Don’t say I didn’t warn you: the NHL trade deadline is just a week away.
If it seems to be approaching quicker than usual, it’s probably because the Olympics diverted your attention for about three weeks. Either that, or maybe it’s that last year’s deadline was near the end of March due of the lockout-shortened schedule.
At any rate, NHL clubs have until next Wednesday to put the finishing touches on their rosters before the drive to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins might be more willing to deal than most teams, if only because of the sudden perceived need on defense with Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (broken hand) both out of commission indefinitely.
But while the blueline admittedly looks a bit barren with those two minutes-eaters in the press box, the Penguins’ greatest opportunity for improvement is still at the forward position. In what has become a constant refrain every spring in Pittsburgh, the team could use another top-six winger.
That die was cast in late December, when top-liner Pascal Dupuis suffered a season-ending knee injury. Rookie Brian Gibbons has been the best fit on Sidney Crosby‘s right wing since, but it’s difficult to imagine the Penguins opening the playoffs with that setup.
Pittsburgh’s second line of Jussi Jokinen-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal should be good to go, but Beau Bennett‘s extended rehab of a broken wrist makes the third line look rather pedestrian at the moment, no offense to ace defensive center Brandon Sutter. Taylor Pyatt, Joe Vitale, Craig Adams and Tanner Glass all fulfill their bottom-six duties with similar efficacy, although an upgrade would be welcomed.
If we assume Tomas Vokoun will come back at some point this season, goaltending is set. The position might already be that way if competent first-year NHLer Jeff Zatkoff is assigned to back up Marc-Andre Fleury.
We’re hearing a lot of chatter about the possibility of Penguins general manager Ray Shero adding another veteran defenseman, but I’d like to see the franchise entrust more of its fate to the blueline prospects it’s drafted and developed. Already this season, we’ve seen Olli Maatta become a legitimate teenage sensation and prospects like Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson prove themselves capable at the NHL level.
Plus, even without Letang and Martin, Matt Niskanen is having a career year, Rob Scuderi should be refreshed for the final weeks and Brooks Orpik can still handle top-four minutes. Fill in the blanks with some combination of Robert Bortuzzo, Deryk Engelland and Simon Despres and you have a versatile, if somewhat inexperienced, defensive corps.
At some point the Penguins have to trust the pedigree of the backliners they’ve cultivated. This could be a year that Shero rides with youth on defense and once again looks to augment up front.