He swung for the fences but wasn't making any contact.
With spring training in full bloom, it's the perfect time to use a baseball metaphor for hockey. With two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the possibility of coming away with nothing at the trade deadline becoming more realistic by the minute, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero decided he better bunt.
So instead of knocking one out of the park by landing Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler—arguably the biggest name considered available on trade deadline day—Shero had to settle for a couple of 30-year-old journeymen whose combined stats this year are just a shade higher than Kesler's.
|Kesler vs. Stempniak and Goc in 2013-14|
It's not entirely fair to fault Shero for doing his best to complete a blockbuster and failing at the end of the day. Kesler at nearly any cost would have made the Penguins an even bigger threat in the Eastern Conference. Maybe unstoppable if it wasn't for the love-hate relationship between the goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the playoffs, which has been more hate than love since he won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
And the Kesler proposal from the Pens wasn't outrageous. If it was, it probably would have been accepted.
According to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Rob Rossi, two-way center Brandon Sutter, a first- and third-round draft pick and the Canucks' choice of any defensive prospect in the system other than Derrick Pouliot was the unofficial offer.
Ultimately, it wasn't enough to convince Canucks management to part on deadline with its top re-tooling asset outside of the Sedin twins.
The Canucks will explore the market this summer and involve more teams in the bidding war who weren't able to get in on the action this week because of salary cap concerns or because they considered themselves sellers as well at this time.
The Penguins may jump back into that fray as well. For now, though, Shero is left with what he already had...oh, and Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc, too.
How he ended up with those two additions and not a higher-end winger like Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson or even Marian Gaborik boils down to the waiting game. Shero waited on the Canucks and Kesler. Other teams stopped waiting for the Kesler domino to fall and made deals for their wanted men in the meantime.
The Goc trade came early, likely as backup for losing Sutter in the Kesler deal. Stempniak was a late announcement, part of the post-deadline logjam of calls into the NHL office.
If Plan A was to put Kesler at right wing beside Sidney Crosby, the move would have given them a top six of Crosby, Kesler, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen.
Formidable. Intimidating. Well worth the effort of an attempt to pry Kesler away from the Canucks.
But the backup plan? Not as intimidating. Not as formidable. An injury to either of the superstars and it could all fall apart.
If waiting for Kesler to materialize prevented another big move, then Shero's patient strikeout definitely hurt his club.
There's no arguing against the fact the team has a little more depth with both Goc and Stempniak, but there was anticipation of Shero making a major move as he has in most seasons to strengthen the Penguins' position as a major contender.
Coming away without Kesler, Vanek, Moulson, Gaborik, or even the Calgary Flames' Michael Cammalleri, was a disappointment.
|Ray Shero's Deadline Moves Since 2007|
|2007||Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque||Conference quarterfinal|
|2008||Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Hal Gill||Stanley Cup Final|
|2009||Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams||Stanley Cup champion|
|2010||Jordan Leopold, Alex Ponikarovsky||Conference semifinal|
|2011||James Neal, Alex Kovalev, Matt Niskanen, Alexei Ponikarovsky||Conference quarterfinal|
|2013||Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray||Conference final|
|2014||Lee Stempniak, Marcel Goc|
The salary cap was a roadblock. As it stands, the Penguins have less than a half-million dollars of room. But the Flames were willing to eat salary, and up to 50 percent of Cammalleri's $6-million paycheck could have been kept in Calgary, putting his numbers on par with Stempniak's.
Shero has to be hoping Stempniak, a 31-year-old who has twice had seasons with more than 25 goals, can step into Pascal Dupuis' role beside Crosby.
Although he started on a line with Taylor Pyatt and Brandon Sutter on Thursday night in a 5-3 Penguins loss to the Sharks in San Jose, it's not out of the realm of possibility Stempniak finds chemistry with the world's best player on the top line.
Known for his hot and cold streaks, the former Flame is just a couple of inches shorter and a couple of years younger than Dupuis, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. Stempniak's career points-per-game average of .54 prior to Thursday night's Pens debut is better than Dupuis' .47—and that includes the latter's time alongside Crosby.
Goc is another under-the-radar kind of player that one NHL GM told ESPN's Pierre LeBrun was a quality addition considering the low cost. Centering the fourth line, he earned an assist in his first game Thursday.
Going for the home run doesn't always work out, of course.
Giving up college prospects Ben Hanowski and Kenny Agostino and the 2013 first-round pick in 2013 for Jarome Iginla couldn't get the Pens past the Eastern Conference Final, with Iginla bolting for Boston—the team that eliminated the Pens—as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.
That's the thing about thinking big; you never know how it's going to turn out.
But it's always worth a shot.
The Penguins are a playoff team again this year. They have enough star power to get back to the conference title series. Whether or not the Pens can make it back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since '09 is another question. In their first big test against a contender in the Western Conference, the Penguins started strong but gave up a two-goal first-period lead in falling to the Sharks.
If they can't make a serious Cup run, people will remember trade deadline day as a missed opportunity, and Shero's name will be dragged through the muck a little by the fans.
At least until his next bold move works out.
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