Kovacevic: Pens' next deal? The next Neal
Simon Despres has shed 20 pounds during this NHL offseason, I learned Tuesday. The Penguins' top defense prospect tipped the scales at 210 for the opening of the team's development camp at Consol Energy Center. And as he told me before taking the ice, “I've never felt faster or stronger.”
He should be a vital piece this winter, possibly even paired with Kris Letang.
Of course, that also could be Joe Morrow, another swift, skilled defenseman whose audition might or might not benefit from his blond mane now rivaling Letang's in length.
Trying to catch someone's eye?
“Nah, just kind of let it go,” Morrow shrugged off with a grin. “Not sure what to do with it now.”
Prospects are a blast to be around in any sport. This group of 30 was one part go-get-'em, two parts gosh-wow. Upon entering the Penguins' locker room Tuesday, one exclaimed, “Just like ‘24/7!' ”
So, where's Sid's winger?
Sorry, but for me, this day at the rink served primarily to rekindle the same question puckheads have been asking around here for years but never with more urgency than this summer: Who will skate alongside Sidney Crosby?
Dan Bylsma tried to address that with reporters but probably only heightened the public anxiety: “We feel good about our top six forwards. We feel we have good players there. Could we look to add a player there? We certainly could. We certainly have ideas about players who could play next to guys like Sid and Gino.”
OK, let's stop there.
The last three words of Bylsma's quote merit special attention. The Penguins aren't necessarily looking for a Crosby winger, from what I've heard, but for one who could play with Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. If it's the latter, the lines would be:
Chris Kunitz-Crosby-Pascal Dupuis
Winger To Be Named-Malkin-James Neal
Back to Bylsma …
“We could give that chance to one of our younger players.”
He singled out Eric Tangradi and Beau Bennett. One hasn't established himself in the NHL at age 23, and the other hasn't skated a shift. Slim chance for either.
Anyone else, Coach?
“Tyler Kennedy could get a chance to play there.”
It was then that Bylsma began to get real.
He named, without prodding, two free agents — Shane Doan and Alexander Semin — and added, “There are possibilities out there, things Ray Shero's looking at, that we're looking at as a staff.”
My understanding is that the Penguins aren't all that keen on Semin. Nor should they be. For all his 40-goal talent, his dogging it for the Capitals through much of this past season, even with a free-agent payday looming, even into the second round of playoffs, should make him toxic.
Doan is different.
The Penguins' real preference for finding a winger in the wake of losing out on Zach Parise — a player they saw as a uniquely fine fit for Crosby — is to go the Neal route: Find a young 20-goal guy on someone else's roster, and try to net him through a trade involving one of their many young defensemen.
That won't be easy, of course, but defensemen are a precious commodity in the NHL. A team like the Oilers, loaded with youth up front but with little on the blue line, would be a perfect partner.
Remember: Someone else's young 20-goal guy can double that total alongside Crosby or Malkin.
That's where Doan comes in. He's 35, he's been the captain and face of the Coyotes for a decade and a half, he's one of the better human beings in the game, he's coming off his 11th career 20-goal season, and he's got enough left that he was an absolute bull in leading Phoenix to the Western Conference final. His skating has slipped a bit, but the Penguins feel he's still fast enough.
The Penguins could floor Doan with a huge one-year offer — they're one of nine teams to express heavy interest, per agent Terry Bross in Monday's Arizona Republic — and simultaneously buy time, even the whole year, for Shero to hunt down his next Neal.
The catch is, Doan has to want to come. He's a lifelong member of the Phoenix/Winnipeg franchise and prefers to keep it that way. He and Bross are waiting to see if a group is successful in purchasing the Coyotes and sealing a lease with the government of Glendale, Ariz. That might be resolved this week. But if it isn't settled soon, Doan and Bross have made it clear they'll test the market. And if they do, the Penguins will be as attractive as any suitor.
So, forget other free agents.
Forget Rick Nash, too. The Penguins have never been nuts about him, which is exactly what some team will have to be to meet the Blue Jackets' asking price in a trade.
This is about Doan, the right deal and the next Neal.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.