The NHL’s trading deadline came and went at 3 p.m. Monday. And, when they travel to Toronto Wednesday to face the Maple Leafs for the second consecutive time, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be adding some pretty good depth to their lineup – in defenseman Paul Martin and forward Tyler Kennedy, both of whom are set to return from injuries.
They’ll join forwards Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey, both of whom rejoined the lineup last week. Chris Kunitz is right behind, having participated in his first full-contact practice Tuesday.
And that gradual return of players from the Penguins’ IR – which has recently housed three lines worth of forwards and one defensive pairing, simultaneously – is one reason GM Ray Shero didn’t feel the need to overpay for additional help on deadline day.
“We talked to a lot of teams to see what was out there,” Shero said. “I really wasn’t looking to detract from our team; I didn’t want to move players off. We have a number of guys that are injured and hopefully coming back shortly.
“Yeah, the prices were somewhat high, but there really wasn’t [someone] that we saw as a real fit for us, so we wanted to stay with our group. I trust these players, and they’ve grinded some points out here. And what was available, what the cost was – looking forward, I didn’t think it was going to be worth it for this hockey team.”
The fact that Shero landed the players he was most interested in prior to the deadline, adding forwards James Neal and Alex Kovalev and defenseman Matt Niskanen, didn’t hurt either.
“We did stand pat today, but we didn’t stand pat a week ago, and that was a move for this year and in the future,” he said. “We’ve added some skill up front in Neal and Kovalev, and obviously, on the back end, some insurance with Niskanen, who’s fit in nicely so far for us.”
The Penguins’ many injuries this year have also given the team the opportunity to show Shero some intangibles that made him reluctant to change the chemistry in the locker room.
“This team is different than teams I’ve been with in the past,” he said. “We have guys that have been here and won, and I think we see it right now. It’s a character group of guys. They work really hard for each other, they care for each other.
“There’s a couple of things that came our way over the last day or two to bring a guy into our locker room that we weren’t sure of, so we decided to stay with what we have. Whether it’s giving some of our younger guys an opportunity … I think down the line it’s going to pay dividends for us, and that’s the way we wanted to go.”
The newest Penguins can feel good about how they’ve fit into that dynamic so far, too.
“Starting from the back end, I think Niskanen’s been a good fit. It’s hard for a defenseman to come in right away and pick up the way we play our defense, and I know he’s spent a lot of time with our coaches, but I like what he’s brought to the team. And, as we move forward, I think it’s even going to be better for him. He helps solidify our back end with injuries to Martin and Brooks Orpik.
“Up front, with James Neal, I’m excited to have him for the short term and the long term in the way he skates, his size, can shoot the puck. He’s going to be really good with good players. And with Kovalev, he kind of brings what we don’t have, and that’s a great deal of skill. The risk-reward on that is worth it, and he’s another guy that wants to be in Pittsburgh, so I’m happy to add him.”
The 38-year-old Kovalev does indeed look happy to be back with the Penguins. In Saturday’s 6-5 shootout win at Toronto, he didn’t look much different than the player he was when he last wore black and gold in 2003, scoring a goal and netting the shootout winner.
Pittsburgh doesn’t look much different to him either.
“It brings [back] a lot of memories,” Kovalev said. “I drove all around the city and went to some old places to eat. It doesn’t feel like it has been almost 10 years. It’s amazing that a lot of things still look the same … the only change is the new arena. It took me a while to find the locker room, but that’s pretty much it.”
What has changed is the group of players around him.
Surrounded with players who were part of Pittsburgh’s two recent runs to the Stanley Cup Final, Kovalev may be the oldest player on the team but doesn’t feel the need to try to take a prominent leadership role.
“It seems to me this group of guys has such good leadership from everyone,” he said. “We’re one big family and we all want the same thing, which is to win the Stanley Cup. There is no reason to come in here and show everybody that you are an older guy or more experienced guy or whatever it is. I’ll bring whatever it takes from my experience, my game and try and get some goals and win games for the team.”
And now, with the trade deadline in the past, that group can move forward with the knowledge that it has received a strong vote of confidence from the organization.
“We definitely improved our team and we’re still feeling comfortable with the guys we have in the room,” said center Jordan Staal. “A lot of guys have won here before and we understand what we need to do. It’s just a matter of getting guys back and getting the ball rolling.”
“I had comments from a couple players talking about the jitters passing,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Now we know that this is our team. We have 18 games left and we’ve got ourselves with 80 points. And now it’s time to focus on playing good hockey with this group of guys in this room and getting ready for the postseason.”