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Shero hopes gamble pays dividends |

Shero hopes gamble pays dividends

| Wednesday, February 27, 2008 12:00 a.m

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Ray Shero’s plan for the Penguins to contend for a championship always has centered around, well, his centers.

His acquisition Tuesday of star right wing Marian Hossa strengthened that plan — if only temporarily.

Hossa was acquired from Atlanta along with forward Pascal Dupuis for forwards Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, prospect Angelo Esposito and a 2008 first-round pick only minutes before the NHL trade deadline.

It was a bold move by the second-year general manager of a still-young club challenging for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

It was especially bold because Shero said he has not discussed a possible contract extension with Hossa, who along with Dupuis, can become unrestricted free agents July 1.

“I’m not sure,” Shero said. “We want to get to know each other. We’re going to see what happens. I want his focus to be on this hockey team and fitting in, winning hockey games. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Hossa is earning $7 million this season, and he will command at least that on a future contract.

His arrival clearly indicates Shero believes the Penguins’ oft-presumed bright future is now.

“For the two years I have been here, I have been real up-front about our game plan,” Shero said. “When something like this happens — Marian Hossa becomes available — you have to give it a shot.

“I believe our future is still taken care of. It’s a balancing act, but we’re a better hockey team today than we were before this trade.”

Hossa (26 goals, 56 points in 60 games) actually has underperformed this season by his lofty career standards. A combination of speed and power and a two-way presence, he is expected to play alongside center Sidney Crosby, who could return from a high right ankle sprain next week.

Crosby paced the NHL in scoring last season without a winger of Hossa’s talent — unless, of course, coach Michel Therrien paired him with Evgeni Malkin.

Therrien will no longer need to rely on that duo to carry the offense.

Malkin has shined as a center on a line with left wing Ryan Malone and right wing Petr Sykora since Crosby was injured Jan. 18. He has moved into contention for the scoring title by scoring 12 goals and recording 30 points in 18 games without Crosby prior to last night.

Malkin had combined with Sykora and Malone to total 70 points over that span. That line combination should remain together with the arrival of Hossa to play with Crosby and perhaps Max Talbot.

Even better news for the Penguins is the lack of need to make a winger of natural center Jordan Staal — Shero’s first draft pick as Penguins’ general manager, second overall in 2006.

The Penguins prize Staal as a shutdown center, at least at this point in his development, and he can now fill that role in the playoffs — perhaps on a line with tested veteran left wing Gary Roberts and Dupuis.

Throw in a possible checking line that will include left wing Jarkko Ruutu and right wing Georges Laraque, and …

“It’s on us now to win. I don’t think there is much waiting around,” defenseman Ryan Whitney said. “It’s about this year. You see how wide open the East is. We have the team to do it.”

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