As always becomes the case this time of year, much of the focus in the hockey community has shifted to the trade deadline and what players might be traded.

While the Pittsburgh Penguins are weak in the cap space department, it hasn’t deterred fans from speculating on who might don the black and gold by the end of the month.

At present, the Penguins have an estimated $5.15 million in full-season cap space available, according to CapGeek.com. That number, however, will decrease by $4 million if/when Jordan Staal comes off of Long Term Injured Reserves (LTIR), bringing the maximum full-season cap hit available to be acquired to roughly $1.15 million.

In other words, the Penguins barely have enough money to add a fourth liner.

That being said, general manager Ray Shero has proven to be quite slick with his salary cap manipulation and trade deadline acquisitions, making it likely that he’ll find a way to add at least one player of value to his injury-depleted, yet surging roster.

But how might he do this?

One possibility would be to place Sidney Crosby on LTIR, assuming he will be unable to return during the regular season. By doing this, Shero and the Penguins instantly would gain an $8.7 million buffer zone for acquisitions.

The problem, however, is that there are no indications any doctor has said Crosby will or should be shut down for the season. If there’s even a glimmer of hope that he might return, the Penguins won’t use his cap overage on an acquisition. After all, Crosby is significantly better than any player the Penguins could acquire in a trade – and he’d come without the necessity to trade potentially valuable assets, such as draft picks and/or prospects.

Sidebar: Remember, LTIR money does not accrue like normal cap space. Instead, it’s a temporary overage, allowing for a team to replace an injured player while he is unable to play. Once the injured player returns, the excess cap hit must be shed in order for the team to return to salary cap compliance.

One way to circumvent the rules of LTIR would be to keep Crosby out of action until the postseason, when the salary cap no longer is in effect. In other words, it is possible, though highly unlikely, Shero could shelf Crosby on LTIR for the remainder of the regular season, creating an extra $8.7 million for trade deadline acquisitions, and then bring Crosby back for the first game of the playoffs.

Again, this is highly unlikely, as it would be ill-timed to bring back a severely injured player for the most intense hockey of the season without giving him a proper grace period to adjust to the game.

Another possibility would be to trade a player or players currently on the roster to free up additional cap space for a new player or players. This possibility seems most likely, but who is expendable?

The obvious names are those not producing much, such as Tyler Kennedy and Ben Lovejoy, but neither would free up that much space. Another name many might be inclined to consider is Steve Sullivan, who has been a disappointment, aside from his work on the power play.

A concern here is that Sullivan came to Pittsburgh seeking a Stanley Cup. Trading him might free up cap space now, but could negatively impact the Penguins’ chances of bringing in similar veterans to cