PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Pittsburgh Penguins made the first move to keep their core group of young players together, reaching terms Sunday with restricted free agent defenseman Ryan Whitney on a $24 million, six-year contract that will pay him most of his money at the end of the deal.
Whitney is to make $2.5 million in the 2007-08 season, with his salary rising from there. By backloading the contract, the Penguins improve their ability to re-sign stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal before they become free agents in five or six years, yet stay under the salary cap.
Giving Whitney a six-year contract assures the Penguins of keeping him for at least one season past when he would have become eligible for free agency.
Whitney finished sixth among NHL defensemen with 59 points (14 goals, 45 assists) last season, and has 20 goals and 77 assists in 149 career games. Whitney and Sergei Gonchar give the Penguins two of the NHL's top offensive defensemen, with Gonchar getting 13 goals and 54 assists last season. Gonchar has three seasons remaining on his $25 million, five-year deal.
With rookie defenseman Kris Letang apparently ready to play in the NHL after getting a brief trial at the start of last season, the Penguins would like to add another veteran defenseman who doesn't need to score a lot. Among those on the market are Detroit's Danny Markov and San Jose's Scott Hannan, who had four goals and 20 assists last season.
Hannan, a former first-round draft pick, broke in with the Sharks during the 1998-99 season and has played his entire career with them. He has 25 goals and 102 assists in 508 NHL games.
With Crosby winning the NHL scoring title and MVP award last season, and Malkin and Staal enjoying excellent rookie seasons, the Penguins made the playoffs for the first time since 2001. They won 47 games after winning only 22 in 2005-06, the fourth best turnaround in NHL history.
Whitney had left wrist surgery in April but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp in September.

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