By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributing Writer
PITTSBURGH — A season-ending injury to superstar center Evgeni Malkin might turn out to be in a blessing in disguise for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins were against the salary cap ceiling when the season began, but Malkin’s $8.7-million cap hit no longer counts against the team after the center, who had surgery on his right knee, was placed on the long-term injury list earlier this month.
The newfound cap space allowed Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero the opportunity to improve the team — both long and short term — by acquiring promising forward James Neal and young, puck-moving defensemen Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars in exchange for defenseman Alex Goligoski.
“This might have been a year where we haven’t done anything, but the injuries, especially the long-term one to (Malkin) gave us an opportunity to do a deal like this,” Shero said. “Timing-wise, and cap-wise it probably wasn’t a possibility before these guys were injured.”
The deal involved three players under the age of 25, with Goligoski being the oldest.
Neal, 23, is in his third season and ranked third on the Stars with 21 goals and fifth with 39 points.
Niskanen, 24, is in his fourth season.
Goligoski, 25, was set to enter the final season of his current contract, and would’ve counted $1.83 million against the salary cap. He led Penguins’ defensemen with nine goals and was second with 31
Both Neal and Niskanen are signed through next season with Neal counting $2.87 million against the salary cap and Niskanen $1.5 million.
“That’s one of the reasons why we did the deal,” Shero said.
Shero said Neal and Niskanen should be in Pittsburgh for practice today and will be ready to play when the Penguins host San Jose Wednesday.
Shero hinted he might not be finished before Monday’s trade deadline.
“Cap-wise we’re still in descent shape,” Shero said. “We have some room to continue to look at some pieces that might help, but we’ll see what happens Monday.”
Shero said he is not looking to trade the team’s first-round pick, but he is still open to improving the team before Monday’s deadline. He said he realizes the Penguins currently have salary cap relief, but that will tighten when Malkin returns next year.
“Keeping in mind the cap situation, I think you’re just looking for players, and seeing if there’s a fit,” Shero said. “I think a lot of it goes to what we might have to give up in the end. There’s a long
way to go and we’ll let the dust settle a bit.”
This deal also might give the Penguins a highly-coveted scoring winger to play with superstar center Sidney Crosby, who has been out since early January with a concussion. Shero didn’t have any updated information on whether or not Crosby will return, but said he would’ve completed the deal regardless.
“I would’ve done this deal in the summer,” Shero said. “It’s a hockey deal that makes sense in the short term and long term.”
Neal established career highs offensively last season with 27 goals and 55 points in 78 games. In 214 games, the 2005 second-round pick has 72 goals and 131 points.
“He’s a forward we really liked and near the top of our list of any young power forward in the league,” Shero said. “This is really the first young winger we’ve gone out and got. Being that he’s just 23, this is a trade we’ve been looking for and we hope it will be a good fit in the long run.
“To be able to add him is a really good addition for us.”
Neal has scored 20 goals or more in all three seasons and Shero expects more from the forward he categorized as a young up-and-coming winger who has his best days ahead of him.
“James has shown some real good things in his career as a young guy,” Shero said. “He’s only 23 and he’s an unfinished product, but we hope he can go from a 28-goal scorer to something really special.
“He’s going to find that consistency and take it to another level over the next few years. Hopefully this is the place he can do it.”
Shero had his eye on the current season along with the future when he acquired Neal and Niskanen. The move was tough for the Penguins‘ general manager, who wasn’t interested in dealing Goligoski — a key contributor to a solid defensive core. But it was the right one in Shero‘s eyes.
“A lot of teams have called about Alex in the last couple months and I’ve made it clear that I was not looking to trade him,” Shero said.
“If I were ever going to move Alex it would have to be for the right forward and I think we found that.”
Getting Niskanen was also a critical piece to the deal.
“It’s hard to get defensemen during this time of year,” Shero said. “He’s a young guy that can play for us right now and help out.”
Niskanen has six assists in 45 games this season, but his best work came during the 2008-09 campaign when he led all Stars’ defensemen with six goals and 35 points. He’s struggled, since then, but Shero believes he can turn it around in Pittsburgh.
“I think change might be good for him,” Shero said. “Hopefully he can get back to where he was early in his career and help us out.”
Shero said the rapid development of Kris Letang, coupled with the presence of Brooks Orpik in the lineup along with offseason acquisitions of Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin played a part in the deal.
“It’s difficult to give up Alex, but there aren’t many of these young power guys in the game and Neal is one of the better ones,” Shero said. “He has room to grow, and that’s why, when you get a guy like Neal, the chance might not be there again.”
***In addition to his work here at FTP, Dan Scifo is also the Assistant Sports Editor for the Latrobe Bulletin.