In nearly every season, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero has made his mark at the NHL's trading deadline to provide his team with an extra weapon to propel it toward a Stanley Cup run. Sometimes it's worked, like when he rolled the dice on Marian Hossa in 2008 and Bill Guerin in '09. Sometimes it hasn't worked, like the Alexei Ponikarovsky deal a season ago.
This year, despite the Penguins being solidly in the playoff chase, there's a different sense. Injuries have taken out a ton of forwards, but the most troubling are the injuries to the Pens' biggest guns. Evgeni Malkin, he of Conn Smythe playoff MVP honors, is lost for the season with torn ligaments in his knee. Sidney Crosby hasn't come close to sniffing the ice since suffering two head traumas (and at least one concussion) in the first five days of 2011. Crosby is still experiencing symptoms, and the elephant in the room is that he could be out for the rest of the season.
If that's the case, the Pens are basically dead in the water. Despite a stellar defense and great season from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins aren't viable contenders without Crosby and Malkin.
Further, the early trade market has set steep prices- Ottawa got a first-round pick (and possibly a second-rounder as well) for Mike Fisher, a nice player but more of a complementary one than a game-breaker. Boston gave up a second-round pick to Ottawa for lower-line center Chris Kelly. Toronto dealt young forward Kris Versteeg for a first and a third. Teams will have to pay a heavy price to acquire talent.
There could be one wild card, though. Up until a few weeks ago, he was considered toxic and could be acquired for virtually nothing. Since then, this player has put up five goals and three assists in seven February games. He turns 38 next week and his enigmatic playing style and lackadaisical effort will scare many away. This is why his trade value ought to be relatively low. The Penguins should look into Alexei Kovalev.
Yeah, that Kovalev. He's no longer the guy who scored 44 goals and put up 95 points with the high-flying 2000-01 Penguins team. But before he went to the barren wasteland of Ottawa - a graveyard for careers - Kovalev did score 84 points three seasons ago with Montreal. This year, in a messy situation, he's still got more points than "first-line" winger Pascal Dupuis.
The naysayers will gripe that Kovalev is not a "Bylsma player," meaning he doesn't forecheck relentlessly, he's prone to mistakes and his effort defensively leaves something to be desired. This is true. Others will mention Kovalev's age and his professional apathy, which are also two bad characteristics.
But you know who was a prototypical "Byslma player"? Ruslan Fedotenko. And he offered very little in terms of production, even playing with Malkin. The same can be said for Dupuis who, while an excellent PK'er and a player with great hustle, just doesn't produce points even when he gets to play with Crosby on his line.
The Pens won't have Malkin, and it's looking increasingly like they may not have Crosby. A team full of "Bylsma players" without the pure skill of two of the top offensive players is not going to do damage in the postseason. That's not exactly breaking any news, but it probably needs to be repeated every once in a while for those who get so caught up on the Penguins' preferred style of play that they forget twelve pluggers as forwards have never won a Stanley Cup.
Which means they need to look elsewhere for a boost in skill. Some of the names most mentioned in trade rumors (like Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner of Edmonton, R.J. Umberger of Columbus or Brad Boyes of St. Louis) would come at a premium. Shero would likely have to deal an important prospect and a high draft pick in order to acquire these younger options.
Enter Kovalev, a free agent at season's end. Ottawa, in dealing off Fisher and Kelly, is in pure rebuild mode. Surely they'd love to wash their hands of Kovalev. His recent production may have bumped up the asking price, but it still shouldn't be too high. Additionally, his $5 million salary for the rest of the season will scare away many contenders who are close to the salary cap. The Penguins, by virtue of having Malkin and Crosby on long-term injured reserve, could accept that contract easily, if they wanted to.
Would Alexei Kovalev ride in on a white horse and single handedly lead the Pens back to the Cup? No one is that deluded. But it can't be argued that he would infuse skill and a little bit of hope for a team that's suffered nothing but bad news in recent weeks.
Looking into trading for Kovalev isn't ideal, and it certainly isn't what anyone had hoped for, but it's an avenue Shero should at least consider, it's a low-risk option and there just aren't too many alternatives that make sense.