Tuesd… WEDNESDAY With Stoosh

 
It’s Trade Deadline Week, kids. 
 
Hockey Christmas.
 
Site hits to TSN will at least quintuple over the next week.
 
Your new best friend on Twitter is Bob McKenzie.
 
At 8:00 AM on Monday, you’ll have Tradecentre open alongside whatever spreadsheets you’re working on. 
 
You’ll be checking Twitter every five minutes. Productivity?  Forget it.
 
So maybe you just do the next best thing, call it a hockey holiday and take the day off. Kick back on the couch, fire up the laptop, tune in to NHL Network and spend it with the TSN crew.
 
(Just to make sure, the deadline is 3:00 PM, Monday, February 28. See? Don’t say I never did anything for you.)
 
For hockey fans and especially those of us who love to play armchair Ray Shero, hockey graces us with the Two Days of Hockey Christmas.  The first comes during the summer when free agency starts – the official unofficial start of the new season, Christmas in July for hockey fans.
 
The other, of course, is the Trade Deadline. For all teams, the Trade Deadline is gut-check time.  For some, it becomes a symbolic waving of the white flag.  Playoffs are a lost cause, so players are sold off to contenders for prospects or draft picks.  For others, it’s a chance to reach into the Lou Brown quotebook and shout from the rooftops…
 
We’re contenders now!
 
On Monday, Shero outdid himself.  He again shipped out a defenseman and again brought two players back. But this time, he pulled a deal you couldn’t swing against the dumbest owner in your fantasy hockey pool.
 
Gone to Dallas is defenseman Alex Goligoski.
 
Coming back to Pittsburgh are winger James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen. 
 
The response on Twitter was immediate and looked like this:
 
GOGO FOR NEAL AND NISKANENdhhdjdashfkahdsfhdkasjhfkjldsdkl
 
Several hours later, Pens fans were still trying to collect their thoughts on the trade and what this means for both the short-term (remainder of this year) and longer-term (2011-12 season and beyond) for the team.  Wanna know why you’re reading this on Wednesday instead of Tuesday?  That’s a big reason why. This was a statement trade in more ways than one.
 
Now that the dust has settled a bit, some thoughts on this trade, dudes, what it means for the Penguins and what kind of magic King Shero still has left in his hat.
 
 
FIRST OFF…THANKS, GOGO
Gogo became more of a whipping boy for the fanbase than he really deserved to be.  He certainly had his faults as a defenseman. He wasn’t a physical player in any sense and even by non-physical player standards, he got pushed around.  He used his mobility and skating to compensate for that, but it was a problem at times. His defensive-zone coverages were sometimes lacking, and his decision-making with the puck reached “Ryan Whitney” levels of “WTF are you doing?” at times. Not as often as Whitney, but enough that it was noticeable.
 
But Goligoski was improving.
 
It’s sometimes easy to forget that this is just his NHL career is just barely two and a half seasons old. He is on pace for career highs in goals, assists and points, and those numbers will have gone up now every year, barring injury.  His defensive coverage was improving as evidenced by the +20 rating he posted in 60 games this year with the Penguins, even though more than half his even-strength shifts came on the third pairing with either Engelland or Lovejoy. Plus-minus can be a misleading statistic, but you don’t post a +20 in 60 games by complete accident.
 
A few things sealed Goligoski’s fate in Pittsburgh, though, beginning with the signings of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin this past summer. With those signings, the Pens’ top four defensemen immediately became Oprik, Letang, Michalek and Martin, and all four are signed at least through the next three seasons.  
 
Goligoski was never going to crack that top four here.  He just wasn’t.  That’s not necessarily an indictment on him. That’s just as much a testament to the quality and balance that Shero has assembled with this defensive corps. And looking more long-term, the Pens had players in their system who bring similar qualities to the ice in Robert Bortuzzo and Simon Despres.  
 
This made Goligoski an expendable asset long-term, which is a nice luxury to have. On just about every other team in the league, Gogo is likely a top-four defenseman. He is developing well as a point man on the power play and his ability to throw a good breakout pass to start the transition made him an attractive asset to many teams.
 
