Friends, readers, hockey fans, lend me your ears—or eyes. With apologies to William Shakespeare, I come neither to bury the Penguins, nor to praise them.
Instead, I ask a simple, pragmatic question. Is it time for Ray Shero and the Penguins to take a big picture look at their organizations and make a strategic retreat at this season’s trade deadline?
In the preseason, the Penguins were a popular pick to return to the Stanley Cup to represent the Eastern Conference. As of the time of completion of this article, the Pens sit in 10th place in the East, four points out of eighth, and spotting every team in front of them at least one game in hand. The trade deadline is a little over two weeks away. They just fired their coach.
The conventional wisdom from most Penguins fans and media has been to suggest that the team has made its coaching change with the hopes of getting ready for the trade deadline and then making a few big moves to get this team into the playoffs.
But is that really the right approach?
In 2008, the Penguins made a hail mary trade for Atlanta’s Marion Hossa, giving away two character forwards, their top prospect Angelo Esposito, and a 2008 first round draft pick. The move almost paid off in a Stanley Cup. But when Hossa bolted for Detroit, the Penguins were left with no long term gain to a move that both severely damaged its already weak prospect pool and harmed the wing depth of the NHL team.
For better than three months, the Penguins have suffered the ill effects of a club that lacks depth, lacks talent on either wing, lacks character and grit, and lacks an effective Plan B in the minors. But the core of the roster remains intact, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney, and Mark Andre Fleury all signed to recent long-term contracts. Ray Shero believes this core to be of championship caliber.
If one shares the organization’s faith in their crop of young franchise players, then the reasonable expectation is that the Penguins will compete for titles nearly every season into the near future. However, they will continue to be betrayed by a lack of a supporting cast unless the front office does something to improve the status quo. Given salary cap constraints that weigh heavily on any team with five young players locked up to long term contracts, significant roster additions via free agency are not a realistic option.
With this in mind, is Pittsburgh truly well served to trade even more draft picks, and what few prospects they do have left, in the hopes of saving a season on the verge of already being wasted? To make the playoffs, Pittsburgh realistically needs to pick-up at least 32 points in their final 24 games (16-8). Given the strength of the Atlantic Division, this is a tall order indeed. If they end up in ninth or 10th, their farm system will be even more depleted and next year will be that much more challenging to construct a rebound.
The alternative is to recognize the season for what it is—all but lost, even if they sneak into the eighth seed and end up against a vastly superior Boston squad—and start focusing on 2009-2010. The Penguins have trade assets other teams would covet, and could sorely use the draft picks and prospects who would come in return.
For example, Petr Sykora is a pending unrestricted free agent who is also a top six winger that could add offensive punch to any playoff team. It is not unrealistic to think he could draw a late first round pick or a second round selection plus a prospect. Hal Gill, another pending UFA, was worth a second and a fifth round pick just this time last year, and could still bring a return of a second or third rounder. Miroslav Satan has been a disappointment, but his goal scoring pedigree could draw interest, and might result in the return of a prospect or mid-round draft pick.
In just one draft, Pittsburgh could go a long way towards restocking the prospect pool. This could result in quick returns in the form of immediate contributions, or at the very least it positions the Penguins in an excellent spot to make trades prior to and during the 2009-2010 season, when everyone is back to zero points in the standings and an ugly prior season is nothing but a passing memory.
Organization discipline will be put to the test in Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. Shero’s desire to save his own job could force the Penguins down the wrong path for the longer term fortunes of the team. But if they choose the other route and make a painful retreat, fans in Pittsburgh may well look back at the failed 2008-2009 campaign as a blessing in disguise.