What Should Pittsburgh Penguins' Priorities Be at the Trade Deadline?

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIFebruary 23, 2014

**ADVANCE FOR SEPT. 30** Pittsburgh Penguins Kris Letang (58) watches teammates during NHL hockey training camp on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, in West Point, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
Hans Pennink/Associated Press

The 2014 Winter Olympics are in the rear-view mirror now, and the time has come to shift our focus back to the NHL. Since Feb. 7, the Pittsburgh Penguins haven't played a hockey game.

Teams have been back out on the ice without their Olympians since Feb. 19, and the Olympic roster freeze lifts at 11:59 on Feb. 23. That will give NHL general managers less than 10 full days to complete any trades—the deadline is 3 p.m. ET on March 5.

Pittsburgh finds itself in a deadline jam because their injured players may or may not be ready to return in time for the playoffs. The reports seem to indicate that everyone is on the cuspbut Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero doesn't have a lot of certainty to work with.

With some 200-odd hours before the deadline passes, Shero's 2014 work will look more like gambling than trading. That's what happens when there isn't much concrete information to work with.

For instance, Beau Bennett still seems to be recovering from a wrist injury, but will he have enough time to get into playing shape and adjust to a top-line role before the first round of action? Those are two tough bets for Shero to make.

The 22-year-old wing has played in all of 38 NHL games to this point in his career. Asking him to gear up as a top-line guy in time for the postseason could be asking a bit too much.

Replacing Pascal Dupuis—and Bennett to some degree—would be costly, however.

In early February, Pierre LeBrun of TSN reported that the New York Islanders had a specific price in mind for prized pending free-agent winger, Thomas Vanek:

...the asking price is three assets: any combination of a first-round pick, a young player, and a prospect. Whatever the combination, Islanders GM Garth Snow is trying to get his big haul here because we know how much he gave up to get Vanek at the start of the season.

That should give you an idea of what the Penguins would need to give up in order to land any of the big fish that are believed to be available. In a perfect world, Shero would be able to hang onto his first-round pick when targeting a guy like Vanek, but that seems unlikely.

The Penguins traded their first-round pick last season in the Jarome Iginla deal and moved several other strong prospects out prior to the deadline. Will Shero be willing to further gut the system in the name of another Stanley Cup run?

The reported cost for Thomas Vanek is a good indication of what Pittsburgh would need to give up for a top-line forward.
The reported cost for Thomas Vanek is a good indication of what Pittsburgh would need to give up for a top-line forward.Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

A scoring winger is a priority to be sure—and there are high-caliber players to be had. It's just a matter of what Shero is willing to give up to try and get the Penguins over the top.

If he only had one major hole to fill, then perhaps Shero would be willing to take the dive and move draft picks and prospects for someone like Vanek or Matt Moulson. Shero not only needs to replace a top-line wing though. He may also need to find a top-four defenseman as well—maybe even two.

The timetable for Kris Letang's return from his stroke was initially set at six weeks, according to Chris Peters of Eye on Hockey. His injury isn't common however, and who knows how long it will take the 26-year-old to bounce back from the scary setback.

He's been hanging out during Pittsburgh's practices recently, but hasn't been back out on the ice since early February.

Then there's the possibility of the Penguins being forced to move forward without Paul Martin, who didn't play in either of Team USA's final two games in the Olympics and was seen with a cast on his hand.

Rob Rossi and Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review initially gave Martin a one-month timetable, but that number won't be set until the Penguins' medical staff has a chance to look at the defender's injury in person.

Suddenly 10 days doesn't feel like such a long time. Not with a top-line forward out for the year and two top-four defensemen set to miss at least one month each. 

Injuries aren't the only problem plaguing the Penguins though. They have only seen consistent offensive production from five forwards this season. Jussi Jokinen is fifth in team scoring, according to the Penguins' official website.

There's a massive drop-off from Jokinen's 42 points to the next closest healthy forward—Brandon Sutter and his 19 points through 58 games played.

Add that to Shero's shopping list over the next several days. All told, the GM will be looking for the following:

  • Top-line scoring forward
  • At least one top-four defenseman
  • Stronger depth scoring

Bulking up for the playoffs is one thing. That's what Shero did last season. Suturing holes in the lineup out of necessity is another process entirely. 

The Penguins really only need to replace one of their defensemen—if any. The team has shown a remarkable resiliency this year and have plenty of experience sticking to a strong team system despite missing players from the blue line.

Shero needs to pick up a strong "throw in" piece for any trade involving his youth or picks.
Shero needs to pick up a strong "throw in" piece for any trade involving his youth or picks.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Olli Maatta's continued emergence in Sochi should make Shero comfortable using him as a top-four defender and as an in-house replacement for Letang or Martin. This is where the slick manager's penchant for acquiring moving parts along with All-Stars will come in handy.

He pulled that off when he acquired Dupuis alongside Marian Hossa. Shero also added an outstanding defenseman in Matt Niskanen when he traded for James Neal.

Shero needs to make this sort of trade to plug up his roster prior to the deadline. Moving a prospect and a pick for a top-line winger and a solid bottom-six wing would fix Shero's problems, especially if Bennett sticks as a guy who can score from the third line should a hypothetical trade for a No. 1 winger go through.

There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of. Shero has long been hailed as one of the NHL's trade deadline masters, and 2014 could be a definitive year for the general manager. If he can fill out this roster without leaving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton looking too dry, it'll be another feather in his considerably heavy cap.