The National Hockey League’s trade deadline for the 2008-09 season passed during the afternoon of Wednesday, March 4, Eastern Standard Time in the United States and Canada.
For the general manager of a NHL team, the time leading up to the trade deadline is akin to final exams for the school year for a student. It can be frantic. And a lot can be on the line.
As the trade deadline approaches, a general manager may seek to achieve one of the following three objectives based on his team’s position in the standings – build for the future, bolster his team’s chances of making the playoffs or bolster his team’s chances of advancing deep into the playoffs.
If the general manager is seeking to accomplish the second or third objectives, he has the added pressure of trying to strengthen the team for the playoffs without risking its future.
Being a general manager in the NHL is not for the faint of heart.
Ray Shero is in his third season as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This season, his objective as the trade deadline approached was the second of the three – to bolster the Penguins’ chances of making the playoffs.
Shero passed with flying colors. This writer believes Shero earned a grade of A-. In the process, Shero likely energized the Penguins’ players as well as the team’s fans for the stretch run of the regular season.
The highlights of Shero’s work leading up to the trade deadline were two trades. First, he obtained forwards Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi from the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Ryan Whitney. He then obtained forward Bill Guerin from the New York Islanders for a conditional draft pick.
Both Kunitz and Guerin bring a combination of talent and grit to the Penguins. The primary position for both is wing. And both have earned one Stanley Cup championship ring — Kunitz with Anaheim in 2006-07 and Guerin with the New Jersey Devils in 1994-95.
Tangradi, age 20, is a top prospect with skill and size (6-foot-4, 221 pounds). His primary position is center.
This season, Tangradi is excelling in a top junior league in Canada. Playing for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, Tangradi as of March 4 was second in the league in scoring.
Shero strengthened the Penguins without imperiling the team’s future, which is bright. Three young stars that are the heart of the team — Sidney Crosby (forward), Evgeni Malkin (forward) and Marc-Andre Fleury (goaltender) – are signed to long-term contracts that after this season have four, five and six more seasons to run, respectively.
Entering the games scheduled for March 4, the Penguins had 72 points — a record of 33 wins, 26 losses and six losses in overtime or shootout — and were in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins had 17 games remaining in the regular season. And where they’ll end up in the conference standings is very much in doubt.
If the Penguins can finish strong, they have a legitimate chance to end up as high as fifth place in the conference and a remote chance to capture fourth, currently occupied by the Philadelphia Flyers.
If the Penguins flounder, they could miss the playoffs after winning the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. (The Penguins lost the final series four games to two to the Western Conference champion — the Detroit Red Wings.)
The good news for the Penguins is that they have been hot lately. They have won four games in a row, including the first three of a five-game road trip, and have a record of 6-1-1 in their last eight.
The start of the 6-1-1 hot streak coincided with a change behind the Penguins’ bench.
Unhappy Valentine’s Day in Toronto
It was not a happy Valentine’s Day for the Penguins and then head coach Michel Therrien. The Penguins’ 6-2 loss at Toronto on Saturday, February 14, was a major disappointment for a handful of reasons.
With just over eight minutes gone in the first period, the Penguins led, 2-0, having scored on two of their first three shots on goal. For the rest of the game, the Penguins’ offense was in hibernation.
The Penguins led, 2-0, at the end of the first period. They were still ahead, 2-1, at the end of the second. But the Maple Leafs turned the game into a rout by scoring five goals in the third.
With the loss, the Penguins completed the season series against Toronto with a record of 1-3. And their overall record fell to 27-25-5. With 59 points in 57 games, they were not in a playoff position – the top eight – in the Eastern Conference.
Once again this season, Toronto is not a strong team. The win upped the Maple Leafs’ record to 20-24-11. Entering the game, they had one of the worst records on home ice in the NHL.
The following day (Sunday, February 15), Shero had the difficult task of informing Therrien that he had been fired. Last spring, Therrien led the Penguins to within two wins of a Stanley Cup championship.
Therrien has been replaced on an interim basis by Dan Bylsma, who had been the head coach of the Penguins’ top farm team – the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League.
Upon becoming head coach, Bylsma said that the Penguins would be more aggressive on offense than they had been under Therrien.
In going 6-1-1 in Bylsma’s first eight games as head coach, the Penguins out-scored the opposition by the slim margin of five, 27-22.
It is noteworthy that four of the wins were over strong teams, each of which has a record well over .500 – the Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia, the Chicago Black Hawks and the Dallas Stars. The wins over Montreal, Philadelphia and Chicago (in overtime) all were by one goal and by the same score, 5-4.
Kunitz and Tangradi to Pittsburgh, Whitney to Anaheim
The first of the two key trades engineered by Shero took place on Thursday, February 26. The Penguins gave up value to get value and promise.
Whitney arguably is the best player involved in the trade. But the Penguins had a need to fill on offense.
