With less than two weeks remaining until the Trade Deadline at 3pm on February 27, all is relatively quiet around the NHL.
The biggest name to change addresses so far in February is former Penguin Erik Christensen. Sure, fans in most cities would love to see their teams land Rick Nash, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and if possible all three at the same time, but blockbuster deals rarely happen midseason.
If a General Manager such as Columbus’ Scott Howson is smart, he waits until the offseason to trade Nash when other teams have far more flexibility and he’s able to create a true bidding war. (Perhaps Howson doesn’t expect to be leading the Blue Jackets this offseason, but that’s an article for another day).
The Pittsburgh Penguins under the guidance of GM Ray Shero have been a perennial ‘buyer’ at deadline time and haven’t been afraid to make a splash:
- 2007: Acquired Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque
- 2008: Acquired Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Hal Gill
- 2009: Acquired Bill Guerin, Craig Adams (waivers)
- 2010: Acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jordan Leopold
- 2011: Acquired James Neal, Matt Niskanen, Alex Kovalev
No Penguins fan will forget the shocking Hossa blockbuster in ’08, but many of Shero’s big moves were necessitated by factors that were unique to those particular seasons.
In 2008, the Penguins were an inexperienced group ready to take the next step. Shero’s acquisition of Hossa added a huge offensive piece to the mix and signaled faith in his young team. Pittsburgh made a surprising trip to the Stanley Cup Finals later that season.
Evgeni Malkin’s season-ending knee injury in 2011 gave the Penguins enough salary cap flexibility to trade Alex Goligoski for Neal and Niskanen. I’ve always believed that Goligoski was more likely to moved in the offseason for a similar, yet smaller return, but the injury to Malkin and the temporary financial pressures in Dallas created an opportunity for Shero to grab an elite goal-scorer in Neal.
Despite these big splashes, Shero sees the trade deadline as a time to add depth in areas of need, not overhaul the team with the addition and subtraction of substantial pieces.
Before discussing whether Player A would be a good fit with the Penguins or not, we need to evaluate the team’s situation and needs, the supply and demand of the market, and the type of player the Penguins look for.
Crosby and the Cap Situation
The first variable the Penguins need to address is the status of Sidney Crosby, and specifically his impact on the salary cap.
Crosby is currently skating on his own but was still experiencing concussion-like symptoms as recently as last week, according to coach Dan Bylsma. This update comes over two months after Crosby played his last game against Boston and was elbowed in the head by David Krejci.
The team remains optimistic that Crosby will make a return this season and that should come as no surprise. Ruling Crosby out for the season prior to the deadline would impact Shero’s leverage if he looks to acquire a replacement up front. (Read last month’s report on handling the Crosby situation for more information)
Without detailing the cap dynamics of various scenarios, the Penguins need to decide — and likely already have — whether Crosby may return in the regular season.
If that possibility still exists, Shero will have very little cap space to maneuver. Any trade that adds substantial salary to the roster will have to be accompanied by a similar cap hit heading the other way.
If Crosby is expected to miss the rest of the regular season, the Penguins will be able to replace most of his $8.7 million cap hit with replacement players. [Note: The salary cap disappears in the playoffs meaning Crosby would still be eligible to return then]
Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle showed the willingness to spend over and above the salary cap last season, but a big shakeup this late in the season could be risky. The Penguins rallied through adversity on and off the ice during their six-game losing streak in January. Shero will be looking to add an offensive threat if Crosby is done, but it’s never easy to predict how a new addition will impact team chemistry.
In this three-part preview, we’ll focus less on exact cap space required to make certain deals happen and more on good fits for the Penguins.
Preparing for Likely Opponents
One important deadline factor that’s rarely discussed is building a team to compete with probable playoff opponents.
Heading into Wednesday’s action, the Penguins sit tied for fourth place in the Eastern Conference with the Philadelphia Flyers. Both teams still have 26 games remaining, but they should probably start to get familiar with one another. According to SportsClubStats.com, there is currently a 57.8% chance the two teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs.
