Jordan Staal excels as a third line center, but could the Penguins benefit more from a scoring winger?
Pittsburgh finished the 2010-11 season with the second-most wins and points in franchise history.
Their 49 victories were second only to the Vancouver Canucks, and the team placed second or better in the Atlantic Division for the fifth straight season.
For the second straight year, the team was dismissed from the postseason by a club that went on to play in the Conference finals.
That kind of success came in the absence of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal for much of the year, in addition to countless other injuries that led the Pens to have nearly 400 man-games lost to injury.
Still, roster uncertainties loom as the Penguins have half of their forward spots to fill and only a little space under the salary cap to do so.
In spite of the turnover, if their top-three centers can return healthy for all of next year, there is no reason to assume they can't continue the success of this season.
To trade away any of these players, given the success and chemistry they displayed throughout all of last season, would be asinine by any measure.
Let's break them up anyway.
A dozen trades to turn the Penguins into cup favorites (or put Ray Shero out of a job):
Jordan Staal is one of the "core" players General Manager Ray Shero refers to when he talks about the players he tries to build around (read: the players he doesn't want to part with).
However, Staal's role on the team is not completely irreplaceable.
Dustin Jeffrey has shown himself capable of filling in at the center position and may have better scoring instincts than Staal, if not better defensive acumen.
Keven Veilleux, a big-body center who enjoyed a breakout season for the AHL-affiliate Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in 2010-11, is another candidate to fill Staal's place on the team.
The Bruins have a number of good scorers now and will need to replace the void at center that will eventually be left by Marc Savard.
While Savard has not officially announced retirement or any intent to retire, his health cannot be counted on.
Boston would likely have to perform a sign-and-trade maneuver with Marchand, who will be due a payday over his $821,000 contract (Marchard is an RFA at end of this season).
Staal could also help improve Boston's 16th-ranked penalty killing unit, while Pittsburgh would get a speedy, skilled winger to complement the big two and a depth center in Rich Peverley to help fill the void.
Captain of the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, Andrew Ladd is in line for a payday after recording 29 goals and 30 assists last season in Atlanta.
Ladd will be a restricted free agent this summer.
While the prospect of playing in Winnipeg must be more attractive than playing before small crowds in Atlanta, just as attractive might be the prospect of playing on a team that perennially contends for the Stanley Cup.
Ladd currently makes $2.35 million per season, a number that will certainly increase, but perhaps not substantially.
Staal's hit of $4 million per season will probably be within range of Ladd's pending raise.
Ladd is a natural leader and should look very good on either Malkin or Crosby's left wing. His 29 goals would have been second on the Penguins last season, a number that would almost certainly increase in Pittsburgh.
Likewise, Staal would be a centerpiece of the new Winnipeg franchise, bringing defensive ability to a club that ranked next-to-last in team defense a year ago (29th in goals allowed, 27th on penalty kill).
The Penguins are replete with defensemen at the NHL and minor league levels, and Brad Boyes represents the kind of scoring winger the Penguins still so desperately lack.
Orpik is a physical force and a member of the top defensive pairing, but with Kris Letang's emergence, the competence of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek as a second pairing and youngsters Simon Despres, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo in waiting, he may soon become expendable for the right price.
Orpik would immediately become the number one defenseman on the Buffalo roster.
Pittsburgh's defensive corps would lose a signficant piece in the deal, but the offense would become deadly strong along the top two lines.
Niskanen was seen as a token piece in the Goligoski-Neal trade. Many in Dallas were happy to see him go.
While Niskanen performed reasonably well during the regular season, he and Ben Lovejoy were torched by Tampa Bay's top scorers in the first round of the playoffs.
Head coach Dan Bylsma seems to see something in Niskanen that most others do not, starting him in all seven games against the Lightning while defensive-defenseman Deryk Engelland rode the bench for the duration of the series.
Niskanen may rediscover his offensive game in Pittsburgh. If he doesn't, though, he can be sent anywhere that will take him, likely for draft picks.
Bortuzzo, Strait and others at the AHL level can likely fill the seventh-defenseman role for this team.
Both Tyler Kennedy and Wayne Simmonds are restricted free agents this season, but Kennedy may command a higher pay raise given his first season of 20 or more goals.
Simmonds actually made more last season on an entry-level contract than Kennedy did on his first professional deal, although Kennedy netted 15 more points last season.
Given the Penguins' cap situation, this move would give them another young, big body up front and relieve a little pressure applied by the salary cap.
A double sign-and-trade would be a stretch, but the Kings would love Kennedy's scoring potential, as they have been after scoring talent for a number of years.
For Pittsburgh, Kennedy's trade value will never be higher, and he may be too expensive to be retained. To get another right winger for him would make his departure a little easier to handle, especially if Simmonds finds his scoring touch in Pittsburgh.
Jeff Skinner emerged as one of the best young skaters in the game last season and is a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Brooks Orpik is a bona fide number one defenseman, and Carolina is impossibly weak along the blueline.
The Hurricanes can slowly build around a player like Skinner, but after ranking near the bottom of the league in goals allowed and penalty kill percentage, a player like Orpik might be more useful than another highly skilled scorer.
For the Penguins, Skinner provides excellent scoring ability and a good deal of cap relief, signed at $1.4 million per season through 2012-13 on an entry level deal.
Carolina may not want to part with an emerging star like Skinner, but Orpik is a playoff-experienced, physical blueliner who would immediately be the best and most experienced defenseman on the Hurricanes roster.
A deal in which the Penguins get younger while the Blackhawks get grittier.