Whitney, age 26, was selected in the first round (fifth overall) by the Penguins in the 2002 entry draft and is in his fourth season in the NHL. He is a defenseman who has a combination of size – 6-foor-4, 219 pounds – and offensive ability that is in demand in the NHL.
Whitney’s best season so far was 2006-07. In 81 games, he had 59 points – 14 goals and 45 assists – and a +9 rating.
Whitney had 40 points and a -2 rating last season. But the drop in his statistics and his overall play can be attributed to a chronic problem with his left foot that had to be corrected by surgery during the off-season.
After the surgery, which took place in September 2008, Whitney missed the first 33 games of this season before returning to the Penguins for the December 23 home game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s likely that Whitney still isn’t back at full speed. In 28 games with the Penguins, his offensive production was good – 13 points. But he had a team-worst rating of -15.
The return of defenseman Sergei Gonchar to the Penguins’ lineup after missing the first 56 games of this season due to a shoulder injury suffered during the pre-season was one reason Whitney was available. The Penguins evidently decided that one defenseman who is a weapon on offense was enough for now. So they kept the stronger of the two – Gonchar – and traded Whitney.
Ironically, Gonchar’s first game back was Therrien’s last game as head coach, the 6-2 loss at Toronto on February 14.
Another reason Whitney was available is that the Penguins have depth at defense. Phillipe Boucher, a 16-season veteran acquired in a trade with Dallas in mid-November, has been on injured reserve since late January with a foot injury. He hopes to return before the end of the regular season.
And a promising youngster — rookie Alex Goligoski – was demoted to Wilkes Barre/Scranton because playing time was not available with the Penguins.
With both Gonchar and Whitney out long-term with major injuries, Goligoski made the Penguins out of training camp and played in 42 of the first 46 games. (Game 46 was the home game against Anaheim on January 16.)
Then, Goligoski played in only two of the Penguins’ next eight games and was a healthy scratch in the other six. He was sent to Wilkes Barre/Scranton on February 7.
While with the Penguins, Goligoski played well. He had 20 points — six goals and 14 assists — and a rating of +5. And he did a nice job on the power play. Eight of his points — four goals and four assists — came while playing a point position on the power play.
It’s safe to assume Goligoski is in the Penguins’ plans for the future. Shero reportedly received offers for three defensemen prior to the trade deadline – Whitney, Goligoski and Kris Letang. The Penguins held onto Goligoski and Letang, who is in his second season in the NHL, and traded Whitney.
Why did the Penguins seek Kunitz? They needed a wing who could fit the following role – play with toughness and provide enough offense to be among the top four wings and, as a result, justify being on one of the top two lines in five-on-five and power-play situations.
Bylsma, the Penguins’ new head coach, has a history with Kunitz. Evidently, Bylsma made a strong enough case for Kunitz that Shero made the trade.
Bylsma and Kunitz were teammates in the 2003-04 season on the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, the then American Hockey League affiliate of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Then in 2004-05, Kunitz remained a player for Cincinnati while Bylsma had a new role — assistant coach — after retiring as a player.
Kunitz broke into the NHL in 2003-04, playing in 21 games with Anaheim. After spending 2004-05 in Cincinnati, he became a regular with Anaheim in 2005-06.
The best season in the NHL so far for Kunitz was 2006-07. He had a career high in goals (25), assists (35), points (60) and penalty minutes (81).
Kunitz then helped Anaheim win its only Stanley Cup. In 13 playoff games, he scored six points (one goal and five assists) and had 19 penalty minutes.
Prior to joining the Penguins, Kunitz had 35 points (16 goals and 19 assists), a rating of +9 and 55 penalty minutes in 62 games this season with Anaheim.
In addition, an indication of the toughness with which Kunitz plays is the fact that he is in the top 20 in the league in hits. Kunitz is not afraid to make contact with opposing players.
In the time between being traded by Anaheim and the trade deadline, Kunitz played his first three games with his new team. He made an immediate positive impact by helping the Penguins win the first three games on a season-long road trip — five games.
Kunitz had five points – three goals and two assists – and a rating of +2.
In his first game, a 5-4 overtime win at Chicago on February 27, Kunitz helped the Penguins take a 2-0 lead in the first period by assisting on the first goal and scoring the second.
In the 4-1 win at Dallas on March 1, Kunitz had an assist on a goal by Letang that upped the Penguins’ lead to 2-0 in the first period.
And in the 3-1 win at Tampa Bay on March 3, Kunitz scored his two goals in the first period. An even-strength goal gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead. And a power-play goal put the Penguins back in front, 2-1.
In these three games, Kunitz skated on a line centered by Jordan Staal. That was because Crosby was out with a groin injury.
When Crosby is healthy, there’s a chance Kunitz will play on a line centered by Crosby.
