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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: One name stands out as best trade target for Penguins

| Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, 7:06 p.m.
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has some tough decisions to make this summer.
Getty Images
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has some tough decisions to make this summer.
New York Rangers' Michael Grabner (40) backhands a shot on a breakaway past Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry (35) in the first period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.
New York Rangers' Michael Grabner (40) backhands a shot on a breakaway past Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry (35) in the first period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.

Trades offer no guarantees.

Witness 2013, when then-Penguins GM Ray Shero added a host of big-name deadline acquisitions (Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray) to an already powerful team, and the result was being swept by Boston in the Eastern Conference final.

There's never a good reason to make a bad trade.

Paying over the odds for a coveted target might seem a good idea given a chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup, a feat not done since 1982.

But the Penguins' Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin window should be open two or three more years. Cups can be won in 2019 and 2020, too. That chance shouldn't be sabotaged in the name of chasing history. Three Stanley Cups in four years is pretty good, too.

So, as Monday's NHL trade deadline approaches, Penguins fans should want GM Jim Rutherford to make a good trade if one is available and no trade if a good one isn't.

The Penguins, as constituted, have a legitimate shot at a third consecutive championship, all the more so because of a few recent developments:

• Riley Sheahan is playing better. Not great, but perhaps good enough. Upgrading at third-line center doesn't seem as urgent.

• Rookie winger Zach Aston-Reese (four goals in eight games) has shown enough in a short sample to inspire belief that he can stick in the NHL, thus providing options and depth.

• Ian Cole's return to the lineup (and, apparently, Coach Mike Sullivan's good graces) has combined with Jamie Oleksiak's arrival from Dallas and subsequent ascension to coalesce the defense into a strong unit.

• Tristan Jarry is no Marc-Andre Fleury. But he's a good enough No. 2 goaltender that the Penguins don't need a veteran backup.

So, if Rutherford does make a trade, let it be for the best player available and at an affordable cost.

The fringe centers widely discussed hold little interest.

Bringing back Matt Cullen from Minnesota would improve the center position — on the fourth line.

Sheahan's stats are better than Cullen's (and Max Domi's, and Mark Letestu's, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau's and Tomas Plekanec's). Sheahan is doing fine, though he doesn't give Phil Kessel enough help five-on-five.

Ottawa center Derick Brassard would be a big upgrade: He's got 17 goals and 18 assists in 56 games. He plays both ends hard, as evidenced by being just minus-2 on the Senators, who have allowed the NHL's second-most goals. Brassard could legit skate on a line with Kessel.

But Ottawa wants a high price for Brassard, who is signed through next season. Brassard carries a $5 million cap hit. The Senators would have to eat part of that to facilitate a swap with the Penguins.

Ottawa would likely want a first-round pick, prospect Daniel Sprong and winger Conor Sheary. (Or a reasonable facsimile of that package.) Perhaps the price will drop. But that's too much.

So turn your attention to Michael Grabner. He's the best player available.

The New York Rangers winger has blazing speed. The Penguins have the best forecheck in the league. Grabner would make it overwhelming. Why not bolster your biggest strength? The NHL is a speed league. The Penguins have the most. Grabner would give them even more.

Grabner is an excellent penalty killer. He has 25 goals in 59 games despite averaging just 15 minutes of ice. Grabner has seven empty-net goals. Those count, too, and that seemingly easy task is problematic for the Penguins.

Dating back to the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Grabner has 50 goals at even-strength. That's second-most in the NHL. Through Monday he's tied with St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko and trails only Toronto's Auston Matthews (57).

Sullivan likes to put Crosby, Kessel and Malkin on different lines. Imagine the forechecking of Grabner, Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust divided among three lines. Imagine Grabner's speed (and not Dominik Simon) on Crosby's wing.

Grabner is signed through season's end. His cap hit is $1.65 million. He might cost just one of the components Ottawa wants for Brassard.

Don't overestimate the impact of third-line center. Nick Bonino had 18 points in the 2016 playoffs. But he only had seven points in last year's postseason. Four Penguins defensemen had more.

Get Grabner, not Brassard, and add a minimal upgrade at center, too.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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