With the Pens on a ten-game winning streak and burying most of their Atlantic Division competition in the process, it's hard to fathom general manager Ray Shero making an earth-shattering move at the April 3rd trade deadline. If it ain't broke don't fix it, and all that. Regardless, Shero has never been one to sit on his hands on hockey Christmas, and despite the Pens' recent success there are areas for improvement.
Until the March 10th contest against the Islanders the Pittsburgh defense and penalty killing were inconsistent at best and downright lousy at worst.. The Pens were in the bottom ten in penalty killing and were allowing 2.95 goals per game; bottom five territory. Trade talk swirled around the blue line's inefficiencies and the fourth line's inability to do more than skate around aimlessly until Crosby and Malkin could catch their breath.
The common refrain was that the Pens needed to tighten up their defense and for crying out loud can't you guys kill a penalty? Turns out that yeah, actually, they can.
In their last six victories the Penguins have allowed six goals which -- according to my copy of Hockey for Dummies -- is very good. The Pens have killed 15 of their last 17 penalties for a rate of 88%, and this website says this rate is comparable to the top three teams in the league in this department. Also good!
[It should be pointed out that this winning streak started when Mark Eaton was recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and while he was used sparingly at first he's been active for the last six games. Eaton is a smart stay-at-home defenseman who always seems to be in the right place. He has an active stick and is willing to lay out (literally) to block shots with any part of his body. He is calm with the puck and has a knack for making the high-percentage play; he won't try the ambitious cross-ice pass (hi Dennis Seidenberg!) when banking the disk off the glass and out to neutral ice will serve just as well. I'm not saying that the Penguins' defensive resurgence should be entirely credited to Eaton's presence in the lineup, but certainly he's been a positive influence].
So now that the Penguins have mystically transformed their embarrassment of a defense into a ferocious beast of blocked shots, stick checks, and feathery-smooth transitions, and their offense will soon be back to 100% with Evgeni Malkin likely returning to the lineup Friday, where does Shero look at the deadline?
Well, it's complicated.
The Pens have ample salary cap space this season for a high-priced target (stop daydreaming about Jarome Iginla, it's getting creepy). But Shero has mentioned that he's not fond of the idea of parting with key prospects and early-round draft picks to take on an extravagant rental player for the remainder of this season. There are only ten games after the trade deadline and any addition to the team will have precious little time to get on the same page as his linemates before the playoffs start. The last thing the Pens want to do is trade Tyler Kennedy, Simon Despres, Brian Dumolin, and a first-round pick, for Iginla only to find that he's a bad fit for the team (and he would be).
Two things that are important to consider:
First, the team's health.
The Penguins play five more games before the trade deadline. Kris Letang is currently day-to-day with a cryptic "lower-body injury," and while it is not suspected to be serious, nobody really knows because when it comes to discussing injuries Dan Bylsma is more evasive than a politician. Malkin is out with an "upper-body injury" which includes several potential body parts. While the injury appears to be to his shoulder one could speculate that he is suffering symptoms from the concussion he sustained earlier this season. Again, that would merely be speculation, but if it's true the Penguins would need to figure out a way to survive the rest of the season and playoffs potentially without Geno.
And of course there could be other injuries sustained between Friday night's game and the trade deadline that could change the team's needs drastically.
Second: the future.
It's important to consider that the Penguins are approaching contract years for Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. A quick glance at Cap Geek gives you an idea of just how, uh, challenging (that's the kindest way I can put it) it is going to be to re-sign those two. With the megabucks contracts Anaheim doled out to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf (and lest we forget Geno's fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin, whose contract has an annual average value of over $9.5MM, and you better believe Geno would like to earn more than him) the market has been set quite high for 50-goal scorers who win Art Ross trophies. Combine this with the strong possibility of Kris Letang winning the Norris trophy this year (for reference, last year's Norris winner Erik Karlsson earned a contract last off-season with an AAV of $6.5MM) and the Penguins could find themselves in a situation where -- including Sidney Crosby -- they're spending over $25MM on three players.
It is unclear how much the salary cap will increase annually as the NHL's revenues escalate. In the interest of not mortgaging the future the Penguins targets at the trade deadline have to be either under contract for rather cheap or rental players that won't demand the house in return for their services.
At least, that's one way to look at it.
