Wednesday, March 3, 2010

First fish is hooked


The trade deadline isn't over for another 14 hours or so, but one of the bigger prizes on the market has been claimed. During Tuesday night's Pittsburgh-Buffalo game, Penguins general manager Ray Shero closed a deal with Toronto to acquire left winger Alexei Ponikarovsky in exchange for everyone's favorite defenseman, Martin Skoula, and forward prospect Luca Caputi.

Really, though, the deal was Ponikarovsky straight up for Caputi.

Ponikarovsky, 29 and an impending free agent, has 19 goals and 41 points on the season. He fills a rather gaping hole in Pittsburgh's lineup, that of a scoring winger. His numbers immediately make him the third-highest scorer in both goals and points on the Penguins.

Ponikarovsky's expected place in the lineup will be on Evgeni Malkin's line. Ironically, Malkin's current wingers - Pascal Dupuis and Ruslan Fedotenko - each scored in the 3-2 win over the Sabres. For Fedotenko, it was his first goal in 18 games and just his second in 23. Thus the need to acquire someone like Ponikarovsky.

Caputi was one of Pittsburgh's top prospects, possibly No. 1. A budding power forward, Caputi has had a couple cups of coffee in the NHL, scoring two goals and an assist in nine games over two seasons. In the AHL this season, Caputi, 21, has 23 goals and 47 points.

The knock on Caputi is a subpar skating ability. That might've been a problem in keeping up with guys like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But he still has a very solid NHL future ahead of him. The Penguins also have a number of other prospects in the system that made trading Caputi possible.

Skoula, after a stellar month or so when the Penguins defense corps was ravaged by injuries, fell far out of grace. His inclusion in the trade is solely to help Pittsburgh clear salary cap space. Brian Burke will pray he finds someone to offer anything more than a used jock strap for Skoula on Wednesday.

Shero is probably done dealing, though he might find some way to squeeze in another physical, defensive defenseman. But cap space is even tighter, so I'd be surprised if he's able to bring in anyone else. I was also, however, surprised when he landed Marian Hossa and even tonight with Ponikarovsky.

On a personal level, I'm a little regretful that the Penguins gave up on Caputi. I wanted to see what he could do when he was fully ready for the big time. He's a little ready but not quite there. There was also no rush to play him on the Penguins. He'll probably see NHL time in Toronto this season.

Having said that, the Penguins really really needed someone with actual talent playing on the second line with Malkin. Fedotenko has built his career mainly around one - and now two - playoff runs, in 2004 when he was spectacular and 2009. Otherwise, he's scored 20 goals in just a single regular season and has only one goal in his other postseason outings.

I'm also hoping, if he works out well, the Penguins find a way to re-sign Ponikarovsky. He has a salary of $2.5 million this season. If Ponikarovsky performs well and comes at an affordable price, it'll be easier to swallow giving up Caputi. Ponikarovsky is basically a known and proven commodity, being on the verge of his fourth 20-goal season and arguably improving his linemates, and Caputi is still a prospect. You don't know for sure how he'll turn out, but the thinking is he'll become a steady performer for someone.

Pittsburgh is in the position to play for the present rather than the future, and that's what this deal is about. It's what Shero has done the last four years. The Penguins are a better team now than they were at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Hopefully the other players in the system, like Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson, Mark Letestu to name a few, make the loss of Caputi a non-issue.

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