Shero’s Toughest Decision Yet Looms on Post-Olympic Horizon

Former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Craig Patrick did it in 1991, and then again in 1992.

Current Pens GM Ray Shero did it 2012.

They made very difficult decisions to trade away very good players for the betterment of their team.

And unless Shero pulls the trigger on a blockbuster prior to February 7th (the NHL’s Olympic roster freeze), he’ll have roughly the next four weeks to mull over another similar decision.

That decision… Will be whether or not to trade away Kris Letang.

Easy and Not So Easy

Jordan Staal
Jordan Staal after being acquired by the Hurricanes (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Think back to the 2012 Entry Draft, when Shero pulled the trigger with the Carolina Hurricanes on the Jordan Staal trade.

Nearly a week prior to that trade, Shero offered Staal the exact same contract that Staal signed immediately after being dealt to Carolina. Ten years and $60 million. Once Staal turned down the Pens’ offer, it became clear to Shero that the trade needed to happen. It was a no-brainer to call up Jim Rutherford in Raleigh and lay out the parameters of the ‘Canes adding captain Eric Staal‘s brother to their roster.

Knowing that Jordan wasn’t going to resign in Pittsburgh the following season upon entering free agency made Shero’s decision an easy one. In this case, trading Kris Letang is far from simplistic.

The Penguins are under zero pressure to make something happen here. Letang already signed his contract extension, and a very team-friendly one at that; considering what he could have gotten on the open market (think $8.5-$9 million/year). That shows Letang’s commitment to winning with this organization, or more simply put: his loyalty.

Letang quickly became a fan favorite after his breakout season in 2009, also the same season of the Penguins’ last Stanley Cup victory. But he has since come under fire – and to a degree rightfully so – for lackadaisical play in his own end, and not producing in the offensive zone.

He is still a fan favorite around the Steel City, and I include myself in that group. But just remember one thing, you don’t always win a trade by acquiring the most talented player (subtle teaser).

Lack of Forward Depth

The fact is, the 2013-2014 Pittsburgh Penguins – as currently constructed – are not a team that I see competing for the Stanley Cup come June.

When you consider that the bulk of their scoring is coming from their top two lines and their power play, an offensively anemic bottom-six group won’t get the job done in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A team needs depth up and down their roster. For the Penguins, their depth lies in their defense and goaltending, not within the forward group.

Oh sure, guys like Jayson Megna, Andrew Ebbett, Brian Gibbons and Chuck Kobasew have filled in admirably thus far in the regular season; while mainstays and undoubtedly more talented players like Pascal Dupuis, Beau Bennett – and at times James Neal and Evgeni Malkin – have been shelved with injuries.

Shero’s task will be finding that depth amongst the NHL’s “sellers” rosters on or prior to March 5th.

This will not be a season in which Shero looks for the typical NHL trade deadline “rental” player. Instead, – especially after last year’s debacle of acquiring Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow and Douglas Murray – he will look to acquire players under team control.

And relatively young players at that.

In order to pull this off, Shero will need to be willing to move a big time piece of the current puzzle to get back what this team needs. Let me say that again: what this team NEEDS.

Right off the bat, this team needs to find a replacement for Pascal Dupuis. The combination of Jayson Megna/Chuck Kobasew/Brian Gibbons simply isn’t working. None of those three players fill the role that Dupuis did when his knee was healthy. None of the three has the pedigree of a top-6 forward. In fact, Megna and Gibbons weren’t even drafted.

Beau Bennett was thought to be a top-6 guy, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy for any length of time to show the coaching staff what he can do with a legit opportunity.

Top Six vs. Top Line

I hear the phrase “top six” when mainstream hockey pundits refer to what Ray Shero and the Penguins are looking for. I’ve decided that I don’t agree with that.

(Consider this: Evgeni Malkin and James Neal play on the Pens’ “second” line. I put quotations around the word “second” because on just about any other team in the NHL (excusing the Ducks and Blackhawks) those two would be on the top line.)

No, the Penguins aren’t looking for a guy who is more likely a second-line winger; whom they hope can make magic with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. They’re looking for a top-line winger with a proven track record and a high pedigree.

I admit, Pascal Dupuis is not that guy. But the chemistry that he had with Crosby and Kunitz is unmistakable.

Two of the names linked to the Penguins in recent weeks have been Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane, both of the Winnipeg Jets. Wheeler plays on the Jets’ top line with Andrew Ladd and (usually) Brian Little. Kane meanwhile, sees his time on the second unit with Olli Jokinen and Mark Scheifele/Michael Frolik.

Either of those two wingers (Wheeler a right wing, Kane a lefty) would look fantastic on alongside Crosby and Kunitz. But do you think that Simon Despres and a first round pick will pry either of them out of Winnipeg? HIGHLY doubtful.

The Value of Letang

Kris Letang
An injury to Kris Letang has continued the Penguins defensemen version of the circle of life. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

In Kris Letang, the Penguins have a defenseman whom Bob Errey – former Penguins’ winger and current Penguins’ TV analyst – described just last week as “not even scratching his (Letang’s) potential’s surface.”