The return he fetched in this deal is a testament to just how highly-regarded his offensive abilities & potential are in this league. And if Goligoski was ever going to be moved, this was precisely the type of return the Pens needed to get for him.
 
 
WINGER FOR SID
We’ve heard it repeated so many times over the last four years that it has almost become its own position on the Pens’ depth chart.
 
Winger for Sid.
 
Back when the Pens won the Crosby lottery, visions immediately began dancing in the heads of Pens fans of Crosby shattering the confidence of opposing goaltenders with tic-tac-toe passes he’d make with said unnamed winger. Or two. It would be the new generation’s version of Lemieux-to-Stevens-to-Jagr. It just made sense.
 
At some point, you’d see that super-skilled winger for Sid. But as his Pens career progressed, that star winger was never really there. 
 
During Crosby’s rookie year, John LeClair proved to be way too slow. Ziggy Palffy had no marbles. 
 

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Recchi never worked out. There was a brief run with Colby Armstrong in ’05-06, but that went away the next year when Army remembered that he was a third-line winger and played like it. Erik Christensen was tried at wing; no dice.  Michel Ouellet?  Mango Salsa was automatic within five feet of the net, but awful everywhere else.
 
Even while Malkin found chemistry with Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora, Crosby’s line was a revolving door of wings.  And that remained the case until Shero stunned everyone with the eleventh-hour deal at the ‘08 Trade Deadline that brought Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh.  
 
“Winger For Sid” problem solved at least for a few months.  As most of us expected, it was short-lived. Hossa was an unrestricted free agent and when he left that summer, it was back to the drawing board for 2008-09.
 
The deadline in 2009 brought in Chris Kunitz from Anaheim and Bill Guerin from the outhouse on Long Island.  Both found their way to Crosby’s line and results were immediate. Kunitz-Crosby-Guerin helped take the Pens to the Cup that year.
 
The success of the Three Center Model in 2009 plus the pending return of both Kunitz and Guerin tempered pretty much all of the “Winger For Sid” talk heading into last season. And for the most part, it proved successful again, especially when the Pens eliminated the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2009-10 playoffs.
 
Then came the series with Montreal.  It took seven games, a superhuman effort by Halak and some less-than-stellar defense and goaltending by the Pens, but the Habs beat the Three Center Model.  They took away the middle of the ice where Sid, Malkin and Staal like to operate and essentially dared the Penguin wingers to beat them. And they couldn’t. 
 
This past summer, Shero remade the defense but didn’t do much to address the wings for the top lines. Father Time had caught up to Uncle Billy and he rode off into the sunset. Kunitz was back, but beyond that, the lineup was largely Sid, Geno, Staal and a bunch of third-line wingers.  It was an anticipated weakness in the lineup, one that was hidden at least in part by Crosby’s unbelievable season and some timely offense from Letang and Goligoski.  Malkin’s struggles morphed the “Winger For Sid” concept into something more like “Top Six Forward”.   
 
But then Sid got hurt. Letestu got hurt. Malkin got hurt. Kunitz got hurt. Dupuis’s production suffered without Crosby. The lack of scoring depth on the wings was finally, glaringly exposed.
 
And that brings us to February 21, 2011, when Ray Shero decided to cross “WINGER FOR SID” off his general manager Bucket List.
 
 
REMAKING THE CORE
The moment this trade was announced, James Neal immediately became the best winger in the Penguins organization.  Outside of Beau Bennett – who is still likely three or four years away – the Penguins had no one in their system like Neal.  No other Penguins wing at the NHL or AHL level brings the kind of complete skill set that Neal does.
 
Neal has a heavy, accurate shot and he’s not afraid to use it. He’s a good skater who finds open areas of the ice well, particularly in the high slots. He should flourish on a line with either Crosby or Malkin, as both like to look to the high areas of the offensive zone to generate offense.
 
