Top Shelf: Busy Pens take lead in NHL arms race

Heading into this lockout-shortened season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were tabbed by Las Vegas odds-makers as Stanley Cup favorites.

The choice made sense back in January, and over the last two months Pittsburgh has done little to damage its standing as the NHL's team to beat. In fact, with a pair of recent trades the Penguins clearly are going all-in in an attempt to win their second Stanley Cup title of the Sidney Crosby era.

Already loaded with marquee talent like Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang, the Penguins acquired veterans Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray in separate trades over the past few days.

Since acquiring Morrow and Murray didn't cost Pittsburgh a single player from the club's current NHL roster, it made plenty of sense for the Pens to gear up for a run that could end with the franchise winning its second Cup in four years.

While winning it all isn't the type of thing teams can guarantee with a couple of trades, at worst the moves should at least help the Pens get past the opening round after losing in the conference quarterfinals in each of the past two seasons. At best, it could give Pittsburgh a significant edge over other Stanley Cup contenders like Boston or Chicago.

The only real knock against Pittsburgh's recent trades would be the old "don't mess with a good thing" argument. After all, the Penguins are in the midst of the longest winning streak in the NHL this season, capturing 12 games in a row to begin the month of March. The hot streak has vaulted the Pens to the top of the Eastern Conference, a spot the club hopes to use as a jumping-off point to its first title since 2009 and fourth in franchise history.

The fact that the Pens have somehow managed to pull off the majority of this winning streak without the help of Malkin, last season's Hart Trophy recipient, is in an indication of how tight Pittsburgh's team game is right now. Dan Bylsma's club hasn't skipped a beat while Malkin has sat out eight games with an upper body injury and the club has even been able to overcome the loss of top defenseman Kris Letang, who has missed the past three contests with a lower body issue.

The recent trades, however, aren't designed to cover up for the absence of both Malkin and Letang, as both players are due back soon and could play as early as Tuesday's home game against Montreal. Instead, the Pens expect Morrow and Murray to fill more specified roles, ones that could be essential in the quest for this year's Cup.

In Morrow, the Pens added a physical forward who served as captain of the Dallas Stars for six-plus season before being traded Sunday for a package that included defensive prospect Joe Morrow, a first-round pick in 2011.

Morrow had to waive a no-trade clause to complete the trade to Pittsburgh and seems eager to make his best effort at fitting in with a club that is already stacked.

"I have no idea what part, I just don't want to screw it up," Morrow jokingly told Pittsburgh's official website.

"Right now, they're going pretty good ... I've been on teams before, the Olympics, where you find a role and you do whatever it takes. I want to win a Cup. I'm going to do whatever role I need to do to help this team do that."

A two-time 30-goal scorer, the 34-year-old Morrow has recorded just 17 markers over his past 86 games, but he's willing to do just about anything to help Pittsburgh get back to the promised land.

"I know all the skill and talent this locker room has," Morrow added. "I think my job is just to drive to the front of the net with my stick on the ice and let things hit me. That makes things pretty easy."

Murray's job description also could be described as letting things hit him. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound defenseman, who was acquired for a second-round draft pick in 2013 and a conditional second-rounder in 2014, is a fearless shot- blocker and he could become Pittsburgh's most effective physical blueliner since Hal Gill helped the Pens win it all in 2009 before departing for free agency.

Considering the level of talent Pittsburgh already had in place before the two recent trades, it would seem the Pens would be done dealing ahead of the traded deadline, but there are surprising rumors suggesting the contrary.

A source told ESPN's Pierre LeBrun that the recent deals for Morrow and Murray do not necessarily mean the Pens are done pursuing Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla, who could be the most coveted player ahead of the season's trade deadline on April 3.

Landing Iginla, who also is reportedly being chased by the Boston Bruins, would cost Pittsburgh more than they gave up for either Morrow or Murray, but it might make sense for a team that obviously feels it's really close to a championship.

Like both Morrow and Murray, Iginla is another guy who will be a free agent after this season. That's OK by Pens general manager Ray Shero, who has identified this shortened season as an ideal one for rental players since the salary cap is set to increase significantly for the 2013-14 campaign.

"It just seems this is the one year, too, that teams have that extra cap space," Shero said in an interview with last week. "Where a team like us in the last couple of years really didn't have any cap space and maybe moving forward with the cap going down, we might not have that in the future."

Shero knows the trades for Morrow and Murray, or even an additional deal for Iginla, guarantee nothing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. If championships always went to the most obvious teams the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings never should've won it all last spring, but they did.

What the Penguins are doing is taking calculated risks in a year when they have the cap space to do so. Whether 2013 ends with Crosby and Co. hoisting another Cup, it's hard to argue with that logic.