In other words; for all of his miscues and bone-headed decisions with the puck over the past 3 seasons, Kris Letang is a game-changing defenseman. If he stays healthy for the remainder of this season – and remember that you heard it here first – he will win the Norris Trophy.

He’s as fleet afoot as you’ll find in the NHL. He almost seems to glide up the ice when carrying the puck, making it look nearly effortless. When his mind is right (when he’s thinking like a defenseman) he’s nearly as shut-down as there is. Letang can lay a huge check on an opposing player, then skate the puck out of danger in his own end immediately after.

Then there is his offensive upside. Along with his aforementioned skating ability, his hands are like velvet: Smooth. He carries the puck with ease, can deke an opposing d-man out of his skates, and with a flick of the wrist the puck is in the back of the net off his BACK hand.

He’s not a visible leader on this team, but then again he’s not asked to be. In the right situation I believe Letang could be an invaluable cog in the leadership wheel.

The Craig Patrick Trade of 1991 & 1992

Avid (and old enough to remember) Penguins fans will remember that in February of 1992, former GM Craig Patrick made a deal with hated in-state rival Philadelphia; acquiring winger Rick Tocchet, defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, and goalie Ken Wregget for Brian Benning and the beloved Mark Recchi. Patrick said after the trade that it’s not always about acquiring the best players, but the right players.

Even go back a year further to 1991, when Patrick pulled off arguably the biggest heist in Penguins history by acquiring Ron Francis, Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuellson from the Hartford Whalers for Zarley Zalapski, John Cullen and Jeff Parker.

The lesson to be learned there is precisely what Patrick said regarding the ’92 trade with the Flyers.

The Trade that Needs to Happen

Evander Kane
Evander Kane (Bruce Fedyck-US PRESSWIRE)

As long as you can come to grips with the idea that the Penguins may not receive the best player in return in a potential deal involving Kris Letang, then you should be able to live with this:

Shero should call Winnipeg and offer up Letang to (Jets’ GM) Kevin Cheveldayoff for Evander Kane. Straight up, or throw in a draft pick if need be. The Penguins would trim $2 million (beginning next season once Letang’s new contract extension actually kicks in) from their roster in the deal, perfect for resigning Matt Niskanen (sure, this can be the jump-off where I start lobbying for his return to Pittsburgh).

Kane is young and fast, a gifted scorer, and is under team control through the 2018-19 season.

In other words, exactly what the Penguins are looking for.

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6 thoughts on “Shero’s Toughest Decision Yet Looms on Post-Olympic Horizon”

  1. Although I agree with some points of this article, there is one sentence that really bugs me. “In fact, Megna and Gibbons weren’t even drafted.” I would like to point out that both Kunitz and Dupuis were undrafted players and are now, when healthy, part of one of the top lines in hockey. I dont think these guys should be evaluated on their pedigree and draft position, or lack there of. I understand that the Kobasew experiment is over as it should be. Megna has displayed speed, but I dont think he will be a NHL regular in his career. But looking at Gibbons, he has played fairly well on the top line. Granted he is untested and it is risky to move into the playoffs with a rookie in the top line role. But in his limited playing time this season with the big club, he has 7 points in 16 games, just shy of 0.5 ppg, and Dupuis before injury had 20 points in 39 games, just over 0.5 ppg. I believe there is some merit then to give Gibbons a chance. He has put in his time in the AHL and is proving that he can be effective in the NHL. Top line player? Maybe not, but would I be willing to go into the playoffs looking at a rotation of Gibbons, Beau, and even Pyatt with Sid and Kuni, quite possibly. Lets be honest with coach Disco, line combinations change constantly throughout the game anyway. The pens top two lines are scoring, their D is scoring, the only place they arent scoring is in the bottom six. I think I would rather shore up some scoring in the bottom six than anything else. Whether that happens through a trade for a top line winger and a trickle down effect, or for a bottom six winger has yet to be established. In summary I think we need to give credit where credit is due, and I think Gibbons deserves some credit.

  2. I am all aboard the trading Letang ship, solely because of the potential return that you can receive for him. That being said Evander Kane isn’t enough. That doesn’t mean he’s not a great fit as well as a welcome addition, it’s just not enough of a return on an upper echelon offensive defenseman. The two biggest issues I see in your proposal is that first you suggest that next year is more viable. I believe that next year is less viable given the Limited NTC that kicks in for Letang. Pair with it the no movement clause, meaning unless Letang wants to go there, your value of return is diminished. Therefore you must strike now while Shero is free to make a move and Letang’s faults are still being deemed fixable.

