This time, it is not just about salary cap space.
It is not simply about identifying holes in the lineup, and trying to plug them.
It is about doing what's best for the franchise.
Even if it means doing very little. Or nothing.
The knee injury that ended Evgeni Malkin's season has given general manager Ray Shero millions of dollars of cap space with which to work before the NHL trade deadline Feb. 28, and anyone who has been paying even a little attention over the past few years realizes the Penguins could use a goal-scoring winger. Or two. Or more.
But what they could use more than anything is the return of center Sidney Crosby, who hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion and whose recovery period still looks as if it will be measured in weeks -- if not months -- rather than days.
That's why the most important variable between now and the deadline at 3 p.m. Feb. 28 isn't which players other teams ultimately put on the market or the specific assets with which Shero is willing to part, but Crosby's prognosis.
Even with Malkin gone, the Penguins have the personnel to contend for a Stanley Cup -- if Crosby is back. If he's not, it doesn't matter what moves Shero is able to pull off; the Penguins won't be anything more than an annoying opponent for the team that draws them in the playoffs.
The catch, of course, is that there's no guarantee the Penguins medical staff will be able to formulate an accurate assessment of his outlook for the balance of 2010-11 during the next week. It's been a month and a half since he was injured, and aside from the initial estimate that Crosby would miss "about a week," there hasn't been a time frame issued for his return to active duty.
"I don't know if we're going to get any news in the next [week] that might be pessimistic," Shero said a few days ago. "The only news might be that [the situation] is the same."
That lack of a concrete projection is understandable, because there is much about concussions that doctors have yet to learn, and setting a target date before it can be done realistically would be pointless.
But even though Shero has done some of his best work around the deadline -- that's when he's added the likes of Marian Hossa, Chris Kunitz, Hal Gill, Pascal Dupuis and Bill Guerin -- it would be counterproductive for him to move aggressively to acquire "rental" players unless he believes Crosby will be back at work by, if not before, the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With Crosby in their lineup, the Penguins are legitimate contenders. If he and Malkin spend the spring in street clothes, it would be the height of arrogance for the Penguins to think they can win a championship.
Say, for example, Shero is able to acquire a goal-scoring winger or two ticketed for unrestricted free agency this summer. Who's going to feed him/them pucks if Crosby and Malkin aren't around?
The idea should be to win Cups, not just to put up a commendable fight in the first or second round. It's pointless to surrender significant assets unless there is a realistic opportunity to go after one.
Acknowledging such unpleasant realities goes against every competitive cell that makes up a pro athlete -- give a half-dozen NHLers nine dachshunds, three azaleas and a couple of broken pencils for teammates, and they'll go into a game fully convinced that they can win -- but that's when the adults in management have to keep the situation in perspective.
It's true that every player and team has a shelf life, and that any season that gets written off is gone forever. It is also true, however, that the Penguins still have a promising future, and there's no reason for them to sabotage it with some live-for-the-moment transactions.
If Shero learns that the odds are against Crosby coming back this season, he should focus on deals that will improve his team over the long term, not this spring. And he should avoid any that he'll regret when he wakes up the morning after his team's season ends.
Today: at Chicago ... Any showdown between the past two Stanley Cup champions is intriguing, but this would be a lot more compelling if Crosby and Malkin were playing.
Monday: Washington ... Any showdown between two such bitter rivals is intriguing, but this would be a lot more compelling if Crosby and Malkin were playing. Hey, wait a second ...
Wednesday: San Jose ... Sharks usually dominate in the regular season, fizzle in the playoffs. Looks like they're trying something different this time.
Friday: at Carolina ... Hurricanes need a victory to avoid being swept in the season series for the first time since 1997-98.
Saturday: at Toronto ... Toronto's Colby Armstrong has a history of laying out big-name forwards with devastating hits. Luckily for the Penguins, they don't have any in the lineup at the moment.
Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 20, 2011 5:00 AM