just how tough this free agency season will be on fans and managers alike.
On paper, Talbot’s numbers may not be stellar but they’re consistent, and his presence on the ice and in the locker room is unmatched. According to the Penguins’ website, he boasts eight goals and 13 assists in 82 games this season, and he’s already got one playoff goal under his belt a mere three games into the opening series. Dupuis, on the other hand, racked up 17 goals and 20 assists in 81 games, while Adams registered four goals and 11 assists in 80 games. All three can kill penalties and are sharp on defense, and Talbot has been cleaning up in the face-off circle. So how do they choose?
Dupuis and Talbot have both shown themselves to be versatile players who can slip into different roles as needed, and they’ve both had their moments in the spotlight. Talbot gets the edge in age, 27 to Dupuis’ 32, but his ability to make big plays when it matters could ratchet up his potential salary. He currently makes $1.05 million a year, but ESPN.com analyst John Buccigross foresaw a possible $2.5 million to $3 million a year paycheck in his near future when he was asked Nov. 30, 2010. Dupuis currently makes $1.4 million a year, with Adams coming in at the bargain price of $550,000, making him the obvious choice if the Pens are voting with their wallets, which may be the biggest factor in this equation.
However, there’s something else at work here. Pittsburgh has been blessed with a lot of selfless players who’ve chosen not to test free agency and have taken less money to stay with the team and city they love. Sidney Crosby set an honorable and long-term precedence for the Pens when he signed his five-year contract extension in 2007, and many of his teammates have followed suit, including fellow stars Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. Let’s hope honorary Pittsburgher Max Talbot does the same, as do more of his fellow free agents. It’d be a shame to shake up so much of the Pens’ family, especially if it means separating Talbot from his best buddy and partner-in-crime Fleury. That would surely be a sad, sad day in the ‘burgh.
Although Talbot is the top-priority and Pens fans will hope to see a mostly-unchanged and completely healthy team in the fall, it’s inevitable that the Pens will have to give up some good players and fan favorites in the grueling off-season. All good things, as they say, must come to an end, and I trust Shero to make the best decisions to ensure the team’s continued success … unless he lets Talbot sign elsewhere.
If they can keep Rupp, Dupuis and Conner too, that’d be great. Either way, it’s nice to know that Rupp will remain a philanthropic fixture in Pittsburgh and has already stated he’s moving his family here permanently.
“We always wanted to go to a place where we could just dig in,” he told Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette on April 10. “This is that place. This is where we want to raise our kids. Pittsburgh has been great to us.”
And he’s been great to us, as have Talbot and all the other Penguins. That’s why free agency is so rough for Pittsburgh fans: our teams are made up of such great guys that there aren’t many who don’t capture our hearts and become a real part of the community, so it hurts no matter who goes. At least it’s nice to know that no matter where they may end up after July 1, these players will always carry a piece of the ‘burgh with them. And, given Pittsburghers’ appreciation of history, their names will live on in the minds of Pens fans for a long time to come.
Thanks for the ride, guys. Now bring home the cup.