COMMENTARY | While the Sochi Winter Olympics and men's hockey tournament are the big events on the horizon, the 2014 NHL trade deadline lurks right around the Olympic corner.
And even though the Pittsburgh Penguins are way ahead of the Metropolitan pack, no team is ever beyond the need for improvement.
Pascal Dupuis is done for the year and the team's top six defensemen are handily outscoring its bottom six forwards. With apparent roster needs on Sidney Crosby's right wing and on the third and fourth lines, the trade deadline is an attractive way to improve in a hurry.
Last year's trade haul of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen looked like an all-timer until the Pens ran into Boston in the East Finals. Nonetheless, that group helped the Penguins run away with the first seed in the conference, and GM Ray Shero will be hard-pressed to make an encore performance of that caliber.
Given the team's salary-cap situation, Shero and his team will be hard-pressed to make an encore performance of any kind.
Since the March 5 NHL trade deadline is exactly one month away, rumors will begin to mount in earnest over the coming weeks.
Given that, it's important to understand what the Penguins can do, what they can't do, and how market factors will affect their ability to makes moves.
1. Understanding the difference between cap space and LTIR space.
When the Penguins brought on the likes of Iginla and Morrow last season, they didn't have to worry about fitting those veterans into their cap structure. The 2013 NHL salary cap was at an all-time high of $70.3 million, and the Pens used that to their advantage.
The 2014 NHL salary cap was reduced to $64.3 million, a provision agreed to last year as the league and player's union sought to end the lockout. While that $6 million reduction put a squeeze on everyone, new deals for Rob Scuderi ($4 million) and Dupuis ($3.75 million) are exerting extra pressure on the Penguins.
Of course, real payroll doesn't exactly have to match up with cap restrictions.
Teams have all manner of creative ways of making their rosters cap compliant. One that Penguins fans have heard all season, especially in lieu of the team's comical injured list, is Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR).
Using LTIR space is a good way for teams with significant injury problems to field a complete roster, and doesn't put the team at risk of exceeding the salary cap in the process. And the big thing to understand about LTIR space? It doesn't subtract from a team's total cap payout, but allows clubs to take on salary exceeding the cap by an amount equal to the contract of LTIR-designated players.
That money that is available to them so long as the player remains on LTIR.
Dupuis and Tomas Vokoun are Pittsburgh's LTIR attendees for the time being, and the team has been using the provision to field a complete roster all season -- there's a good chance that Matt Niskanen's breakout season may be going on with a different club if not for Vokoun's preseason issues with blood clots.
Put simply, the team has been over the salary cap all season. Without LTIR space, they wouldn't be able to keep the team they have together, never mind bringing in assets from outside the organization.
2. Forget the payroll for a moment. What does the roster call for?
Pittsburgh's trade activity will most certainly be limited by its salary cap situation. Still, there's no harm in identifying needs.
The Pens hardly want for defensive help. The club ranks sixth in the NHL in goals against and has the most effective penalty kill in the league. Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent, rookie backup Jeff Zatkoff has earned his keep and the defense has proven itself capable of holding down the fort no matter who is missing from the lineup.
That depth does not extend to the team's forwards.
It seems that the Penguins are in search of wingers for Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at every trade deadline. This season was shaping up to be the first in ages in which both of the team's franchise centers were happy with their linemates.
Dupuis's injury obviously threw a stick into those spokes, and so every big-name right winger with a scoring touch and moveable contract is going to be linked to the Penguins before March 5.
That doesn't mean the Penguins could, or should, make a play for another expensive asset.
With their cap woes, they won't be able to entertain a mid-tier winger with an otherwise affordable deal. Not without subtracting from the current picture. Getting Crosby help on his right wing will likely mean looking within the organization.
Though the Penguins have always fielded a premier group of defensive prospects at the expense of their forward prospects, a few call-ups this season have represented themselves well.
Beau Bennett is first in line to play with Crosby and Chris Kunitz. He was with the Penguins' opening-day roster and has the pedigree to play top-line minutes. Though his NHL experience has been limited by injuries (just 12 games this season and 38 for his career), he still has more experience than any of the Pens' forward call-ups.
Brian Gibbons has spent time on Crosby's wing of late, and his speed and passing have seen him capable of keeping up. Joe Vitale is a candidate to play that wing, and Jayson Megna, another rookie call-up, has speed, hands and a low-rent contract that could make him a fit on Crosby's wing.
If any one of those players has the speed to keep up with Crosby, they certainly have the speed to help Brandon Sutter field a faster, more offensively adept third line.
The Pens can ship off as much salary as they want to address the absence of Dupuis or any other perceived need, but they may have the assets to do so already in their control.