Regardless of who he skates with on a line, Kunitz will play hard shift after shift, game after game, challenging for the puck and putting body checks on opposing players. And Kunitz will go to the net. Most of the goals he scores will be from close to the net and of the blue-collar variety.
The acquisition of Kunitz essentially gives the Penguins an apples-to-apples replacement for wing Ryan Malone, who now is with Tampa Bay.
A native of Pittsburgh, Malone spent his first four seasons in the NHL with the Penguins. (His father, Greg Malone, played his first seven seasons in the NHL — 1976-77 to 1983-84 — with the Penguins. Prior to this season, Greg Malone was named chief scout by Tampa Bay.)
Malone is a warrior. As a result, he was a favorite of his teammates and Penguins’ fans. But there was no way Shero could re-sign Malone due to the salary cap.
In July 2008, Shero dealt exclusive negotiating rights to Malone and wing Gary Roberts to Tampa Bay for a conditional fourth-round draft choice. After Malone signed with Tampa Bay — seven seasons for $31.5 million (US), the fourth-round choice was upgraded to a third-round choice.
With Malone gone and wing Marian Hossa having signed as an unrestricted free agent with Detroit, Shero was scrambling in the off-season to find a wing who would provide offense.
The Penguins ended up signing veteran Miroslav Satan, an unrestricted free agent, to a one-season contract.
Prior to joining the Penguins, Satan had 13 seasons of NHL experience. In 947 games with the Edmonton Oilers, the Buffalo Sabres and most recently the Islanders, Satan had 685 points. But Satan failed to impress in Pittsburgh.
In 65 games with the Penguins, he had only 36 points – 17 goals and 19 assists. And his style of play never has included the physical element that Kunitz provides.
In the end, Satan became a victim of the salary cap necessitated by not enough offensive production. He was waived by the Penguins on the day before the trade deadline — March 3. Thus, his salary — $3.5 million (US) — does not count against the Penguins’ cap number.
Satan has yet to decide whether or not to report to Wilkes Barre/Scranton. If he reports, the Penguins will continue to be responsible for his salary. And he could return to the Penguins for the playoffs, if they qualify, since the salary cap is not in effect during the post-season.
The Penguins saved money against the salary cap by trading Whitney for Kunitz. After this season, Whitney has four seasons remaining on his contract whereas Kunitz has three seasons remaining.
Guerin to Pittsburgh, Conditional Draft Choice to the New York Islanders
Satan had to go in order to enable the Penguins to make room under the salary cap for Guerin, who, as mentioned earlier, was acquired for a conditional draft pick from the Islanders. Guerin was obtained on the day of the trade deadline — March 4.
If the Penguins do not make the playoffs, the Islanders will receive a fifth-round pick in this year’s entry draft. If the Penguins make the playoffs, the Islanders will receive a fourth-round pick. And if the Penguins advance past the first round of the playoffs, the Islanders will receive a third-round pick.
Guerin is in the second and last season of a contract he signed with the Islanders in 2007. He can become an unrestricted free agent after this season. But if he helps the Penguins make the playoffs, he may decide to stay in Pittsburgh.
Guerin, age 38, is a similar player to Kunitz, who is nine years younger — 29. Guerin still has offensive ability. He still plays a tough, physical brand of hockey. And this writer believes he also will contribute to the Penguins in a leadership role despite being new to the team.
Guerin, who had been the captain of the Islanders prior to the trade, is in his 16th full season in the NHL. Prior to joining the Penguins, he had 799 points and 1,567 penalty minutes in 1,168 games.
And like Kunitz, Guerin has a Stanley Cup championship ring — earned in the strike-shortened 1994-95 season with the New Jersey Devils.
Splitting Up Crosby and Malkin
The acquisition of Kunitz and Guerin may enable the Penguins to have Crosby and Malkin play center on separate lines and possibly play on different power-play units.
It’s preferable for the Penguins to spread the world-class offensive talent of Crosby and Malkin. Thus, match-up problems will be created for opposing teams. For example, in even-strength situations, will an opposing head coach match his checking line and/or top defense pairing against the line centered by Crosby or Malkin?
And the Penguins still can use Crosby and Malkin together when needed, such as in an important situation late in a game.
Why Wasn’t Shero’s Grade an A?
Let’s see what becomes of Tangradi.
Since the Penguins have youngsters Crosby, Malkin and Staal as their top three centers, there will be no need to rush Tangradi to the NHL. And two of the centers — Malkin and Crosby — currently are 1-2 in the NHL in scoring.
If Tangradi doesn’t make the Penguins next season, he can gain seasoning at Wilkes Barre/Scranton in the AHL. He also could be a bargaining chip in a future trade
If in the future Tangradi becomes a solid contributor to the Penguins or is part of a trade that brings a solid contributor to the Penguins, this writer will be glad to change the A- given to Shero to an A.