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Sidney Crosby's Health Should Dictate Penguins Trade Deadline Strategy

Feb 8, 2011 – 9:34 AM
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Adam Gretz

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Before Evgeni Malkin's right knee exploded last Friday the Pittsburgh Penguins weren't in a position to make a significant move at the NHL trade deadline. Firmly pressed against the salary cap ceiling, the most they could have done on Feb. 28, without finding a way to move additional salary out the other way, was a minor tweak to the roster. That all changed when Buffalo's Tyler Myers landed on Malkin's right knee during a 3-2 Penguins win, resulting in a torn ACL and MCL, all but ending his season.

Once he's placed on the Long Term Injury List the Penguins will be able to take on pro rated salary equal to Malkin's cap hit, which would allow them to add pretty much any player in the league, assuming they're able to find the right deal. That is a tempting proposition, and perhaps a necessity for what is currently one of the top teams in the NHL standings and a hopeful Stanley Cup contender.

The good news for the Penguins, as general manager Ray Shero pointed out in the aftermath of Malkin's injury, is that it happened in early February and not after the trade deadline, which will at least allow them to shop around for a replacement.

The bad news is a trade of that magnitude is going to require them to give up a significant amount of assets in the form of prospects, draft picks or younger NHL players that they otherwise wouldn't have had to give up. And no matter who they potentially acquire, that player won't be the equal of Malkin, a former Art Ross and Conn Smythe winner (even if Malkin hadn't been playing at that level this season). That makes his injury costly in a number of ways: they not only lose his game-breaking ability, but they'll also have to dig into their already shallow prospect and draft pick pool (the Penguins only have five draft picks in 2011, and a farm system that's not exactly loaded with potential impact players beyond the top two or three prospects) to replace him with a lesser player.

The other factor at work for the Penguins is the status of their other franchise player (the franchise player, that is), center Sidney Crosby. Still recovering from a concussion that has kept him out of the lineup since early January, Rob Rossi of the Tribune Review reported this week that the Penguins captain may not return to the lineup until March -- after the trade deadline has come and gone.

His health should dictate what the Penguins do (or don't do) on Feb. 28. The Penguins have found a way to keep winning hockey games in the absence of both players, but they're clearly not the same team without their two top guns, and it's difficult to imagine a Stanley Cup run without both of them (or even one of them) being healthy.

Rossi made a convincing argument on Sunday that the Penguins can still be a factor in the playoffs and make a deep run, even without Malkin, thanks to one of the best blue lines they've had in years, a strong penalty kill, and a goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury) that's rebounded wonderfully from a dismal start to the season. But the biggest part of his argument was Crosby being able to return and be the Crosby of October-December.

In the end, the Penguins success will be determined by the health of Crosby and his ability to be the best player in the game. Simple as that.

If he returns to the lineup and is 100 percent and plays like the pre-concussion Crosby that was running away with the league scoring title the Penguins will, in fact, be a force to deal with in the postseason. If the Penguins are confident that can happen then they will absolutely be in a position to swing for the fences on (or before) deadline day (something Shero has shown he's willing to do in the past).

If he's not able to do that, or the Penguins aren't confident it can happen this season, it doesn't matter who or what they acquire on deadline day, it's going to be a major struggle to make a deep playoff run without Malkin and a healthy, dominant Crosby. If the latter situation turns out to be the case -- and this is all hypothetical at this point, and it's really only a discussion because Crosby is likely to miss almost two months, far longer than anybody anticipated -- why do anything major?

Why mortgage a number young assets or draft picks for a deadline rental that, in the end, won't be enough to push the team over the top this year? Sure, you can give up a pick for an upcoming free agent like former Penguin Alex Kovalev, a shell of his former self, but why give up early picks and top prospects for a bigger player that still won't likely be enough if Crosby is still struggling in the aftermath of his concussion (and that's the key) and without Malkin?

The Penguins core and nucleus is young enough, and locked up for enough years, that this isn't a make-or-break season. They can stand pat, attempt to make a run this year with what they already have (because they'll still be a playoff team, just not anywhere near as dangerous), and take another re-loaded run in 2011-12 with a fully healthy Crosby and Malkin. You need impact players to win the Stanley Cup, and for the Penguins, that's Crosby and Malkin. You also need an influx of young, cheap talent from year-to-year, and a team's farm system and draft choices are, of course, vital to that.

Some of the names that have been thrown around as possible targets (even as just speculation) include short-term rentals like Jason Arnott and Kovalev, and players signed beyond this season like Edmonton's Dustin Penner or Ales Hemsky. Nice enough players, but in the case of guys like Penner or Hemsky, players that would require a steep price in terms of what would have to go the other way (and that's to say nothing of the potential cap ramifications for next season).

Pittsburgh needs to be cautious with Crosby, especially when you look at the struggles Boston's Marc Savard has had dealing with severe concussions. Granted, Savard dealt with multiple concussions and post-concussion syndrome to get to this point, and it doesn't appear that Crosby's situation is as dire, but it's still nothing to take lightly.

Again, it all comes down to what the Penguins can reasonably expect from him post-deadline and into the playoffs.

Shero is as shrewd as any general manager in the league, and when it comes to deadline day seems to always have an incredible read on the needs of his team and possesses a knack for making the right move (Alexei Ponikarovsky being the exception).

The natural thought right now, for an outsider, might be to buy, buy, buy. But you also have to keep your eye on the long-term, bigger picture.
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