Chris Kunitz skates against the Florida Panthers at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are on fire; 10-1-3 since interim coach Dan Bylsma took over Feb. 15 from the fired Michel Therrien. Pittsburgh’s run has the team firmly – or as firmly as any club not in the Eastern Conference’s top three can be – in the playoffs and even threatening for home ice in the first round after a suspect start to the season.
And while taskmaster-Therrien’s dismissal cannot be overlooked as reason No. 1 for Pittsburgh’s turnaround, getting Sidney Crosby some wingers to play with has also been a boon to the team’s fortunes. And that’s where GM Ray Shero and the Pens are carving a niche for themselves. It’s not a perfect scenario, but there’s a pattern developing of waiting until February or March each year to find running mates for Crosby; a pattern that, to date, has worked out.
Last season it was Marian Hossa and, to a lesser extent, Pascal Dupuis, both acquired from Atlanta in a surprise deadline deal Feb. 26. The Pens went 11-6-2 to close out the season, winning the Atlantic Division and the East en route to a six-game loss to Detroit in the Stanley Cup final.
Hossa played 12 of Pittsburgh’s final 19 games on Crosby’s right side, posting three goals and 10 points before going on to a stellar post-season that included 12 goals and 26 points in 20 games. Dupuis was no slouch either, tallying totals of two, 10 and 12 in 16 regular season games with Pittsburgh and adding seven more post-season points.
This season, Crosby’s late-season lieutenants are the dependable Chris Kunitz and cagey veteran Bill Guerin, both acquired via trade.
Kunitz was picked-up Feb. 26 along with prospect Eric Tangradi for former franchise-cornerstone defenseman Ryan Whitney. In eight games with Crosby and the Pens, Kunitz has three goals and eight points. Guerin – acquired from the Islanders for a measly conditional draft pick – has also been good for a point per game; he has one goal and four assists since joining Pittsburgh. And Crosby? He’s motoring along with four goals and eight points in five post-deadline games.
Now, this corner is not suggesting the Pens will make it to the Cup final again this year, but I am suggesting that Pittsburgh might have penned a game plan for years to come:
Sign a winger or two from the NHL’s scrap heap and hope they can keep up with Pittsburgh’s big three down the middle; stay afloat despite cap-induced inconsistencies for five months, riding Emperor Penguins Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury; then fill-in where needed with cheap alternatives around the deadline.
The scrap heap this past summer included underperforming Ruslan Fedotenko and current Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) winger Miroslav Satan. Both busts to be sure, but also both unrestricted free agents come July 1, so really not huge headaches for Shero’s squad.
Besides, the Pens haven’t had much trouble scoring this year; they’re ninth in goals-per-game, Malkin leads the Art Ross Trophy-race with 97 points, Crosby is second with 90 and Staal has bounced back from a brutal sophomore season. So it’s not like Pittsburgh’s centers have been struggling to score – although it does leave one to wonder the heights all three could achieve with some consistent wingers surrounding them.
And with its recent additions, Fleury getting hot again and defenseman Sergei Gonchar back from long-term injury to quarterback the power play, this team could be a playoff dim-horse (because, really, it’s tough for any team with Pittsburgh’s talent to be a dark horse).
Kunitz has three more years on his contract at a cap hit of $3.725 million, a good price. He can look forward to developing some real chemistry with Sid the Kid over that time. Kunitz’s trade-mate, Tangradi, may be next in line to play on Crosby’s line. He’s a big (6-foot-4, 221 pounds), physical winger who plays a classic up-and-down style with finish (he was eighth in Ontario League scoring this year with 38 goals and 88 points in 55 games), exactly the type of guy who can thrive on the creative Crosby’s wing. With those two in the mix moving forward, next year Shero can concentrate on finding snipers to play with Malkin and/or Staal.
So while many pundits pointed to the Hossa trade as dangerously depth-depleting, none can argue with the results: a Cup final appearance. And although Shero went out on a limb with Fedotenko and Satan this past summer, the Penguins kept their heads above water and are now deeper and getting hot at the right time.
Time will tell as to how far the Pens will go this spring, but maybe, just maybe, Pittsburgh has provided a blueprint for keeping its stars and being successful when it counts most in the NHL’s salary cap world.
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