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Insider Only Penguins have the assets to upgrade their roster to an “A”

Monday’s 5-4 Penguin win over Buffalo was televised on Versus. During the second period, the network interviewed Pens GM Ray Shero. He was asked to give his team a grade on the ‘09-’10 season so far. After waffling for a moment or two, Shero eventually blurted out… “I guess about a ‘B’ would be fair.”
Wow. Shero must be a pretty hard grader. Glad I didn’t have him for a teacher. His curve would’ve been tough to deal with. At the time of this post (2/2/10) the Penguins had 71 points. Only four teams in the league (WSH, SJ, NJ, & CHI) had more. Pittsburgh was also sitting second in the Atlantic division, and fourth in the conference.
Then again, I’m sure most Penguin fans know where Shero is coming from. They are the defending Stanley Cup champs. Most of the roster is back and finally healthy.
Yet the club has had a pair of five game losing streaks. And with the power play woes of the team and some lagging defense of late, the general consensus of Pittsburgh’s hockey community seems to be that the Pens still have more to offer.
Perhaps the club’s recent stretch of play which has seen four victories in six tried raises Pittsburgh’s season grade to a B+. But even B+ doesn’t win Stanley Cups.
With that being said, assume another significant trade at the deadline by Shero. Before the team left for it’s recent Western Canadian road trip, defenseman Brooks Orpik predicted, “The answers are going to come from within this room. There’s not going to be another coaching change. There isn’t going to be another huge trade or anything.”
Orpik may be right. Clearly Dan Byslma won’t be going the way of Michel Therrien. And I wouldn’t expect Pittsburgh to land a major component again such as a Marian Hossa. They probably won’t even pull down the multiple flurry of trades that they have in year’s past (like grabbing both Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts in ‘07 and acquiring Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams, and Bill Guerin in ‘09).
But if the reigning Stanley Cup GM is only grading his team as a “B”, on February 1st… then expect at least one trade by March 3rd.
Luckily for the Penguins they have two positions of strength from which they can deal.

Number one, they have multiple defensemen who can play on the power play. Two of them, Kris Letang (22) and Alex Goligoski (24), are young. Both of them have a chance to be point men at the position someday. The other, Sergei Gonchar, might be one of the best power play quarterbacks in recent history.
The more I listen, the more I hear the Penguins would prefer to sign Gonchar (a free agent to be) for a few more years even if that means sacrificing one of (if not both) the other two “offensive” defensemen they currently have.
Neither Goligoski or Letang have had the breakout seasons the club was hoping for. They’ve combined for just nine goals this year. Neither stepped up and looked particularly efficient running the power play while Gonchar was hurt.
And even though Letang hasn’t been as good defensively as he was last year, he’s still ahead of the pace some thought he would be in his own end by this point of his career. Goligoski still has a long way to go in that department. But both are excellent skaters with upside.
Either player could bring a significant return in a trade.
Believe it or not, the other area in which the Penguins can deal from strength is draft picks. Yes, the Pens have traded away quite a few picks in recent years to land the likes of Laraque, Guerin, Hossa, and Hal Gil. Also, prospects such as Noah Welch and Angelo Esposito were moved. So one might think the farm system would be depleted and unable to help in the future.
But remember, Eric Tangradi (acquired in the Kunitz for Ray Whitney deal) almost represents a legit prospect the team didn’t have to draft itself. And how many other clubs have five home grown former first round picks since 2000 starting (and starring) at the level of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Staal, & Orpik? Not only that, but those guys are locked up under long term contracts. For instance, if Esposito were to have remained a Penguin what would he be doing? Centering a fourth line for the next five years?
So that’s another position of strength from which the Penguins can deal. Brent Johnson is also one helluva back up goaltender that may be a real commodity if a contender needs a starter due to injury between now and the beginning of March.
The Penguins may be a “B” team right now. But the likes of a Ilya Kovalchuk, Ray Whitney, R.J. Umberger, or Alexei Ponikarovsky may upgrade that roster to an “A” and another Stanley Cup.
With some of the chips Shero still has, the possibility exists for a Penguins upgrade before the deadline.

About The Author

Tim Benz

TIOPS Columnist

Tim Benz can be heard on the Pittsburgh Steelers Radio Network post game show and M-F 10-1 on TribLive Radio

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