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Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are mired in a losing skid and sit ninth in the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are mired in a losing skid and sit ninth in the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Injuries continue to mount for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

One of the deepest, most talented rosters in the NHL had the dubious distinction of leading all teams in man-games lost to injury by a wide margin (217, as of Jan. 12), putting them on pace for more than 430 by season's end.

With center Sidney Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang already on the shelf with concussions, the Penguins also lost center Jordan Staal for up to the next six weeks with a knee injury.

Left winger and leading goal-scorer James Neal dodged a bullet when an originally diagnosed broken foot turned out to be just badly bruised, though his effectiveness will be limited as he plays through it.

Other notable Penguins who were previously sidelined include center Evgeni Malkin, left winger Tyler Kennedy and defensemen Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek and Brooks Orpik.

Despite the injuries, the Penguins remained among the top teams in the Eastern Conference for much of the first half of this season.

In recent weeks, however, they have finally started taking a toll. The Penguins have lost six straight since Dec. 29 and slid to ninth overall in the conference following their 1-0 loss Wednesday to the Washington Capitals.

The decline is fuelling speculation GM Ray Shero will turn toward the trade market for depth if his injured stars remain sidelined around the trade deadline. Rumors suggest he’d especially be targeting help for the forward unit.

The health troubles have even led to musings about whether Shero should break up his core of Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Neal and goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury.

Shero certainly won't go to that extreme. It's because of players like Malkin, Staal (before his knee injury), Neal and Fleury the Penguins weathered the storm for most of the first half, especially  with Crosby and Letang, their best forward and defenseman, sidelined indefinitely.

The Penguins have maxed out their payroll this season, but according to CapGeek.com, with Crosby and Letang on long-term injury reserve, Pittsburgh has more than $3.5 million in annualized cap space it could use if required to pick up additional depth.

It's expected Shero will wait and see if his team can halt its losing skid and regain lost ground in the playoff standings, as well as determine if Crosby and/or Letang can soon return to the lineup, before making any major changes.

Should Shero decide to shore up his forward lines, he could turn to his defense for trade bait. Mark Madden of the Beaver County Times suggested shopping Paul Martin, though his cap hit ($5 million per season), limited no-trade clause and pedestrian numbers (11 points, minus-10 in 35 games) wouldn't attract much of a return.
 
Two rumoured trade targets are Edmonton Oilers right winger Ales Hemsky and Carolina Hurricanes right winger Tuomo Ruutu. Both are eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and aren't expected to be re-signed by their current teams.

Shero might be able to land one or the other without parting with a roster player. It remains to be seen what he's willing to part with in terms of draft picks and/or prospects and whether he could out-bid rival GMs who are also expected to target those two in the coming weeks.

In recent years, Shero has demonstrated the ability to make deals near the trade deadline that, more often than not, pay off for his team. It wouldn't be surprising if he does it again.

Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.

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