It's the quintessential question that every NHL team is asking right now: Did we improve enough at the deadline to achieve our goals? For the Pittsburgh Penguins, the finish line is where it has been since the third year of Sidney Crosby's career—winning the Stanley Cup.
Those expectations were in place during the 2007-08 campaign, when the team charged all the way to the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings, and they haven't gone away. General manager Ray Shero has become something of a trade deadline master, and while the results haven't always been perfect, Pittsburgh is always a stronger team after the trade cutoff.
The 2013-14 deadline was no exception, as Shero ran the phone lines with grace and poise. He didn't overpay in the race for Ryan Kesler, opting to address the scoring depth issues in other ways once the Vancouver Canucks upped their price on the center.
Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak aren't the hottest names around, but at one point people viewed Jussi Jokinen and Pascal Dupuis the same way. Shero and the Penguins in general have a remarkable knack for finding the correct players to fill their deficiencies. Sometimes the moves aren't home runs (Jarome Iginla, anyone?), but Pittsburgh is better now than it was a few days ago.
The Pens have certainly improved but in a sneaky way. They didn't make a splash like the Montreal Canadiens or Minnesota Wild, but the Penguins didn't need to. They needed scoring depth, and that's what was added.
Heading into the playoffs—and assuming that Dupuis really is done for the season due to an ACL injury sustained back in December—the Penguins will have four lines to roll that look solid. These are just proposed trios, and anyone could end up skating on any line, but the progress following the deadline is clear.
|Proposed Forward Lines|
|Chris Kunitz||Sidney Crosby||Lee Stempniak|
|Jussi Jokinen||Evgeni Malkin||James Neal|
|Marcel Goc||Brandon Sutter||Beau Bennett|
|Tanner Glass||Joe Vitale||Craig Adams|
Those lines look better than what Pittsburgh was capable of icing a few days ago. Head coach Dan Bylsma could try a few different things—like using Marcel Goc as the fourth-line pivot—but the depth is evident. The bottom-six has been struggling to find its way in the dark and looking for an identity all season long, but these third and fourth lines are pieced together with purpose.
With a healed Beau Bennett and Goc on his wings, Sutter will finally be able to show off the offensive flair that made the Penguins want to deal for him in the first place. Bennett projects as a top-six sniper, and he could gain some valuable big-game experience on this third line. Swap him out with Lee Stempniak if you want, and you still have Sutter skating with two guys that can score.
Goc wasn't skating on outstanding offensive lines as a member of the Florida Panthers, yet he was typically going up against the opposition's top shutdown lines, as the squad is rebuilding and somewhat shallow. In Pittsburgh, he'll be able to break free and play against players of a similar caliber. He's quite versatile and will be able to fill any number of roles up and down the lineup.
This setup gives Pittsburgh three lines that can score and a fourth line that can bang bodies with the best of them.
Dupuis is tough to replace on the Crosby line because of how hard he works in all three zones, but Stempniak gives No. 87 a solid winger to pass the puck to. The former Calgary Flame actually has numbers that are remarkably similar to Jokinen's, and he could do some damage with an all-world center like Crosby.
|Lee Stempniak vs. Jussi Jokinen (Career Numbers)|
Jokinen clearly is a better passer, but Pittsburgh doesn't need another assist machine. Instead, it needs someone who can finish as a top-line wing, and in that regard, Stempniak is every bit as effective as the underrated Jokinen.
So did the Penguins return to their glory days as a team that can crush the opposition with three No. 1 centers? No, but the Pens didn't give up any pieces off of their roster, either. As banged up as the Penguins have been all season, they're still the top team in the Eastern Conference and possess a 14-point lead in the Metropolitan Division.
Shero did what he needed to do at the deadline. He'll be able to pursue Kesler during the offseason if he still covets the two-way pivot, but heading into the playoffs, these Penguins are more dangerous than they were prior to March 5.
If improvement is the name of the game at the deadline, then the Penguins excelled in making their team better by adding bargain depth pieces without yielding a roster player or prospect. Chalk it up as another victory for one of the top trade deadline players in the game in Shero.