To kick off what should be an interesting 48 hours leading up to Wednesday’s trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired defenseman Jordan Leopold from the Florida Panthers for a 2nd round pick in 2010.
Whether GM Randy Sexton is acquiring draft picks in the hopes of being able to deal them for actual players this summer remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. He has promised that there won’t be a “fire sale” at the deadline, but this won’t be the last move the Panthers make between now and 3:00 pm Wednesday. Rumors have been swirling around the Panthers all through the break, and Sexton himself has said that no one is untouchable.
For the Panthers, the deal was inevitable; yet for Pittsburgh this deal is a bit curious. In our Trade Deadline Gameplan last week, two voids were identified that GM Ray Shero would be looking to fill heading into the playoffs: scoring wingers and shutdown defensemen. Although Shero has a penchant for uncovering surprising names at deadline time, it’s hard to see how this move by itself drastically improves the Penguins.
Leopold, at 6’1, 200 lbs, is a former Hobey Baker winner at the University of Minnesota. His NHL career got off to a quick start in Calgary where he played a key role in the Flames 2004 Stanley Cup Final run. After being traded to the Colorado Avalanche that summer, high expectations were dashed by a string of injuries before being dealt back to Calgary. Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma found that piece of information interesting:
“You’re getting a guy that went to the Stanley Cup Final. I think it says a lot that Calgary re-acquired him after that.”
I touched base with Selvig for some further thoughts on Leopold from a Florida Panthers point of view, and he indicated “he hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been great. I guess he’s…consistently average.” Selvig’s feelings echo the reasons this trade doesn’t quite fit. Leopold’s offensive, puck-moving abilities will fit in well in Bylsma’s up-tempo system that relies on defensemen jumping in to join the rush. His playoff experience and ability to match up with the top forwards on opposing team’s begins to fill the gap left by Rob Scuderi. But a second round pick for a player who struggled to stand out on a mediocre Florida Panthers team?
Bob Pompeani of KDKA in Pittsburgh reported “the Penguins were offered [Raffi] Torres for the same 2nd round pick” and turned it down. Trading a second rounder to Columbus for Torres would have been just as questionable, but higher picks are some of the most valuable ammo in Shero’s cache right now. There simply aren’t many areas on the Penguins that Shero can dip into without leaving the team weak at one spot or another.
Contract extension talks with Sergei Gonchar broke down over the Olympic break, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The Penguins likely offer was shorter and far less than what Gonchar feels he deserves. If he’s not willing to take a discount to stay, he may be a hot commodity in a mediocre free agent market this summer. Although also an upcoming free agent, Leopold provides another option for the Penguins over the long-term should they end up losing Gonchar.
Leopold’s arrival may also be merely an appetizer to a much bigger move in the next two days. The Penguins now have eight defensemen with one-way contracts on the roster. They employed that approach last season with success, but right now they are uncomfortably close to the salary cap.
One option would be to place a guy like Martin Skoula on waivers and hope he’s claimed or his salary can be buried in the minors. Another option might include a trade of one of the current defensemen. Rumors have circulated since the Leopold trade became official that Alex Goligoski or Gonchar may be on the next flight out of Pittsburgh, but neither would make much sense. Goligoski is signed to a very reasonable contract averaging $1.8 million per year through 2012 and replacing Gonchar, without even considering his no-trade clause, would be far too difficult for the Penguins to overcome.
That leaves Kris Letang as the intriguing final piece to Shero’s reconstruction of a contender. The thought of losing Letang’s raw ability and potential gives Penguins fans nightmares of trading away Markus Naslund far before he hit his prime, but his upcoming restricted free agent status this summer is a big reason for concern. With such a large portion of the salary cap already locked up in the core of Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, and Orpik, it won’t be easy for Pittsburgh to pay the pretty penny Letang probably knows he can fetch as a restricted free agent this summer.
He’s a 21 year old defenseman with two trips to the Stanley Cup Finals already on his resume, and is an ideal prospect to build a team around. In a perfect world without a salary cap, Ray Shero wouldn’t think twice about taking any money he’s set aside for resigning Gonchar to pay Letang. Unfortunately, this isn’t that world and trading Letang might fetch a return that puts this team over the top, especially with Leopold prepared to step in and contribute immediately as a replacement.
For the patient Shero to pull the the trigger immediately following the Olympic roster freeze, it seems to indicate he has more tricks up his sleeve. While anything at this stage is purely speculation, it still feels as if the other shoe has yet to drop.