In a way, Sunday's Brenden Morrow for Joe Morrow trade between Dallas and Pittsburgh was something that had been coming for a long time.
Maybe not that particular trade, but the idea of it.
For several years now the Penguins have been stockpiling young defensemen, drafting them and acquiring them at every opportunity. It's created what is one of the deepest prospect pools in the league at the position, and it was only a matter of time until they dipped into it in an effort to bolster their NHL roster through a trade. It's a strategy they've used in the past with a great deal of success, trading Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz back in 2009, and Alex Goligoski to Dallas for James Neal and Matt Niskanen in 2011.
"When we draft some of these defensemen we always say they're assets," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero on Sunday night shortly after announcing the trade. "And as we've done before we've traded them for forwards to try and strengthen our team, and this is no different."
Except it is a little different this time around. The trade may prove to help the Penguins in the short-term, but it's the Stars that could prove to be the beneficiaries in the long-term and reap the benefits of Pittsburgh's recent draft strategy.
When the Penguins made their other prominent defense-for-forward trades they were doing so for players whose contract rights they controlled for several more seasons -- players who were clearly going to be a key part of their organization for a long time. Kunitz was in the first year of a four-year contract when he arrived in Pittsburgh, while Neal still had one more year on his contract and was only eligible for restricted free agency when that one expired (he eventually signed a six-year contract extension before he ever hit the restricted free agent market). Those deals not only involved the Penguins getting players that were still under contract, but also players that were either currently in the prime of their career (Kunitz) or just ready to enter their prime (Neal, Niskanen).
Neither of those things is happening with Morrow, who just turned 34 in January and is in the final year of his contract.
At first glance it seems as if the Penguins paid a very high price for a player who is clearly on the downside of his career (just 37 points in his past 86 games dating back to the start of last season and a point-per-game average that has been steadily dropping for several years now) and is eligible for unrestricted free agency after the season. It's possible he could end up playing fewer than 40 games for them (counting playoffs). He's a classic trade deadline rental. And while it's possible he could end up re-signing in Pittsburgh after the season, it's clear his best days in the NHL are in his rear view mirror.
And the Penguins gave up a very valuable asset to get him.
Morrow was their first-round pick in 2011 (No. 23 overall), and while Shero acknowledged that his first year of pro hockey has featured some ups and downs, he's still only 20 years old and has a lot of talent (and potential) as an offensive-minded defenseman. You would hope that a first-round draft pick from just two years ago, and one of the top prospects in the organization at the time of the trade, would have more value at this point in his career than a 34-year-old rental.
And maybe he should. But the Penguins obviously wanted Brenden Morrow and what he brings, and were willing to pay the price. He has a history with several players on the roster, both in the NHL (Neal and Niskanen in Dallas) and International competition (he played with Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury during the 2010 Olympics) and could give Evgeni Malkin and James Neal the type of physical, power forward presence Kunitz gave them a year ago when they were so successful. In theory, anyway. Whether or not Morrow has enough left in the tank to provide that sort of production and play at this point in his career remains to be seen.
Still, I'm not sure the Penguins make this trade -- or are able or willing to make this trade -- had it not been for the depth they've built in their farm system at the position over the past four years. And the Stars might be the ones to benefit from it.
The Penguins have identified puck-moving defensemen as a valuable commodity around the league and have drafted them in bunches knowing that they're either going to have a useful player for themselves, or an asset other team are going to covet in a trade. Going back to 2009 the Penguins have had eight picks in the first two rounds of the draft and used six of them on defensemen: Morrow, Simon Despres, Derrick Pouliot, Olli Matta, Scott Harrington, and Philip Samuelsson. Having that sort of depth in the system has to make it a little easier to part with a player like Morrow.
If it's for the right return.
For the Stars the deal had to be no-brainer, even if it might be a little hard for some their fans to swallow watching a team still in the playoff race trade its captain and a player who has been extremely productive for their team over the years for a prospect. It's a deal general manager Joe Nieuwendyk had to make.
Even with Brenden Morrow the Stars are probably nothing more than a fringe playoff team that isn't built to win the Stanley Cup, or even seriously contend for it this season. And I'm not sure losing Morrow really does much to hurt their chances anyway. How many points in the standings is the 2013 version of Brenden Morrow really worth over the final 18 games of the regular season?
They've already received the best hockey he has to offer at the NHL level. Now they have another potential asset at a position of need whose best hockey is hopefully still ahead of him. Sometimes you have to turn the page and move on, especially when somebody is willing to give you a valuable asset that has the potential to be a regular on your blue line for the next decade, and be a part of the next Stars team that is ready to maybe contend for a championship.
The Penguins weren't wrong to trade a defenseman like Morrow for an upgrade to their NHL roster this season. Not at all. In fact, he's the exact type of guy you would have expected them to use as a trade chip at the deadline as they are built to win the Stanley Cup right now and should be adding to their roster. Moreover, not all of these guys they have in their system are going to fit in Pittsburgh (or even make it to the NHL and succeed). Somebody is going to have to go for one reason or another.
But just because you have a lot of depth at a particular position doesn't mean you shouldn't try to maximize the return you get on that investment when you deal it. Unless Morrow's value as a prospect has plummeted since being drafted just two years ago (and I'm not fully convinced that it has) it's not unfair to question whether or not they did that here.
There is no guarantee he's going to develop into a good NHL player (his defensive game still needs some work and he had some struggles in the American Hockey League this season), but if there's even a 40 to 50 percent chance of him becoming a top-four defenseman and power play point-man in the NHL in the not-too-distant future that's a chance the Stars have to take.
Especially when it didn't involve them giving up any sort of long-term asset of their own.