The other line of reasoning is that the impending free agency and salary cap concerns could mean the window on this team as currently constructed could be closed after the 2013-2014 season (and possibly sooner should the Pens decide they can't re-sign both Malkin and Letang and decide to try to get something for one of them in a trade before they hit the open market a la Jordan Staal).
Should they max out their cap space this year to make a go-for-broke cup run and worry about the future in the future? Or should they consider 2014 and beyond as they navigate the trade market? Is discretion the better part of franchise building? Ask the Blackhawks and the Red Wings and I bet you get two different answers.
So where does that leave the Penguins?
The call for a "top-six winger" has been made by so many Pittsburghers it has nearly replaced "Benigno Numine" as the city's motto. The trouble is, the Penguins don't need a top-six winger. Crosby (13G, 37A) seems to be hanging tough despite being stuck with those wet rags Kunitz (18G, 22A) and Dupuis (14G, 7A). Evgeni Malkin and James neal seem to be making due with some no-name AHL scab called Beau Bennett (2G, 6A, in 16 career NHL games, all of which have been played this season).
The top-four defenseman talk has been stifled by the aforementioned rebirth of the defense (an indication that their issues were more attributable to execution than personnel), and the strength and depth of defensemen the Penguins possess is enough to put those ideas of Jack Johnson (and his cap-crushing contract of $4.357MM per year until 2017-2018) out of our heads.
So that leaves us with the third and fourth line. Third-line-wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy are free agents after this season and it is unclear whether either will be re-signed by the team. This makes them potential trade bait, but Cooke's reputation may condemn him and Kennedy is, quite frankly, not that great of a player.
The fourth line has been this team's biggest disappointment this season. Tanner Glass was brought in to provide grit and toughness with a little bit (little, tiny bit) of scoring. This has not happened. His play is often suspect, and the numbers back that up. Glass is the only player having played all 31 games to record zero points, is a -8, leads this team with 38 PIM (only five fighting majors), is at best an middling penalty killer, and averages the second fewest minutes on the team at 10:15 per night.
Craig Adams, an unrestricted free agent after this season, provides a steady stream of life-sacrificing shot-blocking on the penalty kill and the occasional "How did Adams end up on a 2-on-1 with Sid?" moment that is well worth his $675k price tag. This isn't to say that Adams is irreplaceable, but for what it's worth he's well liked around here.
Joe Vitale wins faceoffs, skates hard, and looks great in a hockey helmet. His faceoff winning percent of 62.4 is better than Patrice Bergeron's 61.9, but he's taken 376 fewer faceoffs than Bergeron. This is important if you think sample sizes matter (and you should).
Between the six regulars on the third and fourth lines, all but one, Brandon Sutter, is replaceable. Cooke, Kennedy, Vitale, Glass, and Adams all can be upgraded to provide the Pens with their biggest need.
I'm not talking about John Scott or Steve McIntyre types whose job it is to play three minutes a night and get into fistfights. You don't need fighters to win playoff games, but you need to be tough to play against. There's a difference. Boston is a tough team to play against because they combine skill and grit. Brad Marchand will aggravate the hell out of you for three shifts, goad you into taking a retaliation penalty, then score a power play goal. Zdeno Chara and his fourteen foot long stick will stifle every cross-ice dish you try for two periods until you give up and start trying to make forty-foot cross-ice passes in the neutral zone that result in turnovers and odd-man rushes against your goaltender.
The Penguins used to have this quality. Jordan Staal used to gobble up ice with his terrifying wingspan and Hal Gill served as a human roadblock, eliminating everything from the boards on his side of the ice to the net and all the way up to his own blueline. Rob Scuderi defied opponents to win battles along the boards while blocking more shots than a shooter tutor.
These guys are gone, and they haven't been replaced.
Remember when Matt Cooke was the peskiest player in the league? That was until his sociopathic style lead to a spate of suspensions that called into question his future as a professional hockey player. In 2011, after costing himself ten regular season and seven playoff games with an elbow to Ryan McDonagh's head, Cooke spent an offseason thinking about what he'd done and returned to the ice a changed man. That change, unfortunately, has made him less effective. He is virtually immune to conducting himself anywhere even close to the edge of the rules, where he thrives. Matt Cooke is a decent player, but for him to be impactful he's got to be kind of a punk.
