Written by Patrick Williams
Today the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets completed a trade moving prized winger Rick Nash to the blue shirts and out of the city he has known his whole career, Columbus. The deal could be the second large move this week from a divisional opponent should the Nashville Predators fail to match the offer given by the Philadelphia Flyers to their unrestricted free agent defenseman Shea Weber. Bringing top end talent to the Atlantic Division is nothing new, but it could be ill timed for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are coming off of a disappointing first round exit at the hands of the cross state rival Flyers.
The Penguins made a splash on draft day, an event the city hosted for the first time since 1997, at Consol Energy Center this June when they sent premier two way center Jordan Staal to Carolina. The trade was pulled off after Staal refused to sign a long term deal in what would be the last year of his contract. They later followed that move with an apparent salary dump of defenseman Zybnek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes, the team in which the Penguins had signed him away from. While Michalek never quite lived up to his contract in Pittsburgh, the same could not be said of Staal. All of this then paved the way for the Penguins to be major players in the summers top end free agent frenzy.
While it appeared it would be a long shot that the Penguins could sign both defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise on the free agent market, it did seem plausible that the team could perhaps land one of them and in the end be an improved roster on paper. This, as we all know, did not happen. The Minnesota Wild opened the bank vaults and lured both players in, leaving the rest of the league scrambling for a contingency plan.
The Penguins, however, didn’t seem to have one of those plans. Perhaps if you ask GM Ray Shero he would say that it never was the intent to go after those two stars, but now his team is placed in the precarious position of watching some of their biggest rivals get stronger while the Penguins play the waiting game.
The team could try to fulfill their needs from within. They do have a plethora of young defensemen. Although it could be argued that many of those defensemen are a fifth or sixth defenseman at best right now. There is a considerable drop off in defensive talent after Kris Letang and Brooks Oprik. Simon Despres appears to be ready to log significant minutes at the NHL level this season, but it remains to be seen if he can carry a load for a whole year plus playoffs. Remember, even Letang had his growing pains. Despres certainly has the skills to be a solid player in the league for many years. His skating, hands, and vision are all ahead of where most players his age are. He brings calmness to the ice with nearly every shift, a rarity for a rookie at his position. Still, his role is yet to have been defined by the team and finding a suitable, night-in and night-out, partner for him may prove to be harder than originally thought.
The Penguins are also still riddled with a high end contract on defenseman Paul Martin. Martin thoroughly struggled last season with the team and has not proven to be the type of player that they thought they were getting upon signing him out of New Jersey two years ago. At times it has been apparent that Martin has been somewhat of a liability on the ice and it remains to be seen if he can turn his career around. An option for Martin could be one that has been used for other players in the league in which the Penguins can send him to the minors and his salary would not count against the league’s salary cap. That would allow Pittsburgh to use the $5.5 million he makes elsewhere, whether it be a free agent, on resigning current players, or a player brought in via trade.
So what will the Penguins do before the puck drops on the 2012-2013 season? While the crust is still settling from the moves made in the Atlantic Division world this offseason Ray Shero and company must decide whether to pull the trigger and potentially over pay for a free agent this season, or simply roll the dice moving forward with the roster in place. Shane Doan will be in town to visit with the team this week and it is he and Alexander Semin that are left in terms of offensive producing forwards in free agency. The Anaheim Ducks have dangled power forward Bobby Ryan, but are expecting a lot in return via trade. They would most certainly be looking for some top end defensemen and it uncertain if anyone will be desperate enough to try and swing that deal just yet.
Did Shero screw up and move his most vital piece of trade bait too early? Did he do Jordan Staal too much of a favor in trading him to Carolina to be able to play alongside his brother Eric when he could have held on to the center until much later and perhaps driven up the asking price if Jordan had another outstanding season? All of that remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain; the Pittsburgh Penguins were a top end team in the league when healthy, but they were greatly exposed down the stretch run and playoffs last season defensively. Now it is time to figure out if Shero really can work his magic and finally land a player when all else has gone against him. After all, outside of the first year post lockout when Craig Patrick was in charge, the Penguins have never really brought in any big time free agents that have worked out in their favor. The rest of the division has made their moves and now we watch and see what the Penguins will do.