Craig Adams and Chris Kunitz are two players who brought some of the sandpaper style that came to define the Penguins last season. Chicago lost much of that grit in the exodus following their 2010 championship and could replace it with players the likes of Adams and Kunitz.
The Penguins would get a younger version of Craig Adams in Dave Bolland, one with a better scoring touch.
Ben Smith proved his mettle in the postseason, scoring an overtime game-winner for the Blackhawks that sent the Vancouver series to a seventh game.
Kunitz, meanwhile, provides toughness that the Blackhawks lack as well as a scoring touch that went on display this season. If not for injury, Kunitz may have been a 30-goal scorer in 2010-11.
Kunitz, Cleary and Helm are just the dressings on this salad. Malkin and Zetterberg would be the stars of this hare-brained deal, and this is the only instance in which I'll indulge the drunken ramblings of too many hockey fans in Pittsburgh.
That said, if the Penguins are ever in a position where they have to trade one of the best players in the world, they had better acquire one of the best players in the world in exchange.
In Evgeni Malkin, the Red Wings receive a young player who has the potential to be Zetterberg's equal. In the past, Malkin showed flashes of being one the three best players in the game and would no doubt rediscover that dominance in Hockeytown.
Zetterberg is signed for at least two more presidential administrations, but his cap hit is manageable because of it.
Pittsburgh would trade age for affordability in the deal, but it may be worth it to keep a player of Malkin or Zetterberg's talent on the roster, even if he is approaching 40 by the end of the deal.
Malkin's current cap hit comes in at $8.7 million, compared to Zetterberg's $6.083 million as an early recipient of the front-loaded "retirement deal" popularized by Roberto Luongo.
Detroit, however, is in better financial standing to resign Malkin than the Penguins are. Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang will be due mammoth pay raises when their current deals come to a close, as will Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Red Wings just lost Brian Rafalski's contract, and Nicklas Lidstrom's money will be off the books in a year or two as well (if not this season).
Signing Malkin to a similar retirement contract is no longer an option for Pittsburgh, as evidenced by Ilya Kovalchuk's contract fiasco last summer. Detroit, however, could likely handle the cost.
The Red Wings would become younger, Pittsburgh would receive more leverage under the cap, and neither team would be out any amount of talent in the deal.
Ryan Callahan has become one of the core pieces of the New York Rangers, a squad which is lacking a good deal of offensive depth.
That problem of depth was on display as the Rangers scored only eight goals in five games against the Washington Capitals in this year's playoffs (albeit with Callahan injured and out for the series).
Callahan is a restricted free agent this season. While the Rangers would be in line to receive a number of draft picks for the scoring winger, they may benefit more from a sign-and-trade scenario in which they receive two first-round picks (Bennett representing one of those picks) and a second-rounder down the road.
Pittsburgh may have to get creative to sign Callahan given their current cap situation, but one Ryan Callahan is worth three Max Talbot's or Pascal Dupuis'.
Pittsburgh's championship window also appears to extend to the next three years, after which time the expiring contacts of its superstars will make the perennial Cup runs much more difficult.
Pittsburgh may wish to trade depth in the future for proven scoring now, given that they can work it under the cap and that the Rangers are willing to part with talent for high future draft picks.
Matt Moulson has emerged as one of the Islanders' best scorers. The former Penguin prospect has recorded 30 or more goals in consecutive seasons for the Islanders.
New York improved last season, but is still in a rebuilding process.
Another pick in the first round of any draft would be a welcome addition, as would a top goaltending prospect.
Thiessen recorded more wins than any goaltender in the AHL last season, winning the starting job from incumbent John Curry while going 35-8-1 in 46 games played.
Thiessen's .922 save percentage and 1.94 GAA were also among the best such numbers in the league.
In addition to the pick, the Islanders don't seem to have a reliable goaltending candidate to lean on. The ink appears to have dried on Rick DiPietro as one of the biggest draft and contract busts in modern hockey, and Evgeni Nabokov has shown no willingness to report to the team.
Al Montoya looked good in stretches last year but injured his knee in the 2011 IIHF Hockey Worlds tournament. He is a candidate to be a starter but may not have the upside of Thiessen.
It would be surprising to see any amicable transaction between the front offices of these division rivals, given their history dating back to last season.
Michalek was a central figure in the trade that brought Dany Heatley to San Jose, but Michalek has fallen on hard times in Ottawa.
Michalek posted just 33 points in 66 games last season, along with a minus-12 rating.
He might benefit from playing with Pittsburgh, an offensively talented team that can help the left winger regain his scoring touch.
It would also mark the first time the Michalek brothers would play for the same club in the NHL. Zbynek Michalek was signed by the Penguins last July.
Deryk Engelland would provide some defensive acumen for a Senators club which is sorely lacking it, and Pascal Dupuis has proven himself a speedy, versatile winger in his time with Pittsburgh.
Dupuis is also an excellent penalty killer, another sore spot for the lowly Senators.
Vancouver has four defensive regulars who will be UFAs next season and not nearly enough cap space to bring them all back.
Pittsburgh has a number of young defensive prospects who they can deal in order to bring on board the offense they missed having this postseason.
Samuelsson, a former Penguin, is signed at a cap hit of $2.5 million for one more year. Lovejoy is signed for two more years at a very affordable $525,000 per season, while Bortuzzo would be on an entry level deal with any professional club.
Vancouver would be taking a risk on young defensemen but may not have the luxury of signing each of their current blueliners with expiring contracts (especially as their free agent attractiveness increases with the success the Canucks find in the postseason).
Pittsburgh is in a position of strength when it comes to defense and so could lose one of their better young defensemen if it means acquiring a bona fide scorer in the short term.