Only a few days remain until the NHL's trade deadline and rumors are really starting to fly around. We've been as guilty as anyone of chasing down and posting up every last name for us to debate and consider, but so too does every other blog. So, in thinking of a good primer for addressing the trade deadline, I figured maybe it would be helpful, informative or just a little different at least to hit the reset button and look at what the Penguins currently have.
Going to break this down into some categories-
The NHL's salary cap is very complicated, calculated daily and fluctuates based on call-ups, long-term injury reserves and bonus factors for young players. According to ESPN's Pierre Lebrun, the Pens have about $500,000 - $600,000 in cap space at the moment, consistent with the quotes from general manager Jim Rutherford that the team basically has to trade "dollar-for-dollar" for any future acquisition. This financial factor can't be under-stated in the difficulties it would pose in the Penguins upgrading their team at this trading deadline.
Top 6 forwards
The Penguins currently have 6 healthy top six forwards. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at center and four wingers with David Perron, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz and the surprise of the season has been the production and great play of the unheralded free agent signing Blake Comeau.
Could the Penguins try to add another top line player ala a guy like Jaromir Jagr or Jiri Tlusty or Joffrey Lupul ? Under the salary cap, it doesn't seem very possible, unless they trade away a roster player, and there hasn't been a lot of evidence that management feels the need for an in-season shakeup like that. It might be decent for depth to bump Comeau down a line, but with no guarantee the pickup will be as effective as Comeau has been (or that Comeau can still produce with a weaker center), that seems like a needless risk and would be trying to fill a hole that's already filled.
Bottom 6 forwards
For better or worse, the Pens seem content with Brandon Sutter and Maxim Lapierre down the middle of their lower lines. For wingers they currently have Nick Spaling, Beau Bennett, Steve Downie, Craig Adams and Zach Sill .
Here, the Penguins could use an upgrade. Sill and Adams aren't competent NHL players but remain in the lineup and have earned public praise from the coaches, for unknown reasons. The best player in the bottom six is probably Bennett, and he's had a checkered injury history and hasn't been a coach's favorite with his occasionally lax style of play. Downie has been productive (he's currently the team's 6th highest scoring forward) but he also leads the league in penalty minutes and has been more trouble than he's worth in the eyes of the coaches, drawing healthy scratches recently. Spaling is decent and versatile but won't drive a line.
Since most bottom six players make reasonable salaries, the Penguins should be able to add someone (if the acquisition cost is right via trade) and improve their depth. They might have their heart set on Spaling-Sutter-Bennett third line, at least a capable 4th liner - we've advocated for Kyle Chipchura before - could join Lapierre and Downie on a comptent 4 th line for the playoffs. This would also be ideal since it doesn't not cost much to add such a player.
Top 4 defensemen
The Penguins only have 3 healthy (with regards to playoffs) true top four defensemen: Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff. They have the need to add one with Olli Maatta out for the season, but cap considerations and the high trade value of good defensemen make it almost an impossibility. Adding a bad player like Scott Hannan or Jan Hejda would be feasible, however they would only be a band-aid on a gushing wound. Not the right tool for the job.
Penguins are in great shape here with Rob Scuderi and Simon Despres forming a pair that has meshed very well and added up to the sum being better than their parts. Both players have struggled away from each other, and shouldn't be broken up at this stage of the season. The Pens tried to give both players more responsibility (Despres with Letang, Scuderi with Martin) and it didn't work out then and probably won't now.
Robert Bortuzzo and Derrick Pouliot are in the picture too, and one of them probably figures to be Ehrhoff's partner. Bortuzzo brings size, physicality and a right-handed shot, all rare attributes on the current blueline. Pouliot brings skating, puck moving but is very young and inexperienced and worse, isn't strong positionally in his own zone.
Steady as she goes. Marc-Andre Fleury is probably having the finest season in his career. Thomas Greiss hasn't been asked of much and has ups and downs, like any backup. No need to address anything here.
In a perfect world, the Penguins could address adding a good 3rd line player to anchor that line (and boost depth for the 4th line) and also add a capable #4 defenseman. Unfortunately with the salary cap and a lot of teams hoarding good players for playoff dreams of their own, Pittsburgh isn't in a perfect world. If the Penguins get the right trade to add a depth forward, such a move makes sense. It's difficult, however, to justify paying a huge acquisition price for one of the very few good defensemen on the trade block (like Carolina's Andrej Sekera or Edmonton's Jeff Petry). The Pens don't have the cap room, and the price would be too high.
Realistically, by adding Perron and swapping Lapierre in for Goc, Rutherford has done most of what is possible to tweak the team in the season for the upcoming playoffs considering where the team is in relation to the cap, as well as the limited ammunition the team has to fire off more trades. About any player on the trading block worth acquiring will cost more than the Penguins can afford to give.
This won't stop the rumor mill, but maybe it will influence your thinking when you see all the names float around. Unless Rutherford is going to boldly make a major re-shuffle of the team by dealing away a serious salary/piece of the team (like a Sutter or Spaling), not much will change. And there hasn't been any indication that the front office feels the need to do that. However, the fun part about the NHL trade deadline is that the unpredictable does happen, GMJR is an active player and may just surprise us all yet.