By Mike Colligan
Sidney Crosby scored his 40th, 41st, and 42nd goals over the weekend, pulling him into a tie with Alexander Ovechkin in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer. Crosby’s new-found scoring touch has led to an amazing 56 goals in his last 82 games – no small feat for a star branded as a ‘playmaker’.
After a bit of a midseason slump, Evgeni Malkin has stumbled upon quite a streak of his own, with points in 13 straight games. It would be hard to argue there’s a more dangerous 1-2 punch in the NHL when these two players are at the top of their games.
The Pittsburgh Penguins most recent playoff runs to the Stanley Cup Finals have been dictated not only by Crosby and Malkin’s impressive postseason play, but also key trade deadline acquisitions by General Manager Ray Shero. In 2008, Shero snagged prized rental Marian Hossa, and followed that with veteran winger Bill Guerin last March. Given the benefits both players provided, Penguins fans naturally expect Shero to pull the trigger once again when the Olympic roster freeze lifts at midnight on February 28.
Postseason success often leaves management with the challenge of either overpaying mid-level free agents, or losing them to the open market. Shero was smart not to overpay players like Ryan Malone, Rob Scuderi, and Hal Gill who all left Pittsburgh for big paydays in recent summers. Unfortunately, this also left the Penguins with a lack of scoring wingers and shutdown defensemen.
Let’s take a look at two players who are sure to be on Shero’s radar in an attempt to fill these voids heading into the postseason:
Marek Svatos – RW – Colorado – 5’10 185 lbs
With just six goals and four assists in 43 games, Svatos has been a huge disappointment in Denver this season. After tallying 32 goals in 2005 and 26 goals in 2007, expectations were high for the 27-year-old winger. Despite a slow start, first-year head coach Joe Sacco was happy with Svatos’ effort before injuries derailed his season – a seemingly common theme in his young career. His defensive play slipped and in a new system that wasn’t resulting in offensive production, Sacco was forced to move Svatos down the lineup and eventually to the press box as a healthy scratch. The emergence of second-year winger Chris Stewart and rookie Brandon Yip, along with the veteran presence of Darcy Tucker all at right wing means Svatos is the odd man out. Both player and coach have made it known they are unhappy with the situation and a trade looks to be the best remedy at this stage.
You may be thinking an injury-prone inconsistent player like Svatos is not the Ray Shero type, but despite what some have reported the opportunities to upgrade offensively will be slim at this year’s deadline. Ray Whitney has become the premier rental and it’s hard to imagine the Penguins will overpay Carolina for his services. The Maple Leafs’ Alexei Ponikarovsky would be the ideal fit at 6’4, 220, but rumors indicate at least ten teams are in talks with GM Brian Burke in Toronto.
Svatos will become a Unrestricted Free Agent this summer and will be looking to cash in on a successful change of scenery. His $2.05 million cap hit is easy enough to swallow for the Penguins, who have room to acquire approximately $2.5 million in salary according to capgeek.com. When at the top of his game, Svatos boasts a quick shot and the ability to finish, a skillset not unlike that of Marian Hossa who found quite a bit of success in his short stint alongside Crosby.
Behind the Penguins’ bench, assistant coach Tony Granato is very familiar with what the Slovak winger brings to the table. Granato coached the Colorado Avalanche last season and often spoke to Svatos’ heart and work ethic, two characteristics that have become staples of the Shero’s teams. Injury concerns aside, acquiring Svatos for a mid-round pick would be a low-risk, high-upside potential move.
Dan Hamhuis – D – Nashville – 6’1 203 lbs
There are a few more variables at play with Hamhuis. Two seasons ago, Sergei Gonchar became one of the league’s top overall defensemen after improving several weaknesses in his game, most notably his play in his own zone. After suffering recent shoulder, knee, and wrist injuries, his game seems to have taken a step or two back this season. With Scuderi’s departure over the summer, the Penguins are now very in need of a reliable shutdown defenseman.
Hamhuis would be the perfect fit as a smart, solid defenseman capable of shutting down the names like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk dotting the Eastern Conference playoff gauntlet. He will be an UFA this summer and carries a $2 million price tag. With big money already committed to defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, it looks increasingly unlikely that Nashville will be able to resign Hamhuis in the offseason, especially given his well-documented prior negotiations with GM David Poile.
The former first round pick does have his flaws, but all are easily accounted for by other defensemen already on the Pittsburgh roster. He doesn’t have a ton of offensive flash (countered by Gonchar, Letang, Goligoski) and isn’t the most physically imposing or ferocious hitter (countered by Orpik). His presence would also allow Gonchar to limit his minutes, a strategy that has at times allowed the Russian to dominate games from the back end.
Understandably, the asking price for a defenseman capable of handling a top-pair role will be a bit higher. Nashville also finds themselves in the midst of a playoff race of their own and despite an impressive stable of prospects including Alexander Sulzer, Jonathan Blum, and Ryan Ellis, the Predators need to make the playoffs this year to get the organization moving in the right direction. The risk of losing Hamhuis without receiving an effective replacement in return could force Poile to just ride out the duration of Hamhuis’ current contract and reassess in the summer.
If you’re searching for a Hamhuis reference inside the Penguins organization, look no further than GM Ray Shero who was assistant GM under Poile from Nashville’s inception in 1998 through 2006.
While Svatos and Hamhuis would be great fits in Pittsburgh, Shero has successfully built this organization on patience and prudence. If the market price is too high, there’s still a very good chance Shero does nothing at all at the deadline. Keep in mind this is a team that sits just one point behind New Jersey for the Atlantic Division lead and 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, despite being ravaged by injuries earlier this season. It was about this time last year that the team had hit rock bottom and Coach Michel Therrien was shown the door. It could be a lot worse.