Collier: Trade Deadline game probably not for Penguins

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Nine days remain until the National Hockey League trade deadline, but, as far as I can tell, there is no actual rule that says you must re-jigger your roster by Feb. 27.

Not in the board game anyway.

Trade Deadline Hockey, the honest-to-God board game ($29.99 Canadian), includes an electronic scorekeeper, 99 player cards, 33 game cards, 4 card stands, 4 player pucks and 1 die. But Trade Deadline Hockey, untrue to its name, imposes no real deadline. It's OK to play on Feb. 28. It's OK to play on July 28. It's for ages 8 and up, meaning even Jordan Staal and Sid The Kid can play.

But there's no virtual reality version available, so we'll just have to make due with the actual reality version, the one Penguins general manager Ray Shero and his 29 NHL counterparts have waded into with varying degrees of inspiration, trepidation, agitation, perspiration, et al.

In the board game, you simply must roll the die. In the NHL, you needn't, indeed, sometimes, you musn't. Given the philosophical bedrock and relaxed demeanor of Pittsburgh's first-year GM, I'm thinking the March Penguins will look amazingly like this morning's rookery, even if they're on a much more prominent ice flow that anyone anticipated.

"Trade-wise, there are not many players out there," Shero said at the approach of the weekend. "There are many more buyers than sellers, and nobody is on sale. From that standpoint, I don't anticipate a lot of major moves."

But in only the second year of the salary cap, the new NHL is still adjusting to its new balance of power and the attendant fresh political realities. No longer can the wealthier teams take on payroll and talent for an extended playoff run. Every move has serious cap implications. At least theoretically, someone such as Peter Forsberg was as readily available to the Nashville Predators as he was to the New York Rangers.

As such and what-d'ya-know, the Predators won the Forsberg sweepstakes Thursday, sending two players and two draft picks to Philadelphia to chip loose one of the world's top two-way centers, but it happened just as much because Shero's former boss, Predators GM David Poile, rolled the dice. Poile concluded, by most any analysis, that Nashville's time is now, it's June appointment with Lord Stanley, if not penciled in, more than the stuff of sweet dreams.

Makes you wonder, at least, what time it is in Shero's Mellon Arena office, assuming there's a working clock somewhere in the old barn. Is it, perhaps, dice-rolling time?

"That's premature," Shero said flatly and convincingly. "We've got hard games coming up. We've still got to grow as a team. We can still improve on our performance, even in games we win. We're ahead 3-1, then we're down 4-3. How can you manage your game better? You have to remember that everything they're going through in terms of development, that this is the first time these guys, whether you're talking about Marc-Andre Fleury or Ryan Whitney or Sidney Crosby or Jordan Staal or Evgeni Malkin, this is the first time they've played any meaningful games in the National Hockey League."

The issue is that, for a bunch of first-timers, these callow Penguins are pretty electrifying. It's more than just the fact that, 10 months removed from the Eastern Conference slums, they're occupying that statistical real estate where home ice advantage in the postseason is openly discussed; it's that they've begun to develop a certain cache.

"They're hungry," Blackhawks coach Denis Savard said Wednesday. "They were hungry the whole game. ...They're very good down low, below the circles, protecting pucks and finding that soft area. We addressed that ... but they still found a way."

If you think these Penguins are hungry, their fans are certifiably ravenous, having not witnessed a playoff game since Crosby was at the eighth-grade picnic, literally. Shero, to his great credit, brings an objective eye to all of it.

"What I wanted to see, and what we've demanded from the start, is that this team get better every month," he said. "In early December, we were playing the Rangers, Atlanta, Washington and a had a losing streak, and at that point, I didn't want to be judging this team on streaks because you're not as good as you think you are when you're winning, nor as bad as you think you are when you're losing.

"I think what's been good is that they just play so hard together. Obviously we've got some top end skill people, but we've had contributions from a lot of different areas, which is what you need to improve as a hockey club."

Doesn't sound like a man reaching for the dice, and that's likely prudent. The Penguins are due for a kind of market correction, and a March schedule thick with desperate teams could still lead to Pittsburgh entering its first playoff season since 2001 in the sixth, seventh, even eighth slots.

All that said, someone like bruising Phoenix winger Georges Laraque might add an intriguing element. I mean, if you can get him without having to purchase the board game.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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