Penguins general manager Ray Shero has traditionally done a good job of steering clear of roster-shaking deals. Having a drafted core of franchise-caliber, home-grown players has given him the advantage of needing only complementary players as the playoffs approach.
As it stands, the Penguins are poised to push for a sixth-straight playoff appearance with that core still intact.
Or, at least under contract.
Until Sidney Crosby returns, the Penguins will have a hole in their lineup. As considerable as his absence may be, it still doesn't warrant a big-time deal that mortgages the team's future, its salary cap position and its ability to retain the best players currently on the roster.
Given Crosby's possible return and a host of other factors, Shero is likely to keep it boring at this year's deadline, as he probably should.
The Hossa Trade
The circumstances that eventually led to the Hossa deal are not at all the circumstances that face the team now.
The 2008 Penguins were a young team on the cusp of their first deep playoff run in nearly a decade. Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal were the team's core at center, but they were inexperienced. Gary Roberts provided veteran leadership, but not a great deal of scoring. Ryan Malone provided grit, but not an abundance of skill. What the team lacked outside of Petr Sykora and Malone—both of whom played with Malkin—was scoring from the wings.
Enter Marian Hossa.
Correct or otherwise, the perceived need of a "winger for Sid" has always been and may always be a popular refrain with fans. It was certainly true in 2008, and Shero addressed the need in acquiring Hossa (along with Pascal Dupuis) from the Atlanta Thrashers.
Hossa gave the post-lockout Penguins what they'd never had—a sniper, a reliable scorer and a bona fide winger to play with their franchise center, Crosby. While the team was building its core of star players through the draft, Hossa was the first star player the team had brought in from outside.
The current Penguins roster does not hurt for star power.
With Malkin, Staal, James Neal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury on the roster and Crosby waiting in the wings, the Pens are rich with star players. Malkin has received his scoring winger in Neal, and Crosby, should he return, has proven capable of turning kitchen appliances into 20-goal, 40-point NHL wingers (to clarify, Dupuis and Chris Kunitz are no slouches).
The need for the next Hossa trade just isn't there—nor is the space to make it happen.
Building From Within
Splashy deadline deals are great headline fodder, but teams can seriously hamper their long-term depth by paying for rental players.
Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers illustrates the point thusly:
The most common currency used by Cup contenders at the trade deadline is draft picks. This summer’s 2012 draft class is expected to be strong and full of talented defensemen. The Penguins deepest position is defense, but don’t expect Shero to be throwing a handful of high picks at other teams, especially with Pittsburgh hosting the event in June.
Shero said he regretted the strategy after seeing his scouts sit around on the draft floor in ’08 twiddling their thumbs.
As mentioned, the Penguins' trade depth comes in the form of defensemen. The front office places a premium on blue-line depth throughout the organization. It has allowed them to call up serviceable pieces during injury plagues (Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy). It allows them to trade for proven offensive assets, which might be harder to properly scout at junior levels (James Neal, Chris Kunitz).
Teams tend to hurt for defensemen more than forwards and the need becomes especially apparent at the trade deadline, when scoring goes down and teams tighten their belts in preparation for close-checking, playoff-style hockey.
Shero has used the organization's blue-line depth to his advantage.
Last season, Neal and Matt Niskanen were brought to Pittsburgh in exchange for Alex Goligoski. Neal has already set career scoring highs and Niskanen has worked his way into a permanent top-four role, while Goligoski's loss hasn't been felt by the team because of their massive stable of NHL-caliber defensemen.
It was the same philosophy that allowed Shero to swing another two-for-one deal in 2009, when he acquired Kunitz and Eric Tangradi for Ryan Whitney.
As long as the team's centers are strong and defensemen are plentiful, Shero will be able to swing mutually beneficial deals that don't draw too strongly from any one position.
The Best Available Players Are Already Wearing the Uniform
The Penguins are a very good team and can remain among the upper echelon of NHL clubs by simply retaining the pieces they've got in place now.
The best way to ensure continued success is continuity of a good plan. Shero has a good plan in place. Dan Bylsma's coaching tendencies are introduced to prospects at the earliest professional levels and maintained all the way up to Sidney Crosby's film sessions. Defensemen are the most plentiful asset in the minors and an expendable commodity at the NHL level. All players who fit the mold are rewarded with fair contract offers, if not the richest on the free market, with the understanding that competing for championships will be an annual expectation, and a realistic one at that.
The Penguins needs fall far short of commanding a roster-shaking deal, and have for some time. Marian Hossa couldn't help the Penguins win a Stanley Cup in 2008, but less-ballyhooed pieces like Dupuis, Kunitz, Gill and Guerin were indispensable in capturing the 2009 Championship.
This isn't to say Shero will sit on his hands at the deadline. Useful pieces can be had for relatively little. A depth defenseman, a gritty forward, a low-cap-hit veteran star in search of a title run—Shero has acquired these types before and did so without handicapping himself in the process.
The Penguins can try to sign Zach Parise by exercising Crosby's LTIR savings and sitting him for the remainder of the regular season. They could pry established NHL scorers out of other markets with mixed bags of picks and prospects. They can acquire big-money stars by shipping off one of their own.
They won't. Because the finest possible players may already be in place, and trade rumors that generate the best headlines don't often generate the best hockey team.
Remember that the next time someone tells you Staal or Malkin is a trade candidate.