On the Penguins: Injuries to Crosby, Malkin provide potential benefit

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A lot of people seem to think that Ray Shero made a couple of pretty fair deals during the past week.

Understandably so.

There's good reason to believe that James Neal really is the young, goal-scoring power forward the Penguins have craved, and that he'll be able to give them 30 or so every season for the better part of a decade.

It's entirely possible that, now that Matt Niskanen is out of Dallas, both his confidence and the quality of his work will rise significantly.

And it's not out of the question that, even at age 38, Alex Kovalev has one last burst of brilliance in him, and that he's still talented -- and able to get focused -- enough to make a meaningful contribution during the stretch drive and playoffs.

Far from certain, to be sure, but not out of the question. And even if Kovalev fizzles, as he did in Ottawa, adding him didn't cost anything except a roster spot, a conditional seventh-round draft choice and a bit of the extra revenue generated this season by the city's new arena.

So even if Shero stops now, if he doesn't even accept a phone call from his fellow general managers between now and the trade deadline Monday at 3 p.m., his reputation for making shrewd upgrades to his roster around the deadline will make it through another year intact.

But there's a quirky little wrinkle in the NHL's collective bargaining agreement that shouldn't be forgotten, even though it's highly unlikely the Penguins will seriously consider trying to exploit it.

Shero was able to make the Neal-Niskanen trade because Evgeni Malkin is on the long-term injured list, and his $8.7 million salary-cap hit is off their books. Remember that Sidney Crosby, who has missed nearly two months because of a concussion, is on the LTI, too, which means the Penguins could bring in people to replace his cap hit, as well.

And this is where it could get interesting: The salary cap is not in effect during the playoffs, which means that, in theory, Shero could add players by using Crosby's cap space, but still be allowed to use Crosby in the playoffs without removing anyone from the roster to get down to the $59.4 million cap ceiling.

Mind you, if Crosby were to magically appear in the lineup for the playoff opener in mid-April after not being in a game since Jan. 5, other teams would protest vigorously (and rightly so) and the league would initiate an investigation to determine whether it really was just a coincidence that he was able to resume playing at just the right moment to let his club have the best of both worlds.

Don't look for that to happen, obviously, but the simple fact that it could means there's something else for the parties to discuss when talks for the NHL's next labor deal begin.

When next they meet ...

It's unlikely that anyone anticipated just how outrageous things would get at Nassau Coliseum back on Feb. 11.

Even those who figured the New York Islanders would respond in the most hostile way possible to the events of a game nine days earlier at Consol Energy Center couldn't have envisioned one that would yield 346 penalty minutes, 23 games worth of suspensions and enough toxic emotion to fuel a rivalry for decades.

But it did.

And now, many are bracing for a sequel when the Penguins return to Long Island on April 8 for the penultimate game of the regular season.

History, though, suggests that things will be pretty docile, that those who fear the game will descend even deeper toward the Dark Ages of the 1970s need not fret too much about it.

The NHL figures to warn both teams that any offense more hostile than a holding-the-stick minor will be punished with extreme prejudice and to assign a couple of its most experienced, capable referees to work the game.

While it would be misguided to blame referees David Banfield and Dan O'Halloran for not keeping the Feb. 11 game under control -- Art Skov and John McCauley, at their best, probably couldn't have prevented that one from deteriorating into a sad parody of hockey -- having veteran officials on hand should help to minimize the chances of a repeat of the kind of mess that so stained the sport.

The Week Ahead

Wednesday: at Toronto ... Games at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night are almost always special. Rematches there just four nights later? Probably, not so much.

Friday: at New Jersey ... The most recent time the Penguins visited New Jersey, the Devils didn't have a snowball's chance of qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Funny how a team's prospects can change when it decides to go weeks at a time between losses.

Saturday: at Boston ... The Penguins get their final regular-season look at a club that seems ready to make a serious run at its first Stanley Cup since 1972.

Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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