Malkin In The Middle: Deals That Could Save The Penguins' Season
With Evgeni Malkin out until next fall and Sidney Crosby still on the shelf, most people would have already written off the Penguins were it not for one thing: Ray Shero's ability to work the right deal at the right time.
While he has already stated that he will not "mortgage the future" just to improve this year's roster with a lot of rental players or expensive long-term contracts that won't fit under next year's salary cap, it would be a mistake to expect Ray Shero to let a team challenging for the lead in the Eastern Conference to simply pack it in.
Given who's available and Ray Shero's recent dealmaking, here are some deals that may be in the works.
Expendable: Eric Godard
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While Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero have both said that their goal was to make the Penguins tougher to play against, the presence of Mike Rupp, Aaron Asham and Deryk Engelland have relegated Godard to the bench or press box.
As evident by the penalty fest on February 11th against the Islanders, the Penguins have enough guys who will drop the gloves already. Since Godard is due to be a UFA after the season and will likely be elsewhere anyway, it only makes sense for Ray Shero to shop him now for a draft pick in return or as part of a larger trade offer.
Expendable: Ben Lovejoy
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With Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik all under contract through the 2013-2014 season, the Penguins blueline is set in place for the foreseeable future. Add to that the anticipated call-up of Simon Despres and the recent signing of Deryk Engelland to a three-year deal and it is safe to say that other Penguin defence prospects may want to look to buy rather than just rent in the Wilkes Barre area.
As a result, Ben Lovejoy seems stuck on the depth chart with nowhere to go. A quick glance at Ray Shero's past shows that he won't hesitate to deal away depth at one position to shore up other needs as with the deal in 2007 that sent Noah Welch to the Florida Panthers for Gary Roberts. Lovejoy is a solid two-way defenceman who is best suited as a No. 3 or No. 4 blueline spot. Unfortunately, he is probably worth more to the Penguins as trade bait than he is sitting in the press box every other night.
Expendable: Eric Tangradi
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At the beginning of the season, Eric Tangradi may have been untouchable and Mark Letestu was relatively unknown. Since then, things have changed. While Tangradi has gotten mixed reviews, Letestu, Chris Connor and other Penguins prospects have emerged as solid contributors at the NHL level.
While everyone presumed that the rash of injuries to Crosby, Malkin, Staal and others would have opened the door for Tangradi, it may end up being the reason to show him the door. The solid play of Nick Johnson, Dustin Jeffrey and others may lead Ray Shero that the Penguins pool of prospects is deep enough to deal Eric Tangradi.
When faced with a similar situation last year, Ray Shero decided to deal away Luca Caputi, a highly regarded prospect whose less-than-average skating made his development into a top six forward in Dan Bylsma's uptempo system a less-than-sure thing. If the Caputi for Ponikarovsky deal of last year is any indication, Tangradi may well be on his way to another team.
Potential: Jason Arnott
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Four years ago, the Penguins went looking for a veteran presence who could create traffic in front of the opponent's net; they found Gary Roberts. Two years ago, when they faced a similar need, they found Bill Guerin.
Now, the Penguins have the same need: a versatile player who can play up and down the lines and can either fill a checking role or bury pucks when paired with Crosby or Staal. To me, Jason Arnott clearly fills that need. He is a natural center and could center the No. 2 or No. 3 lines, or he could line up on wing and play more of a scoring/forechecking role.
In addition, he brings something that the Penguins don't have in great supply: a right handed shot. While it may not seem like a big deal, the lack of a right-handed shot, especially on the power play, does impose limits on the Penguins offensive setup options.
Simply put, Jason Arnott makes too much sense for the Penguins not to look at especially since the Devils, having lost draft picks as a result of the Kovalchuk deal, would probably be looking at ways to rebuild through the draft.
Potential: Kris Versteeg
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While Jason Arnott might provide a short-term fix, Kris Versteeg could be the long-term solution to the Penguins' annual need of goal scoring wingers for Crosby and Malkin. Since he is signed through next season at a workable price, the Penguins would have the cap room to make the deal for this year, and the ability to construct next year's team around a core which would finally include a long-term winger for Crosby.
Since Toronto is in Year 8 of their 5 Year rebuilding plan, the Penguins may not have to deal any top line players and could work a deal around either Ben Lovejoy or Eric Tangradi.
Potential: Michael Grabner
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If you watched any part of the Penguins-Islanders slugfest on February 11th, you noticed Michael Grabner...provided the camera could keep up with him.
While he's not the most physical player on the ice, he is a 20-goal scorer this year and an RFA-to-be this summer. Given Dan Bylsma's uptempo system, a player like Grabner would be a huge addition and would create a lot of space for players like Crosby and Staal.
Given the recent animosity between the two organizations, a trade might not be possible at this point, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Ray Shero make a big contract offer to Grabner this summer, if for no other reason than to jack up the cost for Garth Snow and the Islanders.
Whether the Penguins could get Grabner or not, a player that stretch the ice and use his speed to keep teams from trapping the Penguins, as the Minnesota Wild have gotten good at doing, would be a big addition for the playoffs and next year.
Potential: Alexei Kovalev
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This deal would not be without some potential pitfalls. First of all, Kovalev is notorious for overhandling the puck at times which might not mesh well with Bylsma's up tempo get-the-puck-deep type of system. Secondly, while Kovalev can back check when he wants to, he doesn't seem to want to at times. However, the positives outweigh the negatives and, while it may seem a little late to finally get a Russian winger for Malkin now that he is out for the year, dealing for Alexei Kovalev does make sense on a couple of levels.
First, he still has one of the best wrist shots in the game and has put up pretty decent numbers playing without much support on a bad Ottawa team. Second, he will be a UFA at the end of the season and Ottawa is looking to unload him now so the price would be lower. Third, he immediately upgrades the skill level of a team that so far has been lacking in that department. Lastly, he brings the kind of creativity that the Penguins have lacked at times especially on the powerplay. While there's no guarantee that a 37 year old coming off of a big contract may have the motivation required to have an impact, I think that Kovalev, as in the case of Bill Guerin, would jump at the chance to return to Pittsburgh and have another shot at going deep in the playoffs and maybe staying on next year and play alongside Malkin.
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Whatever moves are made or not made, history has given Penguins fans good reason to at least get down off the ledge. While the loss of Malkin can't be overstated, we should remember that recent Stanley Cup winners were successful without the benefit of having two superstar centers.
Instead of playing 5-4 games, the Penguins will have to win more 3-2 and 2-1 games, which is what playoff games usually are anyway. The fact remains that the Penguins will have a well-rested Sidney Crosby, a Norris trophy candidate in Kris Letang, an All-Star goaltender, the No. 1 Penalty Kill unit and the No. 2 goals against average in the league.
This team is built to win with or without Malkin, and I believe they will. Every year, a team seems to play over its head and go deep in the playoffs despite their perceived lack of talent. Are the Penguins of this year any worse than the Montreal Canadiens of last year? I don't think so and, once Crosby, Kunitz, Letestu and others get healthy, I think we'll all be surprised where the Penguins end up...with or without any deals.