Analysis: Kesler still on Pens' radar as Shero aims to bring back 'Big 3'
Ray Shero knows a successful formula because he has seen it.
In the Stanley Cup playoffs from 2007-09, the Penguins won seven of nine series. Their three centers — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal — combined for 34.7 percent of the offense (51 of 147 goals).
The two pivotal wins of that run were in Games 6 and 7 of the 2009 Cup Final. Crosby and Malkin did not score in either game.
Staal did in Game 6, and he played the second half of Game 7 as the top-line center while Crosby was injured.
Five years later, Shero wanted badly to add Vancouver center Ryan Kesler before the NHL trade deadline that expired Wednesday. He wanted him so bad that Shero will go after Kesler again at or around the NHL Entry Draft in late-June.
There is a logical reason for Shero's wanderlust with Kesler: He has seen the future of Penguins' Cup runs, and it looks a lot like the early days of his original Big Three.
The Penguins swept Carolina from the 2009 East final. Afterward, then-Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice described the difficulty for his squad in that series.
“Staal really makes Pittsburgh an almost impossible team to defend,” Maurice said. “That is the only team in the league where a player like Staal is the third center. Anywhere else, he's a No. 2. But Pittsburgh has Crosby and Malkin, so … that's what you're dealing with. From a matchup standpoint, it's a nightmare.”
After 2009, though, the Penguins' had only one more playoff shot with their great tactical advantage.
Staal was injured (severed foot tendon) early in Round 2 in 2010. He returned but not at full health. Crosby and Malkin combined for two goals in a series loss to Montreal.
Crosby and Malkin, because of injuries, did not play in a Round 1 loss to Tampa Bay in 2011. Staal, as the No. 1 center, scored only a goal.
The Big Three was back in 2012, and Crosby, Malkin and Staal combined for 12 of the Penguins' 26 goals. Poor goaltending and poorer defense doomed the Penguins against Philadelphia.
Staal, after declining a new contract, was traded in June 2012. The Penguins played 26 playoff games from 2010-12. Crosby, Malkin and Staal were in the lineup together for only 17, and the Big Three was healthy for just 13.
A lower salary cap and a glut of injuries dealt Shero a tough hand as this trade deadline approached. The Penguins had too many holes to fill — top-line winger, third-line scoring and defensive depth — even though they owned the best point total in the Eastern Conference.
Instead of looking for some Band-Aids that might not have made much of a difference in a best-of-seven playoff series against a bigger, deeper opponent, Shero tried to build on the Penguins' great strength.
They have Crosby and Malkin, and the rest of the NHL does not. Yet they are two, and the formula has only worked with three.
Management and coaches view Kesler — a former winner of the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward and a previous 40-goal scorer — as Staal, only better.
The math for adding Kesler worked, and most of it was tied to the No. 2. Kesler had two years remaining on his contract. So did Shero and Bylsma. The Penguins had two more years of Crosby and Malkin in their 20s.
The window is not closing on Crosby, 26, and Malkin, 27, as great players, but it is — based off historical precedent — with them as pillars of a Cup team.
Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux never won the Cup after turning 28. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were 27 and 29, respectively, when Detroit last won the Cup in 2008.
Going hard after Kesler was and will be about maximizing the investment in Crosby and Malkin, each of whom are signed to long-term deals with no-trade clauses.
Staal, in June 2012, was offered a 10-year contract worth about $57 million. Had he agreed, the Penguins would have gone into the 2014-15 season with Staal, Crosby and Malkin combining to take up $24 million of the NHL's projected $68 million cap. That is about 35.3 percent.
With Kesler, and his $5 million hit, the Penguins would have about the same percentage (34.3) tied into three high-end centers taking up $23.3 million next season.
The difference between Staal, had he signed, or Kesler, if he is acquired, is $700,000, or the cap hit of checking-line winger Craig Adams.
However, in Kesler, the Penguins see a difference-maker going forward. They see a proven big-game player with shutdown defensive prowess, a hard edge on and off the ice, and a general nastiness that the Penguins have lacked from their best players for a couple of seasons.
In Kesler, the Penguins see somebody who could frustrate Washington's Alex Ovechkin, wear down Boston's Zdeno Chara and get — then stay — in the way of St. Louis' Ryan Miller.
That is the reason they offered a prominent roster player (Brandon Sutter), two draft picks (first and third in 2014) and Vancouver's choice of defensemen Simon Despres or Brian Dumoulin — two of the Penguins' top four prospects.
It also is the reason Shero's developmental staff spent days lobbying him not to add defenseman Derrick Pouliot — the top overall prospect, and a player projected to make an Olli Maatta-like impact at some point next season — in a deal for Kesler.
That Shero was considering adding Pouliot to the package only made sense if he firmly believed Kesler was a missing part of the Cup formula for an approaching critical stretch for his franchise.
That formula — not the Penguins' needs this season — was what the Kesler Watch was and will be about for Shero.
Crosby, Malkin, Shero and Bylsma are the Penguins' four most important assets. Their future isn't exactly now, but it's coming up fast.
So, Kesler could not come to Pittsburgh soon enough.