The trade deadline is almost like a dance for polygamists. Everyone needs a partner, or two, or three. It's all about finding the right match to save your season, or prepare you for the next.
Some people thought the Penguins had found a match in erstwhile defenseman Hal GIll.
Gil was solid during his short spell as a Penguin, primarily because he has the wingspan of a pterodactyl. He handled a heavy load during the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup in 2009 and did so with aplomb. Yeah, he couldn't really pass or shoot, but that's didn't matter. That's not what the Penguins needed him to do.
With Gill now nearing the end of his contract, and Montreal not entertaining any thoughts of a playoff run, Gill suddenly became trade bait.
Meanwhile, the Penguins defense, an area of significant recent investment, has looked less than impressive this season. While Paul Martin has officially earned the mantle of Whipping Boy, Zbynek Michalek and Brooks Orpik haven't exactly offered up consistency this season.
Orpik, most noticeably, has been going out of his way to light up opposing skaters in the neutral zone. This provides for some wonderful 'WOW" moments, but isn't the recipe he used while developing into a top notch defenseman.
So yeah, you could say there's a need for a defenseman. But just because a defenseman is available, and was once a good fit in Pittsburgh, doesn't mean he's still a good fit in Pittsburgh.
Gill very much falls into the right spot, wrong fit category.
Gill and defensive partner Rob Scuderi logged more time on the penalty kill than any other Penguin during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, and no defenseman came even close to the number of minutes they spent on the ice short handed. Simply, they were great penalty killers.
To be a successful penalty killer, you don't need to handle the puck. Just take it from the other guy and send it deep. Oh, and don't give up any clean shots (they gave up relatively few, and combined to block 91 shots during the playoffs). Maybe clear the front of the net out while you're at it too. Yeah, they were good at all of that stuff.
Gill left that off season. So did Scuderi.
Their departure signaled a major shift in the Penguins' tactics on defense. Namely, Dan Bylsma wanted skilled skaters and offensively capable players going back to get the puck and bringing it back up ice. Go south, then quickly transition northward.
In their place, Letang and Alex Goligoski gained traction. Positional awareness in the defensive zone diminished. As did effective defensive stick work.
But the defense got faster. The breakout went smoother. The puck got to the offensive zone quicker.
Or, as I like to simplify the system, SKATE SKATE SKATE, DUMP, DUMP, DUMP, HIT, HIT, HIT.
You don't wear the team down in your zone, you wear it in their zone. On your terms. Players like Gill and Scuderi are good at what their particular, limited skill sets provide. It's just that those skills don't match up with what Bylsma's scheming for.
The departures of Gill and Scuderi coincided with this philosophical change, and as a result, the defensive corps underwent a metamorphosis.
Before Byslma arrived, Michel Therrien ran the ship. That ship sailed much more methodically on defense and less aggressively on offense than the vessel helmed by his successor.
The very first off season after Therrien's departure, the team had three starting defensemen set to test free agency: Gill, Scuderi and Orpik. All provide limited offensive upside, but only one was a strong (and very underrated) skater: Orpik.
When the team needed a defenseman at the 2010 trade deadline, they went for Jordan Leopold, a guy who can skate, put points on the board and hit a breakout pass.
When Shero dipped into the free agent market to invest in defensemen a few months after that, he paid a pretty penny for Michalek and Martin. For whatever faults they may possess, they're still defensemen who can skate and pass.
Is a pattern starting to develop here?
Niskanen was doing a lot of things wrong in Dallas, and especially in his defensive zone. But, he could skate, pass and put some points up.
Last spring, Dejan Kovacevic noted some of the radical tactics employed by the Penguins that newly acquired players, such as Niskanen, had to adjust to.
Armed with that, Bylsma and his staff have the defensemen follow a highly unusual method of puck retrieval when the opponent dumps into the Penguins end: Both defensemen pursue that puck. Whoever arrives first quickly chips to the other one nearby, and the other skates out of trouble and looks for the best outlet.
The standard method is to have the nearest defensemen pursue the puck and the other wait behind the net or the other side of the rink for an east-west pass.
"I've never seen anybody do this," said defenseman Matt Niskanen, acquired in a trade with Dallas. "But it's great. I'm really enjoying it."
The Red Wings and Minnesota Wild are using this puck-retrieval method now, and others are trying it. The Wild is doing so because it was head coach Todd Richards who, while coaching Wilkes-Barre two years ago, brought the idea to Bylsma.
"We actually have a number of variations on the puck retrieval, and our players take pride in that we can adjust that from game to game, even shift to shift," Bylsma said. "But that's the foundation of it: We want that puck right back."
Just last week, Josh Yohe penned a piece documenting Niskanen's improved play this season, and how difficult it was for he and Michalek to transition to that very same style of play.
Niskanen has proven, without debate, he is a solid NHL defenseman. He has only been a minus-2 or worse in a game three times this season. His two-way game and excellent skating fit perfectly into coach Dan Bylsma's puck retrieval system.
"He's finally comfortable," Reirden said.
Niskanen said the transition from Dallas to the Penguins wasn't an easy one.
Michalek can relate.
"It took me awhile, too," he said. "I know what he went through. But he's been so great all season."
They're comfortable. It just took months.
And that style is so hard to adjust to because it asks so much more of defensemen, both physically and in skill required. Skating back to your zone hard, fast all of the time. Getting the puck, getting it into the offensive zone ASAP, and joining the rush.
Types of things that are, no offense to the individual in question, beyond a guy like Gill.
So instead greeting the news that Nashville grabbed Gill before the Penguins did with dismay, as though a valuable asset fell by the wayside, greet it with reality. Gill simply doesn't fit in Pittsburgh anymore. That time has passed.
He's still a worthwhile investment for some franchises. It's just that one of those franchises isn't located in Pittsburgh.