3. So how long do teams have to decide who they're going to trade?
Trade chatter has picked up over the last week, even though the deadline is set for March 5. The Olympics are the reason talks seem to have begun in earnest so early.
Due to the Olympic layoff, NHL teams will be under a roster freeze for two weeks from February 7 to February 23. In that time, no trades can occur.
Unless anything takes place before Friday, the entire trade market will have to be set in just 10 days, from February 24 through March 5. That's a short window for teams to identify trade targets, their place in the standings, and to decide whether they will be buyers or sellers.
For the Penguins in particular, this freeze will force a new way of doing things. GM Ray Shero and his staff have taken to making trades ahead of the rest of the market in recent years. Deals for James Neal and Matt Niskanen in 2011 and Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray in 2013 all took place more than a week ahead of the trade deadlines in those years.
While the Pens open themselves up to overpaying for players in such early moves, they also open themselves up to getting players at relative steals (not to mention having their pick of available bodies).
With just ten days between the Olympics and the trade deadline, the entire market figures to be active at the same time. The Penguins like to be active before anyone else. If they indeed enter into the fray this season, they aren't likely to get the same jump on the rest of the league.
4. What's the trade market going to be like, anyway?
Each year, the NHL sends more than half its teams to the postseason. That often leaves just a handful of clubs as definite sellers by the time the trade deadline rolls around.
At the time of this writing, only four NHL teams sit more than 10 points outside a playoff spot with roughly 30 games to play. Each team has between four and seven games before and after the Olympic break and ahead of the March 5 deadline.
At best, perhaps only a quarter of NHL teams will be definite sellers by the deadline. Any GM worth his salt is going to command a premium for the players he parts with.
The Penguins have disposed of a number of draft picks and prospects in the Crosby-Malkin era, often spending those assets to load up for postseason stretch runs.
Last season alone, the Penguins parted with four draft picks and three prospects to haul in Iginla and company. Pittsburgh has seven selections in the upcoming 2014 NHL Draft, but no second rounder (that was traded to San Jose for Douglas Murray).
Unless something golden lands in their laps, Pittsburgh should hang onto future assets. No team can continually trade those assets for rentals and veterans without incurring a drought of talent down the road.
This year's market figures to be tight, if not downright unpredictable. The Penguins might do well to stay out of the mess altogether.
5. Lessons Learned
Just being active at the trade deadline doesn't mean a team will be met with postseason success. Last year's club is Exhibit A.
The Penguins were drunk on talent and posted 4-plus goals per game in the first two rounds, but that didn't stop them from being disassembled by a Boston team that drafted and executed a perfect game plan.
It's really impossible to tell just how a trade will work out. While Bill Guerin and Jarome Iginla both seemed to have been cut from the same veteran cloth when they arrived in Pittsburgh, Guerin obviously enjoyed much more success in a Penguins uniform.
The only definitives a team can trade for are on paper.
Pittsburgh has traded for rental players (those with expiring contracts) in recent seasons, but those moves have tended not to be wild successes. Of the four players acquired last season, only Jussi Jokinen had term remaining on his deal, and only Jokinen has proven to be a real trade "win" for the Penguins.
Murray, Morrow and Iginla all departed last summer, while Jokinen has become a fixture on the second line and second power play unit.
Even beyond last year, the team has had little historical success with rental wingers. Marian Hossa comes immediately to mind. While Hossa was great for the Penguins in their 2008 Finals run, he burned the team in free agency the following summer.
In fact, it was Dupuis, the throw-in with remaining term who followed Hossa from Atlanta, who has turned into the winning chip in that 2008 trade.
Star wingers have always been the carrot at the end of Pittsburgh's trade stick, but their best deals have been for mid-tier wingers with experience, upside and years of control.
Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Jussi Jokinen and Bill Guerin are the best of Shero's trade deadline hauls. Each stuck around for more than one season, and each has proven a fit in Pittsburgh's schemes.
The cap is going to make a play for such a winger, even a mid-tier player with a relatively affordable AAV, just about impossible. The Penguins would have to shave a significant contract from their books to make a play for even a $3 or $4 million per year winger, and Shero and Dan Bylsma would be loathe to part with a core veteran so close to the postseason.
Useful players can be had for next to nothing. Shero managed to pull Jokinen out of the depths of Carolina's minor leagues, and he's turned into one of the team's leading scorers.
With no cap space and no idea how the trade market will take shape, what this team needs is not the next Iginla, but the next Jokinen.
Such deals may not be sexy, but the Pens' own history has proven them to be the best.
James covers the Penguins for the Yahoo Contributor Network and is an Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. Shower him with your praise and adulation on Twitter, @Slew_James.
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