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Deal for Hossa marked new era for Penguins

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:36 p.m.

Ray Shero likes a good story.

He authored one five years ago Tuesday.

He awoke in Uniondale, N.Y., on Feb 26, 2008, convinced his upstart Penguins were serious Stanley Cup contenders.

By 3 p.m., when the NHL trade deadline had expired, they were on the short list of favorites.

Marian Hossa was a Penguin.

So, too, was fellow winger Pascal Dupuis and shutdown defenseman Hal Gill — but Hossa, the hottest commodity available to any team as the deadline neared, was the guy who changed the game for the Penguins.

Sidney Crosby, then the NHL's youngest captain at 20, knew that much right away.

“It put in our minds that Ray and ownership, hey, they wouldn't be making a move like this if they didn't believe in the players in our room,” Crosby said.

Paul Coffey (Nov. 27, 1987) and Ron Francis (March 4, 1991), both Hockey Hall-of-Famers, are the best players acquired by the Penguins in a trade.

Hossa, though, did more over a short period of time to change the direction of the franchise than any Penguin acquired in a trade.

He played in only 32 games, including 20 in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs, during a Penguins tenure that lasted 126 full days, or 3,045 hours and about three minutes.

“I look back at Marian Hossa… and I can't say enough good things about the guy,” Shero said. “He was all-in for us. He left it on the ice for us.

“He did exactly what we hired him to do.”

Best player available

An awkward slide into the south end-zone boards at Mellon Arena left Crosby with a high right-ankle sprain as the calendar turned to February in 2008. The Penguins, however, handled the loss of the reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP better than they could have hoped, former coach Michel Therrien said.

Evgeni Malkin, fresh off a Rookie-of-the-Year season, was elevated to the role of No. 1 center, and it suited him. Flanked by left winger Ryan Malone and right winger Petr Sykora, Malkin went on a tear once Crosby went down on Jan. 18. He scored 12 goals and racked 30 points on a 9-4-4 run by the Penguins, who were also without goalie Marc-Andre Fleury because of a high-ankle sprain.

Shero had never outlined a five-year plan to build the Penguins into a Cup contender, but their success without Crosby and Fleury — each set to return before the playoffs — suggested his second season as general manager could turn into something special.

With Malkin rolling toward contention for a scoring title and MVP and the Penguins following his lead, ownership and management gathered in Atlanta before the NHL All-Star Game where Hossa, a star right winger for the Thrashers, was the big draw.

Co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle had a message for Shero.

“Ron and Mario told him to go after the best player available, don't worry about the money,” Penguins CEO David Morehouse said. “Ray took them at their word and went after Marian Hossa,”

The Penguins, 10 months removed from securing funding for Consol Energy Center, were not yet a salary-cap club. That was about to change.

Everything was about to change.

Three minutes to spare

The night before the 2008 NHL trade deadline, Shero was close on a deal for Gill, and he locked that in around noon. That left three hours to the deadline, and all Shero could say for sure to a staff that included Chuck Fletcher, Jason Botterill and Tom Fitzgerald was that the Penguins were maybe in the mix for Hossa.

So were the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, Hossa's original NHL club. The Senators were the defending Eastern Conference champion. The Canadiens were atop the conference.

The Penguins were a nice story in the season after their first playoff appearance since 2001.

Coincidentally, their first-round draft pick in 2001 was right winger Colby Armstrong, a gritty player who had befriended Crosby and was considered a heart-and-soul member of a young nucleus.

Center Erik Christensen, who was in an out of the lineup during the 2007-08 season, had anticipated he might move on before the deadline passed. Armstrong said he had not even considered the possibility that a morning skate at Nassau Coliseum would mark the last time he donned a Skating Penguin crest.

Shero and Atlanta general manager Don Waddell had kept the lines of communication open throughout the day, but Penguins officials had been advised not to get their hopes up.

Botterill, in his first season with the Penguins, recalled an “intense” final hour before the deadline.

“Calls were coming in, there were conversations going on, other trades happening around the league and Ray was just extremely calm during that whole process,” Botterill said. “We got the (trade) note into the league with about three minutes to spare.”

Looking forward to it

Hossa, Dupuis and Gill joined the Penguins in Boston on Feb. 27, for a practice at Boston University's Agganis Arena.

Malkin said he paid particular attention that day to the winger that was a Penguin to play with Crosby. The words Marian Hossa may as well have been Slovakian for Stanley Cup, Malone said.

