Maybe it was the frustration of blowing a three goal lead at home to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night or the upcoming roster freeze during the 2010 Winter Olympic break, but the Toronto Maple Leafs and GM Brian Burke kicked off the NHL's annual trading frenzy a little earlier than normal by pulling the trigger on a number of moves that included, amongst others, the acquisition of star blueliner Dion Phaneuf and the departure of often maligned goaltender Vesa Toskala.
Whatever the final straw may have been in The Big Smoke, the wheels have been firmly set in motion and with the dominoes beginning to fall on the buy and sell front, I think it's an opportune time to take a hard look at the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup and some of the players that could potentially be available to GM Ray Shero in advance of the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline.
While some Pens fans and hockey watchers might think the team isn’t in need of any fresh blood, I’m not one of them.
Although the reigning Stanley Cup champion's play of late has seem more inspired, it should be noted that Pittsburgh played a mere touch over .500 hockey in the month of January. Not only that, the playoffs are a two-month long grind where depth is a necessity.
Arguably, the Pens have the league's strongest team down the middle with Crosby, Malkin and Staal centering the top three lines. However, with this potent trio, it can be quite easy to overlook shortcomings on the roster.
While the Penguins are far removed from the likes of the Leafs or the Edmonton Oilers, the team does have some areas that need shoring up. And if the Pens want to hoist The Cup come June for a second year in a row, Shero is going to have to be an active shopper to address some of these deficiencies.
Shopping is the key word here. With big name players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Scott Neidermayer believed to be on the market, Shero needs to look beyond the flashy names and big contracts to find the missing pieces to the Pens puzzle.
If his moves from last year's deadline day are any indication, I’m sure he's done his homework and crafted a thorough shopping list. However, if he’s in need of some counsel on the task at hand, here are a few players who I think he should have penciled in at the top of his list.
If the season so far has proven anything for the Pens, it's that both Crosby and Malkin are in desperate need of wingmen that can put the puck in the net. Like Bill Guerin last year, could the Carolina Hurricanes Ray Whitney step into the role of the grizzled veteran providing some timely scoring down the stretch? Whitney, who would arrive with a 2005 Stanley Cup ring in hand, has been one of the Canes top scorers this year and would line up nicely on one of the Pens top two lines.
Another bonus, he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer and would not factor into the Penguins' cap hit next year.
Adding a player like "Vishy" would be a master stroke for Shero. A defenceman that oozes offense, but still plays a sound defensive game (he's plus three on an Oilers team that sits last in the league and has allowed 184 goals against), Visnovsky would be a big boost to the Pens' anemic powerplay and would also allow Malkin to move to a more natural position on the sideboards with the man advantage. With a cap hit that takes a significant dip after this season, Vishnovsky would also be a great insurance policy should Shero not be able to re-sign pending UFA Sergei Gonchar this summer.
Another 2010 UFA, Stempniak should be on the move in the coming weeks, especially with Toronto’s Brian Burke cleaning house. A plucky forward who can also contribute on the score sheet, Stempniak would add some depth to the team’s checking lines and also bolster the Pens’ PK unit. Adding a player like Stempniak would be a shrewd move by Shero, especially if the team faces injury issues during the run to The Cup.
A former 1st round pick who was expected to be a top-flight goal scorer when drafted by the Desert Dogs back in 2006, Mueller has never really found his footing with the Phoenix Coyotes and finds himself mired in a horrendous season where he’ll be lucky to break 25 points. Could a change of scenery give the offensively gifted young gun's career a boost? Who knows, but if Shero could snag him on the cheap, he could be a player who turns heads alongside Gino or Sid.
With the St. Louis Blues a long shot to claim a playoff berth in the highly competitive Western Conference, you can bet pending UFA Paul Kariya will be shopped by team brass. While landing a player like Kariya might prove too costly for Shero and the Penguins, the mere thought of his speed and scoring ability should have Pens fans drooling in delight. A noted perfectionist with a tireless work effort, the affable Kariya is also someone who I think would blend in quickly in the team’s dressing room.