This is bigger than the Kunitz deal from a couple of years ago. Kunitz plays his crash role well and he’s an excellent forechecker, but he doesn’t really have the natural finishing ability or shot that Neal brings. And Neal is a better, more fluid skater than Tangradi.
 
This is bigger than the Guerin deal.  Guerin was at the tail end of his career. Neal is 23 years old just entering his prime years.
 
To that end, this is also bigger than the Hossa trade because this is not a rental. It adds a top-line winger, one who is signed through next season at a very manageable cap number.
 
So while this is a move designed to help bolster scoring for the remainder of this year, it’s also very much and perhaps even moreso a move made for next year and beyond.
 
In Neal, the Pens have added a player who fits in with the rest of this core in every conceivable way. He’s basically Crosby’s age. This is his third full season in the league and he’s now scored 20+ goals in each one.  If he maintains his current pace, he’ll finish with 29 goals this year, and that means his goal production will have gone up every year since entering the league. Much like the rest of this core, he’s produced big results at an early age.
 
Neal is going to be given every opportunity next year to remain in the core long-term, and this is as good an opportunity a player like him can really hope to receive.  He’ll almost always find himself on a line with Crosby or Malkin.  He’ll be playing in a system that suits his abilities, and conversely his game should allow him to contribute to the system.
 
Is he a 40-goal scorer next year?  That may be a stretch. 35 goals next year is probably more within the realm of reason for him.  But you never know. Crosby was turning Kunitz into a potential 30-goal scorer this year before he got hurt. Crosby’s the great equalizer like that.
 
And now he’ll finally have that winger. 
 
 
SO NOW WHAT?
Well, as it relates to the rest of this year, Shero’s almost not certainly done. Barring a horrible collapse over the last 21 games, the Pens should make the playoffs, and the Neal trade was a statement that this team isn’t going to go quietly this year.  
 
And why should they?  The Penguins still ice arguably the best defense-goaltending combination of any team in the Eastern Conference. Kunitz should be back this weekend.  Letestu is likely about two weeks away, maybe less. Dustin Jeffrey is also skating. And until the Penguins officially announce that they are shutting Crosby down for the year, he may be back at any point.
 
The Pens have been linked to Alex Kovalev from Ottawa, and most reports suggest that he could likely be had for a late-round pick, particularly the Pens’ 5th round pick in 2011.  Ottawa may hold out until Monday to see if they can drive up what’s been reported as mostly dormant league-wide interest on him.  The Pens may be willing to wait until Monday to see if the price comes down because there isn’t much interest, and Ottawa just wants to get rid of him. Why give up a 5th-round pick when you can give up a 6th?
 
You can do a lot worse than Kovalev for a late pick. It’s a very low-risk, potential high-reward move. He’s always marched to the beat of his own drum, but he’s not a locker-room cancer, nor is he a player who just does what he wants to do out there. He bought into Constantine’s system as a Penguin.  And he had no real problems buying into Guy Carbonneau’s system a couple of years ago in Montreal.
 
This is a team that needs goals and needs help on the powerplay.  Kovalev can help both, especially the latter.  For the cost of a late-round pick, it wouldn’t be a bad deal at all. 
 
The Pens have also been tied in recent reports to Cory Stillman and Chris Higgins of the Florida Panthers. Should Minnesota fall out of contention, some have mentioned the names Andrew Brunette and Antii Miettinen. All four are unrestricted free agents and would likely just be playoff rentals.
 
At the end of the day, who knows what to expect from Shero? If you would’ve told me this past weekend that I’ll now be able to find a #18 James Neal Penguins jersey at the PensGear store at Consol, I’d have said you were drunk. Not many seemed to see that deal coming at all, and maybe Shero’s got another one of those up his sleeve.  Maybe it’s just a rental to make the team a little more dangerous this year. Either way, it’ll be entertaining.
 
So sit back and enjoy the next few days.
 
It’s Hockey Christmas, folks, and Santa Shero is driving this crazy sleigh. 
 
As our game goes, this is one of the most wonderful times of the year.
 
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