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Analysis: Penguins Pragmatism Pays Off

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins’ roster received a makeover in the past two weeks. General Manager Ray Shero made several moves that have reshaped the team at a low cost.

With some pragmatic dealings, Shero considerably improved the Penguins’ wing position with the acquisitions of Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, Eric Tangradi and Craig Adams. The new wingers make the Penguins grittier, more balanced and a better team overall.

Shero – as he does every year – evaluated every player in the organization as the NHL trade deadline approached. The assessment was done to determine the state of the players in the system, where the team was overall, strengths, weakness and ways to improve.

The final analysis was that Pittsburgh was extremely strong at two positions: centers and defense. The Penguins have a plethora of talent and depth at these positions both on the NHL team and within the system.

At center, Pittsburgh boasts Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Maxime Talbot. In the system, the Penguins have Casey Pierro-Zabotel (the leading scoring in the Western Hockey League) and Keven Veilleux (second-round pick in 2007).

But the Penguins’ deepest and strongest position was defense. The team had nine NHL-caliber players at the blue line: Philippe Boucher, Mark Eaton, Hal Gill, Alex Goligoski, Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Ryan Whitney. Pittsburgh also has Carl Sneep (second-round pick in 2006) and Brian Strait (third-round pick in 2006) in the organization.

The losses of Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Marian Hossa, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts and Ryan Malone – to name a few – weakened the Penguins’ wing position.

Chris Kunitz/Getty
To improve the team overall and make Pittsburgh more balanced, Shero set out to strengthen the organization’s wingers and add more physicality to the lineup. In his first move, Shero made a deal from a position of strength (defense) to improve a weaker position (wing).

Thus, on Feb. 26 Shero traded Whitney to the Anaheim Ducks for wingers Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi.

Kunitz and Tangradi fill two needs for the Penguins. They not only improve the team’s depth at wing, but bring a gritty, physical presence as well. Both are hard-nosed players that go hard to the net.

But to get something, you have to give up something. Pittsburgh already had nine NHL-level defensemen and two high draft picks in the system. Plus, they had talented, puck-moving defenseman – like Letang, Gonchar and Goligoski – that could make up for the loss of Whitney. So seems a pretty logical move to make.

“I think with the emergence of Kris Letang, with Gonchar coming back and with Alex Goligoski’s development this year,” Shero said after the trade, “it gave us one extra defenseman in terms of trying to get a top six forward, which I think we have with Chis Kunitz.”

The trade not only improved the wing position for today, but also for tomorrow. Kunitz, who has three more years on his contract, stepped right into the Penguins’ lineup and has been productive with three goals and two assists in four games.

Eric Tangradi/Getty Images
Tangradi (a second-round pick in 2007) joins Dustin Jeffrey and Luca Caputi to create a talented crop of 20-year-old wing prospects for the future. Tangradi has great size (6-foot-3, 207 pounds) and is a prototypical power forward. Tangradi is the Ontario Hockey League’s second leading scorer with 38 goals and 50 assists for 88 points, trailing on John Tavares who is projected to be the top pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

“He is a guy our scouts really liked, especially his draft year, and he’s having a great year in Belleville,” Shero said. “He’s a big left winger with real good hands and hockey sense. To add that type of player to our prospect pool I think is very important for us and a big part of the deal.”

Shero wasn’t done dealing though. He made two more transactions Wednesday before the NHL’s trade deadline passed. First, the Penguins claimed forward Craig Adams from waivers. Then Pittsburgh traded a conditional draft pick to the New York Islanders for winger Bill Guerin.

Getting Guerin was a steal. A player of his caliber, even being 38 years old, would normally garner at least a second-round pick. But it was a cautious market in this year’s deadline and the Penguins played their cards perfectly.

In Guerin, Pittsburgh acquired a veteran power forward and gifted goal scorer. He’s netted over 400 goals in his 17-year NHL career and loves to play physical in front of the net and along the boards. Guerin tallied an assist in his first game with Pittsburgh, which was also the 800th point of his career.

“Billy brings that veteran presence,” Shero said. “He’s a right winger with a right shot, and he can still skate. He’s got size and I’m hoping he’s going to be able to re-energize his career here with Pittsburgh. Hopefully it’s a good move for both of us.”

Bill Guerin/Getty
And all Pittsburgh gave up was a conditional pick. As it stands now, New York will receive a fifth-rounder from Pittsburgh (which originally belonged to Tampa Bay so the Penguins retain their own pick in the round). If the Penguins make the postseason, the Islanders will receive a fourth-round pick. If Pittsburgh wins its opening playoff series and Guerin plays in 50 percent of the games, New York will receive the Penguins’ third-round pick (Pittsburgh has Tampa Bay’s third-round pick, which will be a fairly high pick in that round).

While Kunitz and Guerin will be on the top two lines, Adams will help solidify the Penguins’ fourth line. He’ll be a physical, role player – a job he has excelled at in his career.

“Craig has been a role guy,” Shero said. “He’s a right-handed shot. He’s 6-foot, 200 pounds. He’s won a Cup with Carolina. He’s a gritty guy and for us to solidify our fourth line and our depth up front, which is important.”

All in all, the Penguins added two top-six forwards (Kunitz and Guerin) a top prospect (Tangradi) and a role player (Adams).

Shero improved the Penguins’ wing position with physical, gritty, character players. The moves make the team more balanced throughout the organization and better overall.

Shero’s goal was to improve the Penguins. Mission accomplished.

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