Decision Time for Penguins GM Shero

At this point in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season, general manager Ray Shero should be asking himself a few questions.

First and foremost, when is Sidney Crosby coming back?

Crosby has been feeling better lately. He is skating almost every day and he says that his previous balance issues have subsided. However, Sid is still suffering from headaches. He says they’re getting more tolerable, but that isn’t good enough. He needs to be symptom-free before he is cleared for contact in practice. Then, it will probably take a few weeks so Crosby can find out for sure if he is able to take contact without his symptoms returning.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “if.”

One option Shero could do is place Crosby on long-term injured reserve. Doing so would free up significant cap room for Shero to make a big deal before the trade deadline a week from now. Long-term injured reserve would also mean Sid would not be eligible to come back in the regular season, but he would be able to return for the playoffs.  There are only 23 games remaining in the Penguins regular season, which spans seven weeks. I’m not sure it’s likely that Crosby can become symptom-free, cleared for contact and return to game action in seven weeks.

Look at Sid’s previous recovery period. On September 7, 2011, Crosby and his doctors held a press conference to announce that he had made significant progress from his previous concussion and at that point, he was nearly symptom-free. It took 75 days after that press conference for Sid to return to game action. Even if the Penguins announced tomorrow that he was symptom-free, 75 days after that would be April 30. At that point, Pittsburgh would be well past the regular season, which ends on April 7.

Hopefully, Sid’s latest recovery won’t take him that long. But even if it took half that time, that would leave only six games remaining in the regular season. But could those six games make a huge difference in the Penguins’ playoff seeding?

Absolutely.

Those six include games against the Flyers, Bruins and Rangers. All of which are currently ahead of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference standings.

But right now, this team has shown it can win score without Sid. More importantly, it has shown it can win without him.

So that brings Shero to his next question, should he assume that Sid won’t be back for the regular season, place him on LTIR and make an acquisition?

Shero has always been one of the biggest movers and shakers at the trade deadline, previously acquiring guys like Marian Hossa and Chris Kunitz. He also added tremendous talent when he acquired James Neal from Dallas last year (as well as a solid defenseman in Matt Niskanen).

But Shero’s deals haven’t all been peaches and cream. Neal was basically a bust last season. Sure, he’s showing his true colors now, but he didn’t score much last year and that’s why the Pens were ousted so quickly in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, Shero also added former Penguin Alex Kovalev. He turned out to be just as unproductive as Neal.

Overall, I trust Shero’s judgment. But what does he need to add to the team to make a legitimate playoff run? Obviously, it never hurts to add scoring to the lineup.

There are a few notable scorers out there that are rumored to be on the trading block soon, the biggest of which is Rick Nash of the Columbus Bluejackets. But even if Sid were on LTIR, the cap room wouldn’t be enough and the Pens would have to take on a six-year contract, with a hit of $7.8 million per year. They can’t afford that.

One name that has surfaced in trade speculation is Buffalo Sabres forward Paul Gaustad. He will become an unrestricted free agent after this season and the Sabres are well out of contention, so there’s a good chance they will want to move him. He brings a cap hit of $2.3 million, which could be affordable for the Pens after moving Crosby to LTIR.

Gaustad is a big net front presence. At 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weighing 225 pounds, he certainly makes a better door than window in front of a goaltender, which is vastly important in today’s NHL. Gaustad is also a solid face-off man. On Sunday against Pittsburgh, he won 16 of his 23 draws.

I wouldn’t be opposed to bringing him on, but remember that the Penguins already have a significant net-front guy. Chris Kunitz earns every penny he makes in front of the net, providing screens vital to the scoring of his line mates Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. I wouldn’t take Gaustad ahead of “Crease” Kunitz, but having them both could be productive.

But in my honest opinion, there’s only one area that Pittsburgh has been awful at: backup goaltending. Brent Johnson is having one of his worst seasons of his career, with a record of 3-7-2, a goals against average of 3.17 and a save percentage of .882. He has been pulled in three of his last five starts.

Johnson has been a popular player in Pittsburgh, especially after he sent opposing Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro crashing to the ice in a rare goalie fight last February.

But with 23 games remaining, the Penguins need to do something to sure up their backup goalie spot. Fleury has already started 47 games and has appeared in 50. If the Flower started in every remaining game, that would put his regularly season total at 70. That would be way too many. Historically, goalies that play in upwards of 60-70 games get too worn down and end up ineffective in the playoffs. When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2008-2009, Fleury started 61 games. Even that was considered too many.

So hypothetically, Fleury should start in about 10 more of the remaining 23 to put him on pace for his Stanley Cup winning season. Pittsburgh cannot risk leaving Johnson to start 13 more games this year.

So what can Shero do?

His first option would be to call up goaltender Brad Thiessen from the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League. With the Baby Pens, Thiessen is 20-14-2 with a 2.88 GAA and a .885 save percentage. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old goaltender has not started any NHL games in his career. I know that goose egg is worrisome, but it might be worth the risk at this point. Honestly, Johnson couldn’t get much worse.

Shero’s other option would be acquiring a backup from elsewhere in the NHL. It’s tough to predict where backup goaltenders could go, but I think the Pens GM should be looking at all of the non-playoff contending teams and their backup goaltenders for possible deals. This list includes Columbus, Edmonton and Anaheim in the West and Carolina, Buffalo, New York Islanders and Montreal in the East.

Columbus backup Curtis Sanford could be a viable option, but was recently placed on injured reserve with an upper- body injury and is listed as day-to-day. If he were to get healthy quickly, he could garner interest. This season, Sanford has gone 10-13-4 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage on a terrible defensive team. Like Brent Johnson, he will become an unrestricted free agent after this season and he commands the same $600,000 cap hit.

Or how about someone from the Islanders? They are deep at the position, essentially with way more backup talent than starting talent. They have seasoned veterans Evgeni Nabokov and Al Montoya, commanding $570,000 and $601,000 contracts, respectively. They both also become unrestricted free agents after this season, so it’s probable the Islanders could move at least one of them to clear some cap space.

One other viable option could be third-string goalie Justin Peters of the Carolina Hurricanes. The team has established that Brian Boucher is their solid No. 2 guy, so why not move Peters? Pittsburgh may be reluctant to move any of their prospects in this deal, but Peters will become a restricted free agent after this season and his salary is only $525,000 per season. This season, Peters is 1-3-0 with a 3.65 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. Sure the numbers aren’t fantastic, but in the turbulent world of the NHL, you never know.

Good luck, Ray, I’m glad I’m not in your seat right now.

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

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