Kunitz no Hossa, but he still helps Pens
By Scott Burnside
And so, the dominos of this trade deadline season are starting to tumble.
Desperate to make the playoffs and, thus, find a winger to produce some chemistry playing with either captain Sidney Crosby or NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday acquired Chris Kunitz from the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Ryan Whitney.
The Penguins also acquired 20-year-old prospect Eric Tangradi from the Ducks. The Philadelphia native is having a strong year playing major junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League.
The move will have a ripple effect around the NHL as teams jockey for position heading into Wednesday's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.
In Anaheim, the Whitney acquisition doesn't necessarily mean the Ducks, one of four teams tied with 65 points sitting between seventh and 10th place in the Western Conference, are waving the white flag on the season. Although they're technically in 10th because they have played more games, the Ducks are still very much in the hunt for a postseason berth, and acquiring Whitney will do nothing to impede that progress.
The Boston native, who turned 26 last week, has played in just 28 games this season after offseason foot surgery. He is big (6-foot-4, 219 pounds), handles the puck well and isn't afraid of physical play. In short, he's a keeper who is locked in for the next four years between $3.5 million and $5.5 million annually.
While Whitney is able to contribute now, his presence also allows Anaheim GM Bob Murray flexibility in dealing with his two big defensemen, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.
There is a significant market for both defensemen, although Murray still doesn't know whether Niedermayer, a potential unrestricted free agent in July, plans to return next season or retire. Regardless, Whitney gives Murray security in case he decides to move Pronger, who has one more year left on his contract at $6.25 million, and Niedermayer retires.
Thursday's deal suggests the moving of either Pronger or Niedermayer, or possibly both, before July 1 is a given. With Whitney in the fold, Murray can turn his attention to making the best deal between now and Wednesday, if that's his preference, as the Ducks try to restock their farm system and cut payroll for 2009-10 and beyond.
As for the Penguins, the woes of last season's Stanley Cup finalists have been well-documented. Dramatic change in personnel, including the departure of last year's top-notch deadline acquisition Marian Hossa, has left the team wanting offensively and lacking in team chemistry. GM Ray Shero fired coach Michel Therrien on Feb. 15 and replaced him with AHL coach Dan Bylsma. The Pens continue to wobble two points beneath the playoff line in the Eastern Conference, sitting 10th after squeaking by the lowly New York Islanders 1-0 on Wednesday night, a game in which Crosby (sore groin) did not play.
Whitney, meanwhile, missed the game to be with his mother, Sue, in Boston; she was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required surgery. The operation to remove the tumor was successful, Whitney told ESPN.com on Thursday afternoon as he made his way to TD Banknorth Garden, where his new team was set to take on the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins.
"She's doing great now," Whitney said. "There's been a little craziness [over the past 24 hours or so]. Obviously, I was a little shocked [about the trade]."
Whitney, who was drafted by the Penguins, has never played for another NHL team. It wasn't immediately clear whether he would be in the Ducks' lineup Thursday night, but he said he had talked to assistant GM David McNab and was flattered the team had traded a top player and a prospect to acquire him.
"I'm a little nervous right now," Whitney acknowledged. "But, at the same time, I'm really excited."
Murray said he has been a fan of Whitney's for a long time.
"He sees the ice well. He jumps into the play well," Murray told ESPN.com shortly before the Ducks and Bruins squared off in Boston on Thursday night.
The fact Whitney is only 26 and has experience playing in the Stanley Cup finals are added bonuses for a Ducks team looking to get back to Cup contention in a hurry.
"He's been a winner. He's been on teams that get places," Murray said. "He hasn't even hit his prime yet."
Murray acknowledged it was hard to give up a piece of the Ducks' Cup-winning team in Kunitz, whom he called a "warrior."
"But to get a young defenseman like that, you've got to give. It's a good deal for both teams," Murray said.
As for the notion that Whitney's acquisition will speed the exit of either Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger or both, Murray was noncommittal.
"People are going to speculate no matter what we do," he said. "There are a lot of feelers out there on members of our team."
Whitney does give the Ducks some security on the blue line moving forward, but Murray said that wasn't the genesis of the deal and insisted he would be "perfectly happy" to finish out the season with the Ducks' current defensive lineup.
Still, he said, "Anything we can do to make the organization better, we're going to do that."
As for Kunitz, he is not Hossa. But given Kunitz's dogged determination and puck smarts (he has 16 goals and 35 points and is a plus-9 in 62 games for the Ducks this season), he should blend in seamlessly with a young Penguins team that ranks 24th on the power play.
Kunitz is an undrafted collegian who played four years at Ferris State. Over the past two seasons, he had 21 and 25 goals; last season, he had six game-winners. The 29-year-old was also in the lineup when the Ducks went to the 2006 Western Conference finals and won the Stanley Cup in 2007, so he'll help buoy the Pens' playoff experience if they can secure a berth.
Contractually, Kunitz is locked up for the next three years at numbers ($3.6 million, $3.8 million and $4 million) that will fit in nicely with the core of young players Shero already has under contract for the next few years.
Kunitz's numbers are slightly lower than the long-term deal Whitney signed with the Pens prior to this season. Whitney was also more expendable than, say, center Jordan Staal, because the Penguins have a glut of defensemen who are NHL-ready.
If the Penguins do make the playoffs, Shero will have pulled off deadline magic two years in a row. If they don't, Shero still has a useful player going forward.
Beyond the impact for the two teams involved, the deal may prompt real movement in a landscape already rife with rumors about potential deals.
First, Thursday's deal should effectively kill rumors that top wingers like Dany Heatley, Milan Hejduk and Alexander Frolov (and anyone else you care to mention) are headed to Pittsburgh.
Second, teams that may be in the market for a top defender will likely increase their attention on the Ducks now that Murray has laid the foundation for his blue line moving forward and may be more open to offers for either Niedermayer or Pronger.
The Philadelphia Flyers, for instance, made a couple of roster moves Thursday to free up cap room to ostensibly bring back forward Daniel Briere from injury, waiving forward Glen Metropolit and defenseman Ossi Vaananen. It's believed the Flyers would like to add a big blue-line piece before March 4 and now GM Paul Holmgren may have more options.
Interestingly, if at least Pronger or Niedermayer is in play and Florida GM Jacques Martin continues to field calls for blue-chip defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, it's possible three Canadian Olympic defensemen could be on the move in less than a week, changing the playoff landscape dramatically.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.