“They were a young team,” Hossa said. “Obviously they were raising two young superstars in Sid and Geno, and it was a really exciting moment for me to join a team like that. I was looking forward to it.”

Hossa was injured in his first game at Boston — a scare for Shero, who had traded two roster players and two first-round picks for Hossa and Dupuis. (Shero had dealt picks from the 2008 and 2009 drafts for Gill.)

Chemistry with Hossa was not easily or quickly developed, Crosby said. He noted the Penguins played only three games with him and Hossa in the lineup before the playoffs.

“I remember when he finally scored in the (first-round) Ottawa series, and it was like a weight off his shoulders,” Shero said of Hossa. “I remember Game 2, walking downstairs from the press box at Mellon, and a fan screams, ‘Hey Shero, nice trade for Hossa; I thought you were getting a goal scorer!'

“It wasn't immediate with him and Sid. It took a while.”

They found a groove along the playoff run, with Hossa memorably ending a Round 2 series with an overtime goal in Game 5 against the New York Rangers. Hossa, perceived as a playoff underachiever during prior stints with Ottawa and Atlanta, would finish with a postseason-best 12 goals, and his 26 points were second.

The Penguins finished two games short of the Cup, with Hossa just missing on a last-second swipe at a puck that, had it eluded Detroit goalie Chris Osgood, would have forced overtime in Game 6 of the Final at Mellon Arena.

Hossa had literally made sure the Penguins went down swinging in the Final.

The Penguins had no intention of losing him without a fight, and they were preparing a lucrative contract offer – offers, actually – to keep him from leaving as a free agent.

A good story

Shero described July 2, 2008, as “a tough time.”

“But at the same time I think we made some pretty good decisions,” he said.

That date, and the weeks after the Final leading to it, changed the Penguins forever.

Malone, an Upper St. Clair native, and inspirational veteran winger Gary Roberts were traded to Tampa Bay before the draft.

Hossa declined offers of five, six and seven seasons, all of which would have paid him $7 million annual to remain with the Penguins and play alongside Crosby. He signed with Detroit for one year at $7.45 million on July 2, a day after free agency opened.

The quote that would follow him his lone year with the Red Wings — “I felt like I would have a little bit better chance to win the Cup in Detroit” — was offered just a few days after he bumped into Crosby at a resort.

“He didn't have to commit to one team for a period of time,” Crosby said. “But the guys who did make that commitment – whatever anyone thought we were, the guys who made that decision wanted to be here and wanted to be part of that, and that says a lot about what we had in Pittsburgh.”

Orpik, a dressing room leader, had held off signing with the Rangers, Los Angeles or Atlanta on July 1. A day later — three hours after Hossa's Detroit deal was confirmed — Orpik inked a new contract with the Penguins for six years and $22.5 million total.

Also on July 2, Malkin, who had finished as runner up in the NHL scoring and MVP races, signed a contract extension the exact equal of Crosby's (five years, $43.5 million total). The next day Shero reached one-year deals with wingers Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, and a seven-year contract worth $35 million total for Fleury.

Had Hossa signed, Orpik would have left.

Had Hossa signed, center Jordan Staal, who inked a four-year extension at $16 million total in January 2009, would have been traded before this past June.

Had Hossa signed, the Penguins would have lacked the cap space to bring in wingers Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin before the 2009 trade deadline.

Imagine the Penguins winning the Cup in 2009 without Kunitz and Guerin, or making the playoffs in 2011 without Staal, who became the top center because of season-ending injuries to Crosby and Malkin.

Imagine the Penguins chasing the Cup this season without right winger James Neal, whose $5 million annual salary would not have fit under the cap had Hossa signed those six- or seven-year deals.

Imagine the Penguins this summer trying to move or buy out Hossa, now 34, to clear cap space to extend the deals of Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang.

Remember five years ago, and try to imagine the Penguins as a Cup finalist without Hossa.

“It would be tough,” Crosby said, recalling the Penguins' 12-2 march to the Final and playing four one-goal games after falling behind in that series, 0-2.

“When I look back to '08, I always think mentally it was a learning curve, but when I look back at those (Cup Final) games, we weren't that far off. I think a lot of us winning in '09 was our mentality. We had that confidence because of the year before, and Hossa was a big part of that.”

Shero has had five years to assess his signature trade, but his opinion has not changed.

“We all knew it was a rental, basically, to see if he could get us to that next level,” he said. “It turned out to be good for us, and it turned out to be good for Marian. He got his Cup a couple of years later with Chicago, and we got to keep our core guys.

“It's a good story.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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