With the trade deadline a week away, the Pittsburgh Penguins sit in sixth place in a tight Eastern Conference with a record of 33-21-5 for 71 points. They are also third in the Atlantic Division.
The Penguins have been playoff contenders for the last five seasons, and there is no reason to believe they won’t be this year. But should Penguins general manager Ray Shero look to boost the team to try and give them an edge over the red-hot New York Rangers or the arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers?
One thing Shero does not have to do at the deadline is get more offense. With Sidney Crosby remaining on the sidelines, Evgeni Malkin has stepped up and filled the void left by Crosby’s talent. Malkin is currently second in the NHL with 32 goals and first with 71 points. He has nine points in his last five games, including a five-point performance over the Winnipeg Jets. Any concerns about lasting effects from his knee injury are in the past.
James Neal, acquired last season from the Dallas Stars, is having a breakout year. He has the first 30-goal campaign of his career under his belt and sits first in the NHL with 13 power-play goals. Neal was scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer, but Shero put any questions about Neal’s future to rest on Sunday, signing him to a six-year deal worth $30 million.
On defense, Paul Martin, signed to a five-year, $25 million contract last summer, has struggled this season. After posting 24 points and a plus-nine in 2010-11, Martin has dropped to 18 points and a minus-11. Martin’s performance has him in line for a trade, especially with a top defensive prospect like Simon Despres waiting in the wings. However, Martin has a limited no-trade clause, and it will be difficult to find a team eager to take on his contract.
Ben Lovejoy could also be a possible target. He has not gotten into a game since Feb. 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and has three points in 26 games this year. Lovejoy is still a young player, and sitting in the press box is not good for his development. He has a salary of $525,000 and is signed through next season, so it would not be hard to find a trade partner, especially with teams who are always eager to build their blue line.
Marc-Andre Fleury is the team’s clear franchise netminder, but things look troublesome behind him. Brent Johnson is in the final year of his deal, but has performed miserably, posting a 3-7-2 record with a .882 save percentage and 3.17 GAA. He is also 34 years old, and although he makes just $600,000, his record and age don’t exactly make him valuable.
Brad Thiessen is probably the best goaltending prospect in the system, but he has come back to earth after being named the AHL’s goaltender of the year in 2010-11. He went 35-8-1 and put up a .922 save percentage and 1.94 GAA with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
However, as of right now, he is 20-14-2 with a 2.88 GAA and a .885 save percentage. This does not inspire a lot of confidence should Fleury go down with an injury, especially since Thiessen has never seen regular season NHL action.
The Penguins might want to look for an experienced backup before next Monday, but it doesn’t seem to be priority number one.
Shero has never been a GM to make panic moves or overpay for a rental, but he knows how to get the impact players. Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, picked up in 2009, became crucial parts of the team’s Stanley Cup run. If Shero does dip into the market, he could pick up an under-the-radar player who has the potential to come to Pittsburgh and do big things. Don’t write off anyone he does pick up.
Overall, though, this has the makings of a quiet deadline in Pittsburgh. If Shero chooses not to pick up a stopgap, he may only end up moving prospects and draft picks. There is no reason for a big shake-up even when one looks at the team’s consistency issues since the end of the All-Star break.