PITTSBURGH – Every time Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero analyzed his team, he came to the same conclusion. A huge missing piece was a forward talented enough to play on Sidney Crosby’s line.
Shero took a major gamble to add that player, acquiring all-star forward Marian Hossa from Atlanta in a deadline deal Tuesday that cost Pittsburgh forwards Colby Armstrong and Eric Christensen, a top prospect and a first-round draft pick.
With Toronto’s Mats Sundin off the market after refusing to waive his no-trade clause, Hossa was the biggest name available. A five-time all-star right wing, Hossa has 26 goals and 30 assists in 60 games after tying for sixth in the NHL with 100 points last season.
“We’ve always had a hard time finding that fit for Sid, and I believe Marian is a guy who can think at that level, skate at that level and, obviously, he can score goals and kill penalties and raise everybody else’s game,” Shero said.
Hossa couldn’t hide his excitement at joining the Penguins, a team that he said “has so much talent, it’s almost scary.”
Still, Pittsburgh paid a big price for a possible rent-a-player who becomes a free agent on July 1, dealing two promising young forwards, 2007 first-round draft pick Angelo Esposito and this year’s top pick. Pittsburgh also gets forward Pascal Dupuis, a right wing with speed who has 10 goals and five assists in 62 games.
“There’s a risk any time you acquire players,” said Shero, who has not discussed a long-term contract with Hossa. “There’s also a risk in standing pat. … This gives us a better chance to win (the Stanley Cup). I wanted to give this team every opportunity to win.”
Hossa is making US$6 million this season in a contract that expires after this season.
In a separate trade, the Penguins acquired six-foot-seven defenceman Hal Gill from Toronto for second-and fifth-round draft picks. The 32-year-old Gill provides another physical presence to go with enforcer Georges Laraque, but is not an exceptional skater or scorer and has only two goals in 63 games.
“He’s one of the best penalty killers in the league,” Shero said, pointing to Pittsburgh’s No. 25 penalty-kill ranking.
The 29-year-old Hossa is expected to go onto Crosby’s line once the 2007 NHL scoring champion and MVP returns from a high ankle sprain that has sidelined him since Jan. 18.
Crosby is not on the Penguins’ three-game road trip that began Tuesday against the Islanders – he skated on his own earlier in the day – and probably won’t return until next week at the earliest.
“You look at their centres, they have (Evgeni) Malkin, Crosby, (Jordan) Staal, it doesn’t really matter who you play with, it’s an excellent opportunity,” Hossa said. “If I play with Sid, it’s great, he’s one of the best centremen in the league and would be a pleasure to play with, but I leave that up to the coach (Michel Therrien).”
Compounding the Penguins’ need for another forward, Gary Roberts – last year’s major trading deadline day pickup – has a high ankle sprain to go with his broken right leg and is uncertain when he will play again. Roberts has been out since Dec. 29.
Considering Hossa may spend only a month or two with them, the Penguins – in the running for both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles – made a bold but risky move to win the Stanley Cup only two years after finishing a conference-worst 22-46-14.
Crosby, Malkin and Hossa give the Penguins three of the league’s premier scorers, and all are in their 20s. Malkin went into Tuesday night’s games tied with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin for the scoring lead with 82 points.
“Pittsburgh kind of snuck in the back door there. I’m not sure anyone even thought they were an option,” Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. “All along we kept hearing it was between Montreal and Ottawa. That was a surprising one to me. They did have some assets to give up. It was a very bold move by Ray Shero.”
The trade deprives Pittsburgh of two of the younger players it was building around in the 25-year-old-Armstrong and the 24-year-old Christensen.
“Chemistry is very important, and this team has to come together very quickly,” Shero said. “But I still think we have the young assets to be a longterm contender.”
Christensen has nine goals and 11 assists in 49 games and is 5-for-8 on shootout attempts. The 25-year-old Armstrong, Crosby’s road roommate and one of the Penguins’ most popular players, has nine goals and 15 assists in 54 games.
The 19-year-old Esposito was originally expected to be one of the top five picks in last year’s draft, only to unexpectedly slide to Pittsburgh with the No. 20 pick. He has 26 goals and 29 assists in 48 games with the Quebec Remparts during his third season in the QMJHL.
While the Penguins probably didn’t need Hossa to get into the playoffs, they must be wondering what he will do once he gets there. He has 35 points in 55 career playoff games, well off his nearly point-per-game career pace.
“I know my production wasn’t the best, but that’s behind me and I’ve got a new challenge now,” Hossa said.