Ray Shero made the most consequential deal at last season's NHL trade deadline, and he recognizes what Calgary Flames counterpart Darryl Sutter was up to last week.
"In the salary cap system, you need the best team," the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager said. "That's the end game. You need to round out your team. In the Calgary deal, they get players that give them more balance."
The embattled Flames GM traded away four players for six new faces in separate trades with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. He sent defenceman Dion Phaneuf, forward Fredrik Sjostrom and a prospect to the Leafs for centre Matt Stajan, wingers Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers, and defenceman Ian White. Calgary, which is flirting with missing the playoffs, then shipped forwards Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the Rangers for forwards Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik.
It was a dramatic remodelling one month before the official NHL trade deadline (March 3) and two weeks before the Olympic break (which begins on Feb. 15).
Rewind to last year at this time, when the Penguins - a fashionable preseason Stanley Cup pick, just as Calgary was this year - were mired in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and in need of a spark. Shero's job may not have been as urgently on the line as Sutter's, but he faced the embarrassing prospect of missing the postseason one year after making it to the Stanley Cup final.
He also risked wasting a season in Pittsburgh's championship window when superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were a relatively affordable $12.5-million (U.S.) against the cap. (By contrast, they cost $17.4-million this season.)
Shero knew he needed wingers to play with Crosby and Malkin, and he knew he needed more grit. He also knew that he had a looming cap problem for 2009-10, and he felt as if he had a surplus of puck-moving defencemen with Ryan Whitney, Sergei Gonchar, Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang.
"We felt with one of those defencemen, we'd be able to address our needs up front, especially at wing," Shero said. "At some point, we had to reallocate our dollars and get some help up front to balance our team out."
Like Sutter, Shero recalibrated, shifting cap dollars from defence to forward, while bolstering the team's scoring depth.
He sent Whitney to the Anaheim Ducks for winger Chris Kunitz and a prospect, moved a draft pick to the New York Islanders for winger Bill Guerin, and claimed forward Craig Adams off waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks.
The trio made all the difference as Pittsburgh defeated the Detroit Red Wings for the Stanley Cup.
Kunitz was nearly a point-a-game player in the final 20 regular-season games as Pittsburgh made its postseason push, Guerin produced 15 points in 24 postseason games, and Adams was on the ice for the final frantic seconds of Game 7 against Detroit, when the Pens were protecting a one-goal lead.
"They're a lot deeper than they were last year," Wings goalie Chris Osgood said in the midst of the final series. "And they've got guys like Kunitz and Guerin, guys that have won the Cup before, so I don't think Malkin and Crosby feel like it's all on them."
Most NHL observers would say Whitney was the proverbial "best player" involved in Pittsburgh's series of moves, all of which came in the week before the deadline. But Shero said trade dissections that centre on the "best player" are outdated in a cap era, when a player's value is also based on his cost.
"Chris [Kunitz]came in and immediately had an impact on our team," Shero said. "He was the piece we were missing."
Ideally, going forward for the Flames, Stajan will complement star winger Jarome Iginla better than Jokinen, and the Flames will pack more offensive punch across four lines.
Calgary added more elements to its trades than Pittsburgh did last year, but Shero said the underlying philosophy looked similar.
The Flames had depth on defence with Phaneuf, Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr and the emerging Matt Giordano.
"If you have strength in a certain area, you can make that deal," Shero said of his Whitney trade. "If I only had two puck-movers [on defence] I probably can't make that deal."