In today's salary cap era, NHL general managers must make difficult decisions on how and where to spend their money.
Gone are the days of big market teams solely dominating the hunt for each summer's top free agents. Free agency is now a game controlled by the organizations that have the most cap room and are willing to spend up to the predetermined ceiling.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Ray Shero has had to make more than his fair share of tough calls over his short, yet successful stint as the club's GM.
Over the past few years, Shero has identified his team's core players and locked them up to lucrative long term deals. Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Orpik and Fleury will all be skating in the 'Burgh for the forseeable future.
These contracts have helped to bring stability down the middle, on the blue line and in goal for the Penguins. It has also eaten up a large portion of the team's salary cap space (this is without taking into account the large pay raise that will be tendered to RFA Kris Letang and the significant dollars that will have to be dolled out to keep defensive leader and power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar from becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1st).
This monetary structure has obviously worked out well for the Penguins, who have been to the Stanley Cup Finals for two consecutive seasons and won it all in 2009. However, this dispersion of cap space has consistently left the Penguins searching for cost effective top-six wingers to play with it's talented centers and this season is no different.
The Pittsburgh front office would love to add a top-six winger before they try and go on a third consecutive deep playoff run, but doing so is not without its roadblocks.
Sixteen teams make the playoffs each season in the NHL and with the three-point game alive and well, there usually is a dearth of buyers and few sellers.
Anyone who even passively follows the NHL knows that the Penguins would love to be able to swing a deal for crafty veteran winger Ray "The Wizard" Whitney of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The smooth-skating Whitney seems like someone who could seamlessly slide onto Crosby's left-wing spot and develop instant chemistry with him and right winger Billy Guerin. This would allow a soon to be healthy Chris Kunitz to settle onto a solid second line with Evgeni Malkin and Ruslan Fedetenko.
Add, in my opinion, the most formidable third line in the NHL consisting of Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke and the Penguins look set to make another serious charge for Lord Stanley.
The Penguins, however, have to seriously weigh the risk/reward factor to adding a player such as Whitney.
The biggest question mark involved with this potential acquisition is cost.
Carolina GM Jim Rutherford will probably field calls from at least a dozen of his peers regarding the availability of Whitney. Since, the veteran winger will be so highly sought after, the price to obtain him will undoubtedly be very costly.
With the Canes seeking prospects and draft picks in return, two things that are highly valued in today's cap-run NHL, the Penguins may decide to bail on "The Wizard" sweepstakes and chase a more affordable option such as Toronto's Alexei Ponikarovsky or the Blue Jacket's Raffi Torres.
Now, if the Penguins do decide to pay a hefty ransom to obtain Whitney's services, it would not be as painful if they could find a way to retain him past this spring.
At 37, Whitney is still thriving in the NHL, and if the Penguins were able to sign him to a one or two year deal beyond this season it could bode very well for their chances to ice a true contender for the very near future.
The other scenario that could play out if Whitney joins the Pens is that he finishes out the spring in Pittsburgh and then bolts to another NHL city to finish his career. If this occurs and Whitney leaves without a championship ring, then the move will have been a bust for the Penguins with nothing to show for their loss of prospects and/or draft picks.
(Side Note: I know the Penguins made a similar move two years ago to obtain Marian Hossa and he left town after the playoffs and no cup, but that move was a success in comparison because the Pens advanced to the Finals and gained the necessary experience to capture the championship the following year. Some may disagree, but I believe the Penguins do not have a ring today if that trade never occurred).
Ray Shero and the rest of the Pittsburgh front office staff has some difficult choices to make over the next month and I do not envy them for it, but I do trust that they will do what they truly believe will be the best decisions for the club moving forward...whether or not that means they will be the right ones won't be known until after the playoffs.
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