(Pittsburgh, PA) — This week's departure of defenseman Ryan Whitney from the Igloo for forward Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangredi provides solutions to several problems facing the franchise this season but leaves one unresolved.
Friday's move ends the logjam on the Pens blue line that saw Whitney, Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, and Alex Goligoski all battling for ice time and powerplay time this season.
It had become clear that there wasn't enough ice time to go around when Goligoskiwas shipped back to Wilkes-Barre last month, and more clear that a team with holes in its top forward lines and nearly void of veteran presence couldn't continue to field such a lopsided lineup.
Whitney was the odd man out in this situation because of his age, his salary, and what he could bring in return to the club. His on-ice performance after returning from foot surgery was barely a minor consideration in this equation, but his paycheck was not.
The Pens filled a pair of giant needs in the deal. Chris Kunitz brings speed, a decent set of hands, and the willingness to crash the net early and often to the front of the Pens lineup. All of those traits have been missing in large quantities from the Pens' game since the free agent market stripped them of Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, and Adam Hall this past summer.
Kunitz doesn't solve all of the problems up front; he isn't likely the answer to the search for a world class winger for Sidney Crosby, but he's a much better fit than the handful of minor leaguers the club has auditioned this season.
Eric Tangredi, although largely unknown to local fans, fills the biggest need the club's farm system faces. The Philadelphia native is a power forward who appears to have the scoring touch to go with the size to eat up large portions of the slot in the offensive zone.
The Penguins have never been able to mount a serious run for the Stanley Cup without such an over-sized, skilled forward (see Kevin Stevens and Ryan Malone). Presently, there is no one in the system that comes close to Tangredi's resume or potential.
The one thing the deal did not do is create some breathing room under the salary cap for the team for next season and beyond. The deal only shaved about $250,000 off payroll, and that's not enough considering the raises due to several players, including a giant check for Evgeni Malkin.
Even jettisoning veterans Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko in the offseason won't be enough, especially if the economy starts pulling the cap downward. Something more has to be done.
Because of that and because this still isn't the team it was last season, the Whitney deal is likely not the last involving the Penguins and one of their established players. GM Ray Shero needs to move another larger salary either before the March 4 deadline or before the draft this summer if the team is to find more balance and remain competitive in the years that it retains the rights to both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
While those two will remain safe in trade talks, do not be surprised if rumors start swirling around forward Jordan Staal, whose upcoming raise might be too much to fit under the cap or the roof of the Penguins new home taking shape across Centre Avenue from their present barn.