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Pittsburgh Penguins: How Zach Parise Decided the 2012-13 Atlantic Division Title

When free agent forward Zach Parise - as well as defenseman Ryan Suter - decided to make the Minnesota Wild his employer for the next 14 years, he set off a chain reaction that would affect many teams and even more players. Pittsburgh Penguins

At least six NHL teams were ready to break the proverbial bank for Parise’s services. One of those teams was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who moved 23-year-old center Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes and shipped defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes, freeing up about $8 million in cap space along the way.

Of course, Parise turned down the opportunity to play with the two best hockey players in the world in order to save mommy some airfare, leaving Pittsburgh with about $14 million in cap space and not a free agent worth spending it all on.

The difference between Pittsburgh and the other losers of the Parise sweepstakes – most notably the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers - is what each team did after missing out on the former 45-goal scorer.

You see, both the Blueshirts and the Halloweiners went out and made positively ginormous moves within two weeks of Parise’s decision.

A few days ago, the Flyers signed Nashville’s restricted free agent Shea Weber - arguably the best defenseman in the game – to an enormous 14-year, $110 million deal. We’ll know soon whether the Predators will match the offer and retain the soon-to-be 27-year-old’s services or if he’ll be a Flyer come training camp.

Yesterday, New York acquired former Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash, who is arguably the best power forward in the game today. They gave up Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round for Nash’s services, but gained an absolutely dominant player who should be well worth the losses.

The Penguins, meanwhile, still sit $10 million under the salary cap and have made exactly zero impact acquisitions this off-season.

The team was never going to be a serious suitor for Nash – Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson wanted NHL-ready talent in return – but, while still targeting wingers Shane Doan and Alex Semin, the odds of either player coming to Pittsburgh seem to be diminishing by the day.

With Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy among the team’s four best wingers and still a lack of any shutdown defensemen, the Penguins should probably be considered the third-best team in the Atlantic Division – especially if Weber heads to Philadelphia – despite being Vegas’ betting favorites to win the Stanley cup.

The Rangers have to be considered favorites to repeat as Atlantic Division champions, though the Flyers could give them a run for their money if Ilya Bryzgalov can focus on becoming universally better rather than on the universe itself.

While running a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin night in and night out will keep the Penguins in any and every game, Marc-Andre Fleury could be in for a long season if the defense in front of him plays as poorly as it did toward the end of last year and into the playoffs.

For now, the Penguins aren’t the best team in their own division, let along the league.

Of course, that’s why we play the games. Who knows- maybe the threat of a legitimate goaltender behind Fleury will push him to a Tim Thomas-like season and maybe both Crosby and Malkin will score 130 points and lead the Penguins to an Eastern Conference title.

Odds are, though, they won’t. Something else needs to be done. The Penguins must follow New York and Philadelphia and acquire some more names if they want a legitimate shot at winning anything this year.

Still, who would have thought Zach Parise would help decide the 2013 Atlantic Division title by heading to a seemingly irrelevant Northwest Division squad?

NOTE: The Predators hadn’t matched Weber’s offer sheet at the time of typing. Weber will not head to Philadelphia, but the Flyers are expected to push hard for another game-changer, such as Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan.

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