    The second issue is the trade partner of the Jets. Their D core is built up with Bogosian, Enstrom, Byfuglien, and Trouba. Certainly everyone is looking to get better and Letang would help them but adding a 4th defensive player making over 5.1 million a season isn’t going to make Winnipeg competitive, nor help their long term cap numbers. The Jets need to get better offensively as their front six boasts Wheeler who seems to finally be scratching the surface of his potential, Kane who is a solid player, a descent offensive talent in Bryan Little and then potential of Mark Scheifele. Based on that it seems the Jets would be dealing from an area with a lack of depth for a position of strength. I know the D’s play is not the Jets’ strength on the ice (currently they’re 21st in Goals Against Average) but let’s be honest, adding Letang probably won’t improve that position. Given all of that, it’s why I feel the Jets are not a good potential trade partner. Would love to get Kane, but I don’t think Cheveldayoff is likely to make a deal.

    Looking at Shero’s tactics and the current landscape of the NHL it seems that likes trade partners are Edmonton, Buffalo, and Montreal. I speculate this based on 3 things.

    First, their GMs. Shero seems to be a guy that preys on teams with some uncertainty and/or inexperience in the front office. Nothing wrong with that. Anaheim was in a weird situation with Burke leaving in 2008 for Toronto, it seems that Ducks were reacting to the season not in control and that lead to the opportunity for the Whitney-Kunitz/Tangradi deal. Go forward a few years and Nieuwendyk was in over his head with the ownership issues, as well as being a rather inexperienced GM. That leads to the Goligoski-Neal/Niskanen trade. Looking at the league Lowe and Mactavish in Edmonton seem to be in some odd turmoil. Buffalo is just coming through their front office changes and Murray is looking to put his stamp on the team, and finally Bergevin in Montreal may be on the hot seat and looking to right a sinking ship.

    Second the teams’ lack of current success meriting a big ticket return on a trade. For Edmonton another year at the bottom of the league and they still have the difficulty of attracting top talent via free agency. With the trades being made already, they’re looking to deal guys and Letang could be key cog for them given the fact that they have only one defenseman signed past this season. It’s similar in Montreal where there is a lack of defenseman signed to long term deals. With PK Subban negotiations not going well, why not bring in a similar player and then market the future RFA to strengthen the team long term. Plus if Letang got 7.25 what will the guy who beat him for the Norris Trophy get? Letang offers cost certainty. With Buffalo again Letang offers a long-term option for team that has 3 defenseman past this season. Letang’s deal makes him worthwhile to many teams because they get him for 8 years at a deal that in 5 years may look like a steal.

    Finally, the return. With GM situations, lack of long-term deals, and teams that aren’t meeting the mark, these teams are ripe to be picked. Desperation = overpaying and Shero (going back to the first point) knows how to take advantage. My hopes (and I’m still probably thinking too grandly)

    EDM: David Perron and either Sam Ganger or Nail Yakupov. Perron is a solid big body player who could produce with Sid, then Ganger due to skill but he may be too valuable to Edmonton now, or Yakupov a player with a ton of upside but “attitude problems.” I do think if he’s on a winning team with Malkin that could shore up some of those issues.

    MTL: Pacioretty and Bournival. Two talented offensive players who can immediately shore up the team on the front end. Probably would have to send picks each way for it work.

    BUF: Honestly don’t have a good handle on this one, just think the potential is there. I would think Shero would aim higher than rentals like Mouslon or Ott. But picks and some of the young talent like Grigorenko, Girgensons, or Armia would do fine paired with a rental.

    Overall, I’d be looking for a package netting 2 high caliber players/prospects and a draft pick. If I were really shrewd, I’d try for 2015 1st rounders and get as many horses in the McDavid race as possible.

    THE ALTERNATE THEORY: Letang = Coffey.

    Paul Coffey always seemed to be “the missing piece” for a contender. He could be brought in for a stiff price and help you get to the next level. Not sure if the Pens would go for helping a potential playoff contender but if the deal is right. Some teams that could be in that race would be Vancouver, Minnesota, or Colorado.

    Sorry so long, it’s just a topic I’ve been ruminating on for some time.

  3. Here is why it won’t happen, the majority of active teams are at or above the cap for this year severely limiting viable trade partners. Second Shero is no dummy and will wait at least until next year to recognize Latangs true trade value in a year when the trading window isn’t cut short by the Olympics. Lastly, they don’t need Evander Kane to win a cup they need a viable wing which Shero will find. #insherowetrust

  4. Sorry Tanner, but I don’t think you’ll ever be considered for Fred Shero’s replacement. On one hand you say Kris Letang will win the Norris Trophy THIS YEAR, which would take an unbelievable performance in the last 30 games. On the other hand you say he’s worth no more than an even trade or less for Evander Kane, a good player, no doubt, but not even on the top line of his team. I think Kane would be a great fit for Crosby and Kunitz, but not worth an even trade for Letang.

    • Hi Dean, and thanks for commenting!! I’ll start by asking who you think will win the Norris this season if not Letang, although I somewhat agree that he’ll have to an amazing final 30 games or so. But who do you think the Pens should acquire for Crosby’s line, and what would it take to land your suggestion?? Or, what/who else should the Penguins acquire along with Kane in a deal involving Letang?

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