After nearly a decade of playoff-bound seasons under GM Ray Shero, the Pittsburgh Penguins are annual players at the NHL trade deadline.
Over the last few years, the Pens have looked to solidify or supercharge their lineup at the trade deadline. That deadline work has started to take on a certain pattern.
And if that pattern holds, the top-heavy Penguins might be swinging a deal fairly soon.
While most of the real action takes place as the deadline to make a non-waiver deal nears its final moments (and don't we know how these hockey types like to take things to the last second), Pittsburgh has forged its own trade deadline recipe, making plays on trade candidates before anyone else in the league has pulled the trigger on market-setting moves.
This year's Olympic tournament figures to complicate that plan.
The preemptive trade strike is a maneuver that has allowed the Penguins to move on their favorite targets before they are scooped up by other teams, and has sometimes allowed them to set the bar in the trade market, rather than react to it.
Most of their recent deals have been of this variety. The Pens acquired James Neal and Matt Niskanen from Dallas on February 21, 2011, a full week before that year's February 28 deadline. Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray were acquired more than a week ahead of last year's April 3 trade deadline, with Jarome Iginla just a few days behind.
The benefit there is twofold. The Penguins are clearly able to target and acquire their first choice of players with this tactic. Teams who wait until hour eleven must sometimes move to their Plans B, C and D, even overpaying for deals due to the pressure to simply make a deal (Ilya Kovalchuk's move to the New Jersey Devils a few years ago comes to mind).
The tactic is not without its risks.
The apparent danger involved is that the Penguins might overpay for certain players. When a number of deals have been made, the trade market begins to form rough ideas of what certain players or positions might be worth. In striking early, the Pens have opened themselves up to paying too much for certain players without knowing what the rest of the league will agree is a fair price.
Of course, the shrewdness with which Shero and his office have executed most of their deals makes this point nearly moot.
So far, the early attack on the trade market has served the Penguins well. It will be significantly more difficult to pull off the move again this season.
The official 2014 NHL trade deadline is set for March 5, just ten days after the end of the Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia. There is another deadline in place this year, in the form of a roster freeze that goes into place before the Olympic tournament.
On February 7, NHL rosters will be "frozen," meaning teams cannot move players while they are competing in the tournament or resting at home. The trade embargo will be lifted on February 23, just 10 days before the official NHL trade deadline on March 5.
That means the Penguins have just over a week remaining to make a deal before their roster is frozen for over two weeks -- not that Shero, Dan Bylsma and the rest of the Penguins won't have enough work to do in that time. The Penguins Olympic contingent includes over 10 players, coaches and managers.
After the Olympic roster freeze is lifted, the Penguins have just three games and 10 days before the March 5 trade deadline to decide that they are carrying the roster they want to carry into the postseason.
That's a quick turnaround in which to consider a number of factors:
- The Penguins are without a first-line right winger with Pascal Dupuis ostensibly done for the season. His would-be replacement from within the organization, Beau Bennett, is no guarantee to return from a wrist injury of his own before the Olympic roster freeze. Even if healthy, Bennett has too little experience to show he'll fit on the first line, and too few games remaining before the March 5 deadline to develop any chemistry with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz -- six more before the roster freeze and nine total, if he were to return to action today. Which he won't.
- Pittsburgh is replete with young defenders who would make for cornerstone trade chips, but who among them should they send out? Simon Despres is under team control at the AHL and NHL levels this season and is unlikely to fetch the same value in a trade that he has as a waiver-exempt defender coming up on a summer of restricted free agency. Olli Maatta is untouchable, Matt Niskanen is playing too well for the Penguins to move before the postseason, and the rest of the team's up-and-coming defenders have too little NHL experience to pull in a solid return.
- The Penguins are sending seven players to Sochi, Russia for the Olympic games -- Crosby, Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maatta. An injury to any of these players sustained in the tournament would significantly affect the Pens' trade plans upon returning to NHL action. Only Maatta, Martin or Orpik could reasonably be replaced from within the organization, as the team's injury rash and bevy of defensive call-ups showed us earlier this year. An injury to any of Malkin, Crosby, Kunitz or Jokinen, who occupy the team's top-six forward group, would have no internal answer.
After that, the whole trade picture becomes much, much murkier.