This is not supposed to happen in the NHL.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are not supposed to be able to add Jarome Iginla, not when they had already added Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray. Not when they already had last year’s Hart Trophy winner and this year’s presumptive MVP. Not when they already had a supporting cast that included other top scorers and character players and a Norris Trophy candidate and a Stanley Cup-winning goalie. Not when they were already on a double-digit winning streak.
Thanks to the hard salary cap, there aren’t supposed to be teams like the Detroit Red Wings of the early 2000s, who blew out their budget and stockpiled future Hall of Famers. There aren’t supposed to be teams like the New York Yankees of legend or the Miami Heat of “The Decision.”
Thanks to the hard salary cap, there isn’t supposed to be room on the payroll or the roster. The talent is spread evenly throughout the league. The standings are tight, if not from top to bottom, then close to it. The idea is that if you make the playoffs, you can win the Cup, like the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings did last season.
Well, it happened, anyway.
[Puck Daddy: The tale of the 'Iginla Trade' GMs: Feaster vs. Shero]
The Penguins pulled it off. They landed Iginla early Thursday morning when people across the hockey world thought he was headed to Boston, partly because they thought the Penguins just couldn’t do any more, partly because they thought Bruins had to keep up with what the Penguins had already done.
How do the Bruins keep up now? How does anyone? There is not another Iginla to rent before Wednesday’s trade deadline, unless maybe the Dallas Stars can’t sign Jaromir Jagr to an extension and decide to move him. To add another player of that stature might take more of a true hockey trade.
That doesn’t mean the Bruins or anyone else will give up and hand the Cup to the Penguins. We’ll have to see what other moves are made and which ones work. We’ll have to see how these pieces fit in Pittsburgh, how the chemistry develops, what the matchups are, if the Penguins stay healthy, if they can keep the puck out of their net – how much more motivated opponents are to knock them off.
But what this does mean is that, not long after the misery of a lockout that erased almost half the season, things just got a hell of a lot more fun in the NHL, especially in Pittsburgh.
By going all in, the Penguins have made themselves the odds-on favorite to win the Cup – even over the Chicago Blackhawks, who opened the season with a 24-game point streak and still lead the Penguins in the league standings. They have raised expectations to the highest level, helped stop the talk that there aren’t great teams anymore and given the league’s glamor team even more pizzazz. Some will love ’em and root to see history. Others will hate ’em and wait for the fall.
[Puck Daddy: Jarome Iginla traded to Pittsburgh, not Boston, in late-night stunner]
Penguins general manager Ray Shero is known for being aggressive before the trade deadline. He has brought in players like Chris Kunitz, Marian Hossa, Bill Guerin and Hal Gill, and he has gone deep and won the Cup. He has brought in players like Alexei Ponikarovsky and Alexei Kovalev, and it hasn’t worked. But he has always tried, and this was a special circumstance, a unique opportunity for the Penguins to seize.
They have won only one playoff series since winning the Cup in 2009. They have lost three straight first-round series to lower-seeded teams. A big reason for that has been that they haven’t played at full strength, missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and other key pieces at times.
Now Crosby is not only back after two years of battling concussion problems, but back to the level he had reached before he got hurt – when he had separated himself from the rest of the league. He is the runaway favorite to win the Hart, clicking on a line with Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
Malkin won the Hart last season, clicking with right winger James Neal. He has been injured, and so has Kris Letang, a candidate for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defensemen. But both should be ready for the playoffs.
The Penguins have questions marks: Is the defense good enough, especially for the grind of the playoffs? Does it matter if Marc-Andre Fleury has won a Cup when he has struggled in the playoffs since then? But there are encouraging signs, such as the improvement of much-maligned defenseman Paul Martin and the performance of Fleury.
The salary cap is at $70.2 million this season, and the Penguins had space. The cap will go down to $64.3 million next season, and Malkin and Letang have one more season on their contracts, so the future is uncertain. The Penguins could also afford to give up some picks and prospects because of the way they have set up their organization.
Now was the time to strike. Now is the time to win. And when Shero tries to get Malkin and Letang to take a little less to stay, like Crosby did when he signed his huge extension last summer, this will be a selling point.
Shero added the captains of two other teams – Iginla and Morrow. He added an aging power forward who can still score and fight in Iginla. He added two slower players in Morrow and Murray, but both are gritty guys slotted for specific roles – Morrow digging out the puck at left wing on the second or third line, Murray clearing the front of the net and killing penalties on defense. He added three high-character people. He added no contract obligations beyond this season. He also upgraded a fifth-round pick to a third-rounder along the way.
What did he give up? Nothing off his roster.
He sacrificed Joe Morrow, a first-round pick in 2011, but a player who was breaking into pro hockey in the minors and wasn’t even one of his two best defense prospects, according to the Hockey News. He gave up two college players who aren’t even among his top prospects, according to the Hockey News.
He gave up a first-round pick, a second-round pick and a conditional pick that could be as high as a second-rounder. Those are valuable, especially the first- and second-rounders in this year’s draft, which is supposed to be strong. But those picks will come late in those rounds, the Penguins are built to win now and they’re still set up for the future, with more strong prospects in the system.
Why was he able to do it? Strong management and scouting, of course. But also because of luck – winning the Crosby lottery was the genesis of all this – and timing.
Iginla and Morrow had no-trade clauses, so they controlled their fate. Iginla didn’t seem to fit, because the Penguins had no room at right wing in their top six with Dupuis and Neal and little room under the cap to sign him to an extension.
But those no-trade clauses limited the competition. Morrow wanted to come to Pittsburgh, and Iginla wanted to come to Pittsburgh. Both were willing to play any role, hoping to win their first Cups after losing in the final earlier in their careers.
Iginla could have decided to go to Boston if he couldn’t play with Crosby, his Olympic linemate at the 2010 Vancouver Games. But he didn’t. He could have required an extension to get the deal done. But he didn’t. That says a lot about the Penguins’ chances and Iginla’s will to win.
This is not supposed to happen in the NHL. But it happened, anyway, and now the Penguins are supposed to win the Stanley Cup. They are the closest thing this league has to the Heat – with the best player in the world, with players choosing to play on one team, with talent and glitz and (potential) dominance.
And now the heat is on.
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