As usual, GM Shero manages to fortify his lineup

Analysis: Penguins at the NHL trading deadline

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Ray Shero had coveted a goal-scoring winger -- ideally, a young one who plays a power game -- for a couple of years. Enter, James Neal.

Shero wanted a defenseman who could be effective on a third pairing, and landed Matt Niskanen in the same deal that brought Neal to the Penguins.

Shero, the Penguins' general manager, was seeking a rental winger who could upgrade his team's offense, and picked up Alex Kovalev for what should be one of the final selections in the 2011 NHL entry draft.

So while he wouldn't have minded bringing in a veteran forward and/or a depth defenseman, Shero accomplished just about everything he hoped to before the NHL trade deadline arrived at 3 p.m. Monday.

He didn't come close, though, to adding what the Penguins need most: An infallible faith healer.

Sure, the moves Shero made in the week leading up to the deadline fortified his lineup for the stretch drive and playoffs, but what the Penguins really need to be a legitimate contender is a healthy Sidney Crosby.

Unfortunately for Shero, he couldn't get that by parting with conditional draft choices or gifted prospects. It will take some serious luck, or perhaps something closer to a medical miracle.

Crosby hasn't played in nearly two months because of a concussion, and his return still seems to be weeks -- or more -- away. While it certainly is premature to write him off for the season, it would be equally misguided to expect him back anytime soon.

Not when he still hasn't made it past the "light workouts" phase of the recovery process.

And if Crosby doesn't play again until fall -- a nightmare scenario that management can't just shrug off as pessimism run amok -- nothing Shero could have done before the deadline would have put his club on the short list of Cup favorites.

In light of that, he did pretty well at deadline time. As usual.

Most years, Shero's signature moves at the deadline have involved bringing in "rental" players -- Marian Hossa, Bill Guerin, Gary Roberts, Alex Ponikarovsky, etc. -- although a few signed new contracts here.

He did that again Thursday, acquiring Alex Kovalev from Ottawa for a conditional seventh-round draft choice, in what has the potential to become a low risk-high reward exchange.

The Penguins experienced a Full Frontal Kovalev in their 6-5 shootout victory Saturday in Toronto -- he was guilty of a ghastly turnover that led to a Maple Leafs goal, but scored the Penguins' first goal and the one that decided the shootout -- and presumably can accept the pluses and minuses of his game.

Although Kovalev is the most flashy addition, Neal is the most important one for the long term. He is only 23, plays at least as big as he is (6 feet 2, 208 pounds) and has a documented scoring touch.

Neal's history says that he's good for 20-plus every season -- play him alongside Crosby, and 30 shouldn't be too much to expect -- and the Penguins obviously have a lot of faith in that, because he hasn't hit the net much lately.

Neal scored in his final game with Dallas before being traded here, but had failed to get a goal in the previous 10 games and is 0 for 3 since joining the Penguins.

He's getting shots and scoring chances, and his resume says those will translate to goals eventually. If they do -- and Neal said Monday he long has been a streaky scorer -- he could be part of this team's core for another decade or so.

The onus to score goals is on Neal, but responsibility for giving him a center whose skills best mesh with his game is on the coaching staff. Mark Letestu, anyone?

Niskanen was widely viewed as something of a throw-in on a Neal-Alex Goligoski trade, and perhaps that's what he will prove to be. So far, however, aside from a couple of glaring blunders in his debut, Niskanen has been pretty sound at both ends of the ice. A nice pickup.

None of the guys Shero added before the deadline transformed his team into a can't-miss challenger for a Cup -- only Crosby's return could do that -- and there are other variables that figure to play a more prominent role in how long the Penguins last in the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury's goaltending, of course. How healthy the Penguins, who had 10 guys out of the lineup over the weekend, can get and stay. Their willingness to play with the discipline needed to reduce the number of penalties they have to kill.

That doesn't detract from what Shero did to improve the Penguins' present without jeopardizing their future. But it also can't change that just how much success his team will have this spring ultimately will fall to forces even more powerful than a general manager.


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