Glass seems either incapable of understanding his task of being "tough dude to play against" or unwilling to accept it. If he's not going to score (which is fine, the Pens have plenty of other people who can do that) he's got to at least make people suffer when he's on the ice, which he is not (79 hits, only five more than Chris Kunitz), or protect the finesse players, which he is not. When Dan Girardi flipped out on Crosby Saturday afternoon and popped him in the face a few times it would have been nice to know that Glass (or Cooke, or ANYBODY) was going to make Girardi aware that you can't just go around punching Sidney Crosby in the face without expecting to get a little back.
Deryk Engelland is another player who is relied upon for his sandpapery style. The problem with him is that he's just not been all that sandpapery this year. Plus, he's the seventh best defenseman on the roster (and he might not even be that, as Robert Bortuzzo has looked pretty good in his limited ice time). He gets playing time in place of Simon Despres when Dan Bylsma believes he needs more of a physical presence on the ice, but Engelland is not physical enough to resolve this line of reasoning. Further, his lack of mobility and unimpressive puck skills put him in a tough spot given the Penguins' emphasis on strong puck-moving defensemen.
As currently assembled this team is a Stanley Cup contender. The last ten games have proven that. They have beaten the Canadiens once on the road, the Maple Leafs twice in their barn, the Bruins twice at CONSOL, and blanked the Rangers. It would be hard to argue against Ray Shero should he decide to stand pat come April 3rd.
I expect he will make an acquisition, but nothing that would be described as a "blockbuster." In addition to the Penguins having no gaping holes, the standings are so tightly packed that only five teams in the league are five points or more out of the playoff picture. There simply aren't going to be that many teams looking to sell their best players.
This plays well for the Penguins who don't need other team's best players, they need other team's role players.
Shero's first year as general manager saw him pick up Gary Roberts from the Panthers for Noah Welch and Georges Laraque from the Coyotes for Daniel Carcillo and a 2004 third-round pick. No stars here, just depth and toughness.
Think about the 2007-2008 trade deadline in which Shero acquired Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from Atlanta for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a 2008 first-round draft pick. Indeed this was a blockbuster deal, with the main piece being Hossa, but as it turned out Pascal Dupuis -- who was a great depth guy in the 2008 playoffs -- became one of the Penguins' most important players the following year, and remains so today.
That same season the Pens traded a 2nd round pick in the 2008 draft and a 5th round pick in the 2009 draft for human bulldozer Hall Gill. Hossa was gone after one run at the Cup, but Gill and Dupuis -- the two unheralded acquisitions -- were key cogs on the 2010 championship team.
At the 2009 trade deadline the Penguins acquired Bill Guerin from the Islanders for a conditional draft pick in that year's draft. Yeah, you read that right. This trade ended up as part of the folklore of Ray Shero bamboozling rival general managers out of productive players for the proverbial bag of pucks, but at the time Guerin was brought on to be a depth player and someone who would provide extra toughness to the lineup. Nobody expected him to play like a superstar. His veteran presence was integral to the Penguins' 2010 Stanley Cup championship.
The same deadline saw Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi come over from Anaheim for Ryan Whitney. At the time Kunitz was a nice power forward, but the real prize in this trade was the prospect Tangradi.
I don't really need to tell you how this one ends, do I?
And of course there's 2011, during which Shero acquired a struggling young power forward with great potential in James Neal and a middling defenseman in Matt Niskanen for up-and-coming defenseman Alex Goligoski.
These are only the trades. Shero has made several key free-agent signings and his claim of Craig Adams off of waivers in 2009 was the ultimate grit pickup.
It's the Niskanens, the Gills, the Dupuis of the league that the Penguins need to round out their roster. The aforementioned Iginla and Johnson are nice players and certainly could be effective, but their impact on the future of this team's composition combined with their lack of a clearly defined role in the lineup going forward make them nothing but a couple of good players the Penguins don't need.
The inimitable Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers discussed how Chris Stewart of the Blues would fit on the Penguins, and I think this is just about perfect. He's a young guy who has shown flashes, had his struggles. He's Not too expensive, shouldn't require a bushel of top prospects to acquire, and should he play well in Pittsburgh, he's affordable.
These are just a few names; clearly there are others out there that aren't being talked about that would be effective in this lineup. The league is full of role-playing third- and fourth-line skaters that could potentially thrive playing behind the gobs of talent on the top two lines of the Penguins. Pittsburgh need players like this, not the splashy names that get the talking heads and newspaper writers excited.
Ray Shero hasn't let us down before, I don't expect him to start now.