The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins are runaway favorites to win their respective divisions and lock down the top two seeds in the East. If the Penguins make a run to the Stanley Cup Final this season, the most likely path heads through Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
Competing with all three of these teams requires toughness as well as a ton of offensive and defensive depth. The Carolina Hurricanes, despite their lack of depth, have also provided a blueprint on beating the Bruins this season. Carolina swept the season series with the defending champs and Bylsma says his staff has been breaking down film from those games to gain insight:
[The Bruins] have great structure, great depth. They’re really sound both offensively and defensively. You see it every game they play. You also saw Carolina win four games against them playing with some speed and getting on them and forcing them with that speed. Carolina is not a real big team, but they did force them in a lot of ways.
The Penguins have a ton of speed on their roster and any new addition must possess the skating ability to survive in Bylsma’s up-tempo style. Sluggish defenseman Hal Gill played well under Bylsma’s first half-season when the new coach hadn’t fully introduced his system. Gill is three seasons older — and slower — and a return to Pittsburgh would probably be as successful as Alex Kovalev’s disappearing act last season.
Pittsburgh does need to upgrade their defensive depth though. The third pair of Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy got exposed in their first-round playoff loss to Guy Boucher and the Tampa Bay Lightning last year. Niskanen has bounced back to emerge as a potential #4 defenseman, but the Penguins still lack size and strength to clear the net in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. Against the three likely opponents mentioned above, toughness on the back end will be even more important.
It would also be wise for Shero to find a way to control Kris Letang’s minutes. Letang leads the Penguins with nearly 26 minutes per game (4:31 on powerplay, 1:39 on penalty kill). His role on the powerplay cannot be sacrificed, but adding a depth defenseman who is also capable of contributing on the penalty kill makes sense. Just because Letang is capable of playing big minutes, it doesn’t mean Bylsma should heap that responsibility on his shoulders if they want him to maintain a high level of play during the playoff grind.
Other Factors to Consider
~ The list of likely sellers (teams with less than 15% chance of making the playoffs) includes: Montreal, Winnipeg, NY Islanders, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Buffalo in the East. Minnesota, Anaheim, Edmonton, and Columbus in the West.
~ Carolina has already declared themselves sellers at the deadline, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be trading away every asset of value next week. The Hurricanes ($50.4 million in salary according to CapGeek.com) and other low payroll teams must stay above the salary cap floor of $48.3 million.
~ Pittsburgh is obviously not the only team looking to add offensive and defensive depth at the deadline. UFA forwards such as Tuomo Ruutu and Ryan Smyth, and defenseman such as Andy Sutton and Tim Gleason, have recently signed new contract extensions or been taken off the market by their respective teams. Shero may not have had direct interest in any of these players, but their unavailability shrinks the pool of options and drives up the price of getting that missing piece.
~ The 23-man active roster limit disappears after the trade deadline, but teams are still required to have no more than 50 professional contracts on the books. Shero has always done a good job managing this number (Pittsburgh has 47 after the Cal O’Reilly waiver claim). Some teams do not have that kind of flexibility. Just another reason why many big trades involving multiple pieces don’t happen during the season.
~ The elephant waiting around the corner this offseason is James Neal and his restricted free agent status. Neal is on pace for over 40 goals this season and could command a big raise on his $3.5 million salary this year. He’s also arbitration eligible which might make negotiations dicey. In our Penguins Blueprint series last season, we discussed Shero’s maturation as a GM and his strategy of always giving himself options. Don’t be surprised if the Penguins start preparing for talks with Neal by picking up a backup plan, should the young sniper decide to play hardball.
*In Thursday’s Part II, we’ll look at what assets Shero and the Penguins might be willing to sacrifice at this year’s deadline. Part III on Friday will contain possibilities the Penguins might be targeting based on the needs identified above.
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