Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero dealt one of his team's more marketable players Thursday afternoon, flipping fourth-year defenseman Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for 29-year-old winger Chris Kunitz and tantalizing junior prospect Eric Tangradi.
The fact that the move was made was no shock for longtime Penguins followers. With Sergei Gonchar finally back in action after rehabbing a dislocated shoulder, Kris Letang gradually getting more ice time and increased responsibility, and Alex Goligoski in reserve at the AHL level eagerly anticipating his eventual recall to Pittsburgh, Whitney became the offensive-minded blueliner most likely to be dealt.
Whitney's departure to the Ducks closed his unsavory final act as a Penguin. After overcoming a subpar season to blossom during a run to the Stanley Cup Final, Whitney underwent major reconstructive surgery on his left foot to correct a chronic alignment issue.
Goligoski took what would have been Whitney's spot on the power play and showed enough skill to get Pens fans thinking about the possibility of dealing Whitney in order to bolster the team's forward depth. By the time Whitney returned to the active roster in late December, he was already on the way out in the minds of many.
Whitney's quality of play since then was below average, dragged down by poor decision-making and spotty coverage in his own zone. Since his top form, as displayed in the 2006-07 season, seemed more distant by the day, Shero took advantage of the widespread perception that Whitney's best is yet to come by tending to a distinct need via the trade market.
But while Whitney may very well develop into a consistent Norris Trophy candidate with Anaheim, Shero made the smart move by discarding of a luxury in order to gain a necessity. Kunitz infuses toughness, physicality, speed and an above-average scoring touch into the Penguins' lineup, all of which are qualities in short supply this season for the Flightless Fowl.
Starting with Friday's tilt in Chicago, Kunitz immediately pushes Pascal Dupuis down to the third line where his combination of quick feet and sluggish hands belongs. Whether he teams with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (smart money has him with No. 87), Kunitz will play the net-crashing, space-generating role that has been empty since Ryan Malone caught a plane to Tampa.
Oh, by the way, Kunitz' 16 goals and 19 assists rank him fourth on the Penguins, two points up on Miroslav Satan and three ahead of Jordan Staal.
Speaking of Staal - as I make the smooth segue - the 20-year-old third-line center is under contract long-term just like Whitney was, making him a reasonably priced trading piece at $4 million a year for the next four seasons. For whatever reason, Staal hasn't come close to repeating his rookie year goal total of 29 in the nearly two full seasons since.
But even though Staal has yet to demonstrate that he can be counted on for a consistent effort most nights, he is at such an early stage in his development that it's impossible to write off his offensive potential. The conundrum for Shero is that Staal's contributions thus far don't justify the mid-level salary he will be paid for the next four seasons.
Equally as pressing on Shero's mind is that the Penguins, even with the gritty Kunitz on the roster, are still an elite finisher away from being a complete team. At this stage of the club's development, with a Final appearance already in the rearview, the goal can only be the Cup, not the stockpiling of young talent.
I believe Shero understands this. If he didn't, he wouldn't have taken the plunge at last year's trading deadline by adding Marian Hossa to Crosby's wing, a move that temporarily nudged the Penguins into the NHL's most exclusive club: Cup contenders.
Other factors play into the likelihood of additional trades, such as the importance of making the postseason and the guaranteed cash flow that results from it, as well as how highly other teams regard Staal, Shero's most valuable (yet attainable) bargaining chip.
While the players still have a quarter of the season left to decide their fate, Shero and other GMs like him are down to their final week to make a meaningful change.
With a third consecutive playoff berth in the balance, I'd bet on Shero to try all he can to tip the scale in the Penguins' favor.