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Gutting the young talent: have the Pens gone too far?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a team looking to win.  As the reigning Stanley Cup champions, with basically the entire core from last year still in tact, they're in prime position to make another run this season. 2009-10 has season the Penguins play up and down, they've had injury woes but still are right in the thick of the Atlantic Division race with the New Jersey Devils and a top 3 seed for the NHL playoffs.

As close observers, we've seen the Pens need.  They've had to use guys like Pascal Dupuis, Maxime Talbot and Ruslan Fedotenko in top 6 forward roles all season and have called on players like Mike Rupp, Chris Bourque and Nick Johnson to play out of their current range in cameos there too.

The price of adding proven NHL talent to put a team over the top come in the form of picks and prospects.  In recent years the Penguins have acquired Hal Gill, Gary Roberts and Marian Hossa for the likes of a first round pick, a second round pick a fifth round pick and young roster players like Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Noah Welch and a prospect in Angelo Esposito -- who was very promising at the time.  What do all of those veteran have in common?

None of them are currently with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Of course, of the batch traded away, only Armstrong is a viable NHL player.  But there's another cost, and that's the organization's depth for young players.  Trading picks and prospects is a sure way to dry up the future pipeline, but when it comes at the opportunity to make deep playoff runs, well, it's worth it.

This season general manager Ray Shero has chosen a similiar route.  He's added defenseman Jordan Leopold and winger Alexei Ponikarovsky at the expense of a 2nd round pick and promising prospect Luca Caputi.  Both veterans are set to be unrestricted free agents at season's end, and given Pittsburgh's salary cap situation with approximately $41 million in contracts for next season, there's no guarantee either will be back.

Caputi has been a point per game player in the AHL and was in the Top 10 league wide in goals.  At 21 years old and 6'3, 190 pound frame, he was shaping up to be a steal of a 4th round pick from 2007 and a guy who could have contributed to Pittsburgh full-time as soon as next season.  Shero felt he needed to sacrifice that to get a guy in Ponikarovsky.

The cupboard isn't bare: Dustin Jeffrey is young and a terrific AHL talent, Mark Letestu has shown he can fit in during limited NHL minutes and Eric Tangradi is still the prized budding jewel of the organization.  Long term there's hopes that guys like Nick Petersen or Ben Hanowski could add skill, but they're still hockey light years away from making an impact.

Shero has shown great balance in sacrificing young talent in order to set his NHL team up for immediate success.  On paper that's what he's done with the acquistion of Ponikarovsky.  But there's only so many future chips that can be traded away, have we crossed that line yet?  That might be an issue in the years to come, but for now one has to credit Shero and the scouts in turning a 4th round pick into a viable NHL Top 6 contributor.