Ron Cook: Stars here already hold playoff keys for Penguins

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As nice as it would have been to put Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Kesler in a Penguins sweater, he wasn’t going to carry the local hockey club to the Stanley Cup by himself. The heavy lifting must be done by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury. They’re here even if Kesler isn’t. I still like the Penguins as heavy Cup favorites, especially if defenseman Paul Martin comes back from a hand surgery.

Kesler is a fine player, one of the best two-way players in the NHL. He would have slipped in nicely at right wing on the Penguins’ first line with Crosby and Kunitz and given the team two terrific lines along with the Jussi Jokinen-Malkin-Neal line. Then, next season, after Pascal Dupuis comes back from knee surgery, Kesler could have taken the third-line center spot. When the Penguins most recently won the Cup in 2009, they had three strong centers in Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal.

There was just one problem: The Canucks’ asking price for Kesler.

“I don’t think there was a deal there to be made,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said Wednesday after the trade deadline came and went.

You have to give up something to get something, but Vancouver’s demands for Kesler seemed excessive. It’s believed Shero made a strong run at him. Some reports had the Penguins willing to trade Brandon Sutter, one of their prized young defensemen — Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin or perhaps even Derrick Pouliot, the best prospect of the bunch — and two high draft choices.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

That it really is true what they say?

That, often times, the best trades are the ones that aren’t made?

Giving up first- and third-round draft choices in any deal is tough, especially the way Shero frequently has used high-round picks as trade bait. But it’s understandable. The Penguins are built to win big now, not three or four years from now. You worry about later, later.

Losing Sutter would have hurt more. He’s also a good two-way player and will continue to get better as a third-line center. He’s a really good penalty-killer. It’s hard to judge his offensive production this season — 10 goals and 21 points in 61 games — because he’s had to play with so many different linemates because of the Penguins’ ridiculous number of injuries. They lead the NHL with 369 man-games lost.

It also would have been difficult to part with one of the young defensemen. Shero had to be careful with those guys. Defensemen Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland will be unrestricted free agents after this season. There’s also no guarantee Kris Letang will play again after his stroke in late January, although he and the Penguins are hopeful of a full recovery. No team has too many defensemen.

This is just a guess, but you probably aren’t excited about the deals Shero made Wednesday, picking up bottom-six forwards Marcel Goc of Florida and Lee Stempniak of Calgary for draft choices. Shero gushed about their versatility and the depth up front they bring the Penguins. He even mentioned the possibility of Goc, a center, giving coach Dan Bylsma the option of playing Malkin more with Crosby. We’ll see how that goes, but we know this for sure: If Goc and Stempniak make the team even marginally better, they will be worth the investment.

The Penguins’ Cup chances still come down to Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and the others.

I have no doubt the team is good enough to win.

That makes two of us.

“We definitely believe in this group,” Crosby said.

A healthy Martin is critically important. No one on the Penguins gets more valuable minutes. He is on the ice late if the team is down a goal or up a goal. He plays on the power play and the penalty-kill. He’s outstanding at getting the puck out of the Penguins’ zone, a key to the way they like to play. “I agree a lot of people don’t realize all of the things he does for us,” Bylsma said.

It’s hard to think the Penguins can win the Cup without Martin and Letang, who is not expected back this season.

“He will be back at some point,” Shero said of Martin. “I’m not sure if it’s right before the playoffs or the first game of the playoffs.”

Everyone will be watching Fleury. I believe he’s going to be great in the postseason. It’s not just because of his NHL-best 32 wins this season and the outstanding hockey he has played. His teammates are committed to playing better in front of him. To a man, they feel as if they let him down a year ago when he was benched for Tomas Vokoun in the first-round series against the New York Islanders.

Certainly, Crosby, Malkin and the rest must do their part. It still is hard to believe the Penguins scored just two goals in the four-game beating they took last season from the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final. Astonishingly, Crosby, Malkin and Neal didn’t get a point in the series and were a combined minus-14. By comparison, Kunitz looked like Mario Lemieux by getting one goal.

All of ’em will be better if the Penguins face the Bruins again in the conference final, as many expect.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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