PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero is among the NHL’s shrewdest and most successful wheeler-dealers at the trade deadline, even if his intended target always seems to be the same.
Each of the last four years, Shero looked for—and landed—a capable scorer with the intent of playing him alongside star Sidney Crosby. Each time, he did so without subtracting any marquee players.
In 2008, Shero added Marian Hossa, who remains the most skilled forward to play regularly on Crosby’s line. In 2009, Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin helped lift the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. In 2010, Alexei Ponikarovsky looked to be a difference-maker and, a year ago, James Neal turned out to be exactly that player, even though it took skilled defenceman Alex Goligoski to land him.
With Neal, who was among the NHL leaders with 30 goals heading into Tuesday's games, and the steady Kunitz now firmly settled on an Evgeni Malkin-centred line that is one of the league’s most productive, Shero wouldn’t mind adding another reliable point-producer to play alongside Crosby.
Therein lies the Penguins' deadline dilemma: There is no Crosby.
With only about a quarter of the regular season remaining, the Penguins have no idea when—or if—Crosby will play again this season. The superstar has been sidelined by concussion-related problems for all but eight games over the last 14 months and currently isn’t cleared for contact even during practice. As the season winds down, it appears increasingly less likely he will return to play a meaningful number of regular-season games.
Given the steep price Shero might need to pay to acquire a more-than-pedestrian scorer in what is widely acknowledged to be a sellers’market, this is one season when he might have to take a step back rather than pursue yet another Crosby-line forward.
The Penguins sitting out the trade deadline, other than a possible minor tweak? It just might happen. Their biggest deal this month may be the $30-million contract they gave Neal last weekend.
Then again, as coach Dan Bylsma said, the one given during the run-up to the trading deadline is that nothing is certain.
"I think there is a little bit of uneasiness for players, regardless of the situation you’re in, no matter what year of your contract you’re in or where you are on the team," Bylsma said.
Defenceman Matt Niskanen, who turned out to be a significant pickup in the Neal trade despite being initially regarded as a throw-in , said players instinctively start monitoring the trade trackers as the deadline approaches.
"It kind of keeps you on edge," Niskanen said.“It’s the fear of the unknown."
For the Penguins, that unknown is Crosby.
In another year, with a less-restrictive salary cap situation, the Penguins might have aggressively pursued Columbus captain Rick Nash, and might have been willing to pay big to add him to No. 87’s line. Or perhaps a forward, such as Ales Hemsky of Edmonton.
Now, given the contracts already on their books and those that will be due Crosby and Jordan Staal in the near future, the Penguins probably can’t even begin to think of making such a move.
And with no glaring deficiencies other than the need for a reliable backup goaltender—Brent Johnson has won just once in the last two months—it could be that the best move Shero makes is no move.
During a weekend road trip, Shero told reporters that the trade market is exceedingly tight, with little marquee talent available and a huge price required to acquire it.
Another problem: Crosby is on the long-term injured reserve list and his $8.7-million salary doesn’t count against the Penguins. So while they currently have the cap room to take on a significant salary, they won’t as soon as Crosby returns.
The Penguins possess some potentially attractive pieces to move should they unexpectedly shift gears and decide to swing a deal.
Defenceman Paul Martin, who has struggled to adapt to Bylsma’s system since being signed more than 18 months ago and was minus-11 ahead of Tuesday's game against the Rangers, is a potential trade candidate. So is defenceman Zbynek Michalek, who doesn’t totally look comfortable in the Penguins system either.
The downside is trading either one would leave the Penguins without one of their top four defencemen and might weaken a team that has overachieved for a second straight season. Even without Crosby, the Penguins are among the NHL leaders on the power play, the penalty kill and in goals for and against.
Former Penguins defenceman Hal Gill might have made a major impact—the Penguins have lacked a true shutdown defenceman since he left in 2009—but the Canadiens chose to trade him to Nashville.
But, as Niskanen said, no player knows for certain he won’t be traded. Neal, for example, had no idea the Stars might trade him to Pittsburgh exactly a year ago.
"As a player, you never feel completely out of the question in that regard," Niskanen said.