Trade makes sense now, later

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So the Penguins traded their No. 5 defenseman for a young winger with the potential to score 30 goals or more?

This is a bad thing?

Are you kidding me?

It's no surprise Penguins general manager Ray Shero didn't wait until the trade deadline Monday to make his big move to make the team better. Taking advantage of the Dallas Stars' apparent willingness to dump a little salary, he jumped at the chance to acquire promising forward James Neal and young defenseman Matt Niskanen for defenseman Alex Goligoski Monday afternoon. "This is the hockey trade that we've been looking for," Shero said.

No wonder.

It makes the Penguins better now, next season and beyond.

I know the argument against it. Defense and goaltending have been the Penguins' strengths, especially since centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were lost with injuries. Why break up a good thing? Why risk hurting one of the areas that gives the team its best chance to be successful in the playoffs?

Sorry, I'm not buying it.

For one thing, you have to give something to get something. Teams aren't in the habit of giving away young power forwards. "Neal, on our list, is one of the better ones," Shero said. "He becomes part of our core group going forward. He's a top-six forward with the potential to become a top-three."

For another, Goligoski was expendable. The organizational depth on defense is significant. Paul Martin, who missed the game Monday night against the Washington Capitals with what's believed to be a minor injury, should take Goligoski's spot on the top power-play unit. Niskanen, 24, who had two strong seasons before slumping last season and this one because of what Shero described as a possible "confidence thing," could step into Goligoski's even-strength spot.

"A change [of teams] might help him get back to where he was," Shero said.

Young guys Ben Lovejoy, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo will be waiting should Niskanen struggle. Down the road, former No. 1 pick Simon Despres, 19 -- the jewel in the system -- is coming.

Shero admitted it was tough for coach Dan Bylsma "to wrap his arms around" the trade. "He really likes Alex." But there's no reason the Penguins shouldn't be just as strong defensively without Goligoski. And they still have goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. His role hasn't changed. He has to play spectacular hockey for the team to have a chance to go deep in the playoffs, especially if Crosby doesn't play again this season because of his concussion.

Shero said he has no "inside knowledge" about if or when Crosby returns. I have no reason not to believe him. If Crosby is back for the playoffs, the Penguins will be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders even without Malkin, who was lost for the season with a knee injury. If Crosby doesn't come back, they still will have a chance to make a nice run now that they have added Neal.

Shero cautioned he doesn't want anyone to think Neal is "going to be the savior right away." But asked if Neal is a serious upgrade to the Penguins' collection of wingers, he responded, "Oh God, yes ...

"It's exciting for us that he's 23. He's an unfinished product. He needs to find the consistency to take it to another level. We're hoping he'll do that here. That's the challenge for him and what's exciting for us."

Neal scored a goal Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks, his first goal in 11 games. That's the inconsistency Shero mentioned. But Neal had 20 goals in his first 48 games this season so the talent is there. He had 27 goals last season and 24 in 2008-09. Don't be surprised if he gives a lift to the struggling power play.

Shero pointed out the Penguins control Neal's contract rights through 2015. That's the best part of the trade. You can't give up a player of Goligoski's quality for a rent-a-player, especially with Crosby's return this season so uncertain. Neal should play with Crosby for a long time.

Shero is expected to make at least one more move to bring in another forward before the Monday deadline, although it probably won't be a major deal. "I'm not going to give up a No. 1 pick or anything like that," he said. Should Shero be interested -- and there's reason to believe he is -- he could get Ottawa Senators forward Alex Kovalev for a lot less. There aren't a lot of other rent-a-forwards out there who could help more.

Even if Shero doesn't make another trade, he has accomplished his goal.

"We're going to be in the playoffs and we're going to be a hard team [to play against]," he said. "We're looking to give some teams a hard time."

With Crosby, for sure.

Maybe now without him.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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