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Melrose: Pens team to beat despite Crosby injury

by Barry Melrose /

Originally I was going to talk this week about who I thought would reel in the big fish at the upcoming trade deadline on Wednesday. You might see some big names move like Edmonton's Ryan Whitney or maybe Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester, and there are definitely teams like the Boston Bruins or Chicago Blackhawks that I think will look to get deeper in certain areas before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But something strange happened last week.

All of the big fish got traded already -- and they're all in Pittsburgh.

If you had told me eight days ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be sitting here with Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray, I would have said you were nuts, but the Penguins found a way to do it. The good general managers always find a way to do it, and Ray Shero's now done it a couple of times -- not only this season, but in past years with Bill Guerin and Marian Hossa. One of the main reasons Shero can make moves like this is that players know what kind of an organization the Penguins are and they want to be a part of it. Iginla wanted to go to Pittsburgh.

The Penguins were already probably the best team in the NHL before they made any of these trades -- at least if the last month is any indication. Pittsburgh has won 15 games in a row now, and that's not an accident. With these acquisitions, though, it's hard to think there's any other team that could be picked as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup this June.

But those plans had an interesting wrinkle thrown into them when the deflected puck heard 'round the world injured Sidney Crosby this Saturday. Crosby might be the best player in the world, so losing him to a broken jaw -- the Penguins have only said that he is out indefinitely at this point -- is no small concern.

But I don't think a lengthy absence by Crosby will have all that dramatic of an effect on the Penguins and here's why: If Crosby is out for any extended period of time, all that means is Evgeni Malkin will play better. If you look at his past statistics, the numbers bear this out. Malkin is almost always more productive with Sid out of the lineup due to increased opportunities with the puck. As crazy as it sounds, Crosby being out might be a blessing in disguise because it means Iginla will play more and Morrow will play more, meaning they'll have an opportunity to develop chemistry with their teammates, and Malkin will get more opportunities to be the offensive force we know he can be.

The other thing to keep in mind with these trades is the guys Shero brought in are great guys. Morrow and Iginla have both been captains and Murray plays hard every night. These aren't questionable guys, they're guys that'll make the dressing room better, and you can never have enough of those. The Penguins might see their winning streak end because they're trying to get the new guys acclimatized to the system, but even that might not be the worst thing. No longer having a historic run will allow them to focus on the playoffs rather than thinking about what happens if they lose their next game and end the streak.

This trade will also affect other players in the locker room. Pascal Dupuis, who is having an unbelievable year, will probably not play with Crosby anymore, for example. But I think most of the guys will just be happy to be a part of a great organization with a great shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Iginla and Morrow, in particular, have never won the Cup. Iginla came close with Calgary in 2004, when the Flames were one goal away from a championship before losing Game 6 in double overtime and dropping Game 7 in Tampa Bay. Morrow played in the Stanley Cup Final with the Dallas Stars as a rookie, but lost to the New Jersey Devils.

Neither player has been back to the Stanley Cup Final, and they're going to be very fired up and passionate about potentially winning it all for the first time. That's a good thing. That can inspire the rest of the guys in the locker room who have already tasted success.

The only things that would concern me if I was a Penguins fan are the injuries to Kris Letang and Paul Martin, two of their top defensemen. Murray will help fill that void, but he's a different type of player. Martin and Letang both jump into the play and create offense. They're great first passers of the puck, and Letang is a guy that can carry the puck out of his own zone very well. If the two of them are both gone for an extended period, or part of the postseason, that could be significant cause for concern against some of the better offensive teams in the late rounds of the playoffs.

The good news, though, is the Penguins are playing a very good brand of team defense right now. They've only given up nine goals in their last 11 games, including shutouts in their last three times out. That is just phenomenal defense, and it's certainly going to help. That said, you can't lose two of your best defenseman for, say, three weeks and continue to play like this. There are a lot of games you'll play in that stretch. They'll still score, there's no doubt about that. Their power play will still be awesome, too, but now you might have to play a forward on the point instead of two defensemen, and that can be a little worrisome and lead to some shorthanded opportunities for the other team. As long as there's no situation where they both miss the first round of the playoffs, though, I think the Penguins will be OK.

Despite all of those injuries, this is a lineup that is just loaded, it's a lineup that's deep, and everyone is playing well right now. With the way the Penguins have bolstered their roster heading into the trade deadline, regardless of who is hurt at the moment, I have to think they'll still win the East.

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