|Where do the Penguins go now in their search for a winger for Sidney Crosby? (Getty Images)|
Every year the question remains the same: Who will be the winger for Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh?
It's been asked ever since he joined the NHL as the Penguins have attempted to find a young, talented winger that can keep up with him and can be penciled onto his line for the next few years.
To this point, they haven't quite found that player.
In theory it was probably supposed to be James Neal, who the Penguins acquired late in the 2010-11 season from the Dallas Stars. But he and Chris Kunitz really clicked on a line this past season with Evgeni Malkin and became the most dangerous scoring line in the NHL. It's hard to imagine the Penguins being willing to break that up.
Crosby's linemates over the years have been a steady stream of players like Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Bill Guerin, Ryan Malone, Colby Armstrong, Miroslav Satan, and one brief stretch late in the 2007-08 season with Marian Hossa, who rejected a multi-year offer from the Penguins following that season to sign a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings. Make no mistake, not having his own personal Jari Kurri or Jaromir Jagr on his wing hasn't exactly put a stop to his production or slowed him down. He's still the most productive player in the NHL when healthy, and it's hard to imagine how much better (or more productive) he could possibly be.
But still the search continues.
This year the big name was former New Devils forward Zach Parise. When the Penguins cleared $6 million in salary cap space during the NHL Draft by trading Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter and two young defensemen, and then followed that up by trading defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix, it was assumed that the Penguins would be going after Parise. (And they did.)
Almost instantly the talk focussed on their friendship off the ice, the reports that Crosby watched Stanley Cup Final games in a suite with Parise's family, and just how perfect it would be for the two to play alongside each other.
The Penguins made an offer, but according to general manager Ray Shero never got close to making a deal, while Parise ended up signing a 13-year, $98 million dollar deal with the Minnesota Wild. That leaves the Penguins in a situation pretty similar to the one the Detroit Red Wings are facing: they have cap space, they have positions they would like to fill, but what exactly are their options at this point?
"If we can find a long-term winger for Sidney, that would be fantastic," said Shero this past week. "But as you can see, they're not growing on trees here. You have to be patient. If there is a chance to get someone like Zach Parise, as we just tried to do, it makes a lot of sense and that's why we tried to do it."
The two biggest options still remaining in free agency are Shane Doan and Alexander Semin.
Doan, even as he gets into his mid-30s, is still a productive player and having worn a "C" on his sweater for the past seven years in Phoenix would bring leadership qualities to any locker room he joins. But he's still undecided on whether or not he wants to return to Phoenix, and there should be legitimate on-ice questions as to whether or not he still has the speed or skating ability to not only play in the Penguins system, but to also keep up with a player like Crosby every night over the course of a full season.
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And then there is Semin.
We've been over him again and again since the start of free agency and there are no shortage of opinions on where he would and would not fit. There hasn't been much talk surrounding him and any potential interest, other than Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford saying he would look at him, but only on a short-term deal.
Semin's agent, Mark Gandler, recently told Josh Yohe of the Tribune Review that his client would love to play in Pittsburgh alongside either Crosby or Malkin. There is no indication as to whether or not the feeling from Pittsburgh is mutual. Pittsburgh's system is about aggressive forechecking and crashing and banging along the boards. Would Semin's style of play fit in with that? I suppose that's a legitimate question, but I also have little doubt that a line of Crosby and Semin would be a holy terror for teams to try and defend against.
Not only would you be placing two of the most talented players in the league together (in terms of talent, we're probably talking top-10 for both of them), they're also two of the best possession players in the league (Crosby's Relative Corsi this past season was plus-17, while Semin's was plus-11 in Washington). You can question who handles the defensive responsibilities but the best defense in hockey is not allowing the other team to touch the puck, something both players excel at.
(And let's just say, hypothetically speaking, that does happen -- you might want to reintroduce yourself to the time Semin asked what was so special about Crosby, because it would surely get rehashed over and over again.)
Getting away from free agency there is always the trade market, which might be more likely at this point. The Penguins have always believed that if they stockpile enough defensemen in their organization they can use those assets as trade chips to land wingers. They've done it multiple times in the past with great success.
Prior to the 2009 trade deadline they sent Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for Kunitz and Eric Tangradi. Kunitz is still with the team today and been one of the better power forwards in the league. In 2011 they made the aforementioned trade with Dallas that landed them Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen in exchange for Alex Goligoski. Neal not only scored 40 goals last season, but Niskanen has proven to be a capable regular along their blue line.
If there is one thing the Penguins organization has right now it's a surplus of young defensemen, and the type of players teams around the league would no doubt covet in trade talks.
The entered the offseason with 2010 first-round pick Simon Despres, 2011 first-round pick Joe Morrow, and Scott Harrington at the top of their prospect list. In a span of less than 24 hours over the NHL draft they added to that group with Brian Dumoulion (acquired in the Staal trade), first-round picks Derrick Poulliot (No. 8 overall) and Olli Maata (No. 22 overall), and Harrison Roupp (acquired in the Michalek trade with Phoenix). That many high-end prospects on the blue line certainly gives them options.
It's been reported by the Columbus Dispatch that Pittsburgh is one of the teams on Rick Nash's now infamous "list" as to where he would accept a trade. The Penguins have the cap space to take on his large contract, but are they willing to meet what appears to be an absurd asking price from Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson? And not only that, are they willing to take on that contract? Just because they can doesn't mean they would. Or should.
Nash currently carries the fifth-largest salary cap hit in the NHL and has never come close to producing as such. Even worse, his career has been trending in the wrong direction over the past few years. Would getting out of Columbus and going into a situation like Pittsburgh reverse that trend, or at least slow it down?
Anaheim's Bobby Ryan, the player selected right after Crosby in the 2005 draft, is still out there in trade rumors as well. Even though he won't be cheap to acquire in terms of what the Ducks would demand in return, he has a better contract than Nash, is younger, and will probably be more productive going forward.
For an outside-the-box suggestion, Mike Colligan, who covers the Penguins for the Hockey Writers, recently suggested Blues forward Chris Stewart, a player that didn't seem to adjust well to the coaching change in St. Louis this past season.
There is still plenty of time before the drop of the puck on the 2012-13 season, and it's a good bet the Penguins lineup that takes the ice on opening night will have another new face or two on it.
It's just a matter of which way they decide to go.
"You never know what's going to come your way," said Shero. "If you had asked me the Tuesday before the draft that we'd be trading Jordan Staal three days later, I'd probably say no way. But it happened. It was the right thing to do for the team and the player. It worked out for both hopefully for the long run. We've got a lot of assets. We've got cap space. A lot of things can happen on short notice. We'll see what the summer brings us and we'll go from there."