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With Crosby in limbo, Pens reload

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor


Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Penguins have been busy acquiring talent in the week leading up to the NHL's Feb. 28 trade deadline, but with Sidney Crosby still sidelined with a concussion it's difficult to gauge how far the recent moves can take them.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero has picked up offensive help by acquiring wingers James Neal and Alex Kovalev in separate trades. The question is, are those deals designed to make up for Crosby's absence or is it more about giving Sid the Kid the makings of a better top line if, or when, he returns to the ice?

It's probably a little bit from columns A and B. Neal and Kovalev could help mask the loss of Crosby for now and later one, or both of them, could wind up skating alongside Pittsburgh's captain.

In the long run, the Pens will likely have different plans for Neal and Kovalev. Neal is just 23 years old and is signed through next season. The former Dallas Stars prospect has proven himself to be a legitimate 20-goal scorer at the NHL level and Neal's sniping abilities may keep him in Pittsburgh for the long haul.

On the other hand, Kovalev's return to the Steel City could be a brief one. The Russian veteran was traded to Pittsburgh on Thursday -- the same day Kovalev celebrated his 38th birthday. Kovalev is set to become a free agent this summer and it's unclear what his plans for the future will entail. That's why the Pens only had to give up a seventh-round pick to get him from Ottawa.

Alex Kovalev spent parts of five seasons in Pittsburgh from 1998-2003.
Of course, Pittsburgh had to pay a steeper price to land Neal and Matt Niskanen, a defenseman who also came from Dallas in the deal that sent blueliner Alex Goligoski to the Stars.

Goligoski, who had nine goals, 22 assists and a plus-20 rating in 60 games with the Pens this season, is just 25 years old and was not a piece Shero wanted to part with. Still, Neal fills a bigger need for Pittsburgh and the Penguins hope Niskanen can help fill the void left by the departure of a promising offensive defenseman.

But, Kovalev is the more intriguing move, partly because it will be interesting to watch him skate in a Penguins uniform once again and partly due to his enigmatic nature. The talented winger is one of the best stick-handlers to ever play the game, but getting him to produce consistently has always been a problem.

Kovalev's two seasons in Ottawa were filled with lengthy scoring droughts and his hot streaks never seemed to last long enough. But, the Senators are in the midst of a rebuilding phase, while Pittsburgh is in the thick of the Eastern Conference. Shero and the Pens hope those facts are enough to keep Kovalev focused during his second tenure in the Steel City.

A good sign for his second stint with the Penguins is Kovalev's recent play. He didn't score a single point in five January games, but Kovalev has six goals and three assists in 10 contests this month.

Kovalev spent parts of five seasons in Pittsburgh from 1998-2003 and his greatest offensive season came with the Penguins in 2000-01, when he set personal bests in goals (44) and assists (51). While the heady days of 2000-01 have long since passed Kovalev by, Pittsburgh's hope is that he can provide a boost to a team that has lost seven of their last nine games and have scored a total of 16 goals over that span.

The specter of a season-ending knee injury suffered by Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin is also hanging over the club and the recent trades have more than a little to do with the absence of Crosby's fellow superstar.

Neal and Kovalev are not going to make anybody in Pittsburgh forget about Crosby and Malkin anytime soon, but the Pens added a pair of offensive pieces that can help the club whether or not there captain is able to return this season.

It's a safe bet that the Penguins will make the postseason whether or not Crosby returns, but the club's latest additions are a nice insurance policy to have in case he doesn't.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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