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Kovacevic: Want a Crosby wing? Here's one

| Monday, Feb. 27, 2012

The scene had to be rife with temptation for Ray Shero, watching from his perch high atop Consol Energy Center.

His Penguins, despite a glaring need for about two dozen espressos on this Sunday matinee, eventually took care of business and beat an awful Columbus team, 4-2. That brought a third consecutive victory that overtook Philadelphia for fourth in the Eastern Conference and pushed them within striking distance of first.

Imagine the spoils if Shero can pull off some All-Star addition at the NHL's trading deadline Monday.

Imagine the jolt, the rush.

If that weren't tempting enough, Shero had a first-hand view of Rick Nash, the Blue Jackets' sizable, skilled winger who is unquestionably the best player being shopped. Nash, as if on cue, scored on a short-handed breakaway yesterday.

Imagine Nash in black and gold.

Imagine the ... nah, forget all of this.

The Penguins will not get Nash. Their cap situation hasn't allowed them to partake in those talks with Columbus, and that won't change between now and 3 p.m. He's a good bet to go somewhere — Rangers• Flyers• Sharks• — but not here.

And there might not be anyone coming, to hear Shero tell it bluntly Sunday: "There's no one out there that makes any sense right now."

That's fine. The market was unattractive a week ago, and it's only worsened since several teams re-signed players they'd otherwise planned to trade. Even the rental options are unattractive, according to the Penguins' front office. A few role players are out there, but that's about it.

If Shero does nothing, he'll get no complaint here.

Besides, if you ask me, the Penguins still could add a monster of a scoring winger — maybe better than Nash — with a simple swipe of the dry-erase board.

Try Jordan Staal.

I'm not talking about now, of course. But if Sidney Crosby returns in time for playoffs — and any realistic scenario for the Penguins winning the Cup must assume that he will — then the best option to address a slew of concerns is to begin treating Staal like the top-shelf scoring threat he is becoming.

Let's start with this: The Evgeni Malkin-James Neal-Chris Kunitz line has to stay intact. Carve it in stone, and leave them alone. This kind of chemistry and productivity is rare and golden. It can't be discarded to satisfy the needs of another player, not even Crosby.

If you want precedent, go back to Mario Lemieux's un-retirement in late 2000. The easiest move for that coaching staff would have been to break up the solid Robert Lang-Alexei Kovalev-Martin Straka line and lend one of them to Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. The choice instead was journeyman Jan Hrdina. And the result was the Penguins flourishing with two lines, not one.

Crosby centering Staal.

The more I think about it, the better it sounds.

By all accounts, Crosby has gained a fresh appreciation for Staal's style and effectiveness while watching him from above over the past year. He'd welcome playing with Staal. That's an important start.

Staal feels no differently.

"Anytime you have a chance to skate with a great player like that, you'd take it," he said after the game yesterday. "No question."

Staal also was emphatic about the importance of keeping the top line together.

"You'll get no argument from me there."

Here's another intangible benefit: Staal is 23 and he, like Crosby, can be a free agent in the summer of 2013. Staal can't possibly want to be a third-line center forever. Nor should he. The kid's got 21 goals in 42 games, a 40-goal pace, and he's even flashed playmaking creativity that not many saw coming.

Did you catch that gorgeous aerial pass to spring Pascal Dupuis for a break Saturday?

For that matter, put Dupuis on this line, too. Dupuis, who wristed home his 15th goal yesterday, already has spent a ton of time with Crosby. That relationship will be extra valuable given all the time Crosby's missed.

Staal and Dupuis offer speed, size and a robust enthusiasm for banging along the boards, perfect for taking some burden off Crosby.

Yes, Staal has looked smooth and confident at center, especially in carrying through the neutral zone. And he has every right to see himself as a natural center, which I'm sure he does. But Dan Bylsma's system isn't like table-hockey slots, where the forwards can only skate up or down. Forwards — even defensemen — are free to pursue the puck as needed.

"You don't have the puck as much on the wing, for sure," Staal said. "But again, there's a lot to be said for playing with a great player."

And bringing the best out of the ones you have.

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