GM Don Waddell saved the best for last Tuesday.
In a deal that was consummated just before the trade deadline arrived at 3 p.m. ET, Waddell pried Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, uber-prospect Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Marian Hossa, the premier potential unrestricted free agent on the market.
Atlanta also sent Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh in the deal.
The move shook up the Eastern Conference picture after the Western Conference dominated the early part of Tuesday’s action. San Jose made a strong play by acquiring puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell and Dallas stole the early headlines by acquiring Tampa Bay center Brad Richards in a five-player deal.
But Hossa was considered the crown jewel of the trade targets available, especially after Toronto’s Mats Sundin refused to waive his no-trade clause earlier in the week. Several teams were said to be hot on Hossa’s trail. But the Penguins were not on many of those lists.
Yet, it was Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero who walked away with Hossa, making his Penguins an even more legitimate contender for the Eastern Conference crown. The 29-year-old right winger has 26 goals and 30 assists in 60 games this season, ranking second on the Thrashers in points.
“This is a deal that was made more or less at the last minute. The chances a month ago for us to get Marian Hossa was about five percent,” Shero said. “I think he is a world-class player. He’s going to be a huge asset for our team.”
Hossa figures to be a perfect complement to first-line center Sidney Crosby, who is expected back soon from the high ankle sprain that has sidelined him since Jan. 18. Until Crosby returns, Hossa will most likely play with Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins’ leading scorer and top setup man with 48 assists, including one in Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday.
Either way, Hossa should see his goal numbers climb during the final month of the season and the Penguins are hoping he will provide the offensive boost that will help them pass the New Jersey Devils for the top spot in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.
Hossa, who's expected to join his new team in Boston for Thursday's game, said he's thrilled to be a Penguin.
“I’m really looking forward to joining this group,” he said. “You look at the centermen and you have Sid, Malkin and (Jordan) Staal. They are some really strong, great young players. They have good goaltending and good moving defensemen. They create lots of offense. I am really looking forward to playing with these guys.”
Hossa may play on a line with Crosby once he returns to the lineup.
“I don’t know who I will play with. If I play with Sid, that’d be great,” Hossa said. “He is the best centerman in the league, and it would be a pleasure to play with him.”
The Penguins are in fourth place in the East before the deal, but are just one behind the Atlantic Division-leading Devils, the No. 1 team in the conference with 80 points. Each team has 18 games remaining. Ottawa, which was also in the Hossa hunt, is tops in the Northeast Division and second in the East with 78 points, one ahead of Montreal.
Southeast Division-leading Carolina has just 71 points, but is third in the conference by virtue of leading its division.
Pittsburgh also received Dupuis, a versatile 28-year-old forward who has 10 goals and 15 points this season. Dupuis has scored at least 10 goals in each of his six NHL seasons.
Pittsburgh also made another deal Tuesday, obtaining physical, shut-down defenseman Hal Gill from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a pair of draft picks.
“He’s a good shot blocker, and he’s had playoff success,” Shero said. “He’s a big guy to play against bigger players. I think he will match up well with bigger players.”
As expected, the cost of changing the face of the Eastern Conference race via the acquisition of Hossa came at a huge price.
Waddell insisted for much of the last month that he could easily hang onto Hossa and try to ride him deep into the playoffs. But a recent run of poor results has left the Thrashers seven points out of the last playoff berth with just 19 games left. So Waddell opted to play several contending clubs against one another to compile the best possible package.
"I had six pretty darned good options," Waddell said. "If the deadline would have been (two hours later) at 5 o'clock, I don't know what I could have done by that time."
That package ended up being two NHL wingers in Armstrong and Christensen, a first-round pick from last year’s draft in Esposito and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, considered to be one of the deepest in recent memory.
However, Waddell dismissed the notion that he threw in the towel on this season by trading Hossa.
"We weren't packing away our season," he said. "If we were, we'd have traded all our (unrestricted free agents). There's no quit on this team, we'll play until the end."
Despite losing two talented young players, Shero said he wasn’t worried the players the Penguins traded — he was more interested in the ones they got and how to get them integrated into a team hoping to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
"Chemistry is very important, and this team has to come together very quickly," Shero said. "But I still think we have the young assets to be a long-term contender."
Armstrong, 25, was a first-round pick in 2001 and is a classic power forward in training. He has nine goals and 24 points in 54 games this season and has 37 goals and 98 points in 181 games. He is also a character guy that brings passion to the room.
Christensen, 24, is a lower-line center who has nine goals and 20 points this season in 49 games. He recently returned to the lineup after missing several games with a shoulder injury. In 143 NHL games, Christensen has 33 goals and 33 assists. He’s also one of the NHL’s best performers in shootouts.
Esposito was Pittsburgh’s first-round pick, No. 20 overall, in last year’s NHL Entry Draft. Esposito, one of just two players to be cut from Canada’s World Junior team three times, is having a middling season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The 18-year-old center has 55 points in 48 games with the Quebec Remparts.
The Thrashers will receive a first-round pick in the extremely deep 2008 Draft — which means that when all is said and done Waddell and the Thrashers will be able to add four under-25 assets for Hossa.
In the meantime, Waddell got his first taste of life without Hossa — the Thrashers lost 5-1 Tuesday night in Montreal, falling seven points out of the last playoff spot. The true measure of the deal won't be felt until Armstrong and Christensen join the team.
"Now I tell them to just put it all behind them," Waddell said. "Tomorrow's a fresh start. We have two new players who will join our team and obviously they'll play on the top three lines. We'll have a good skate and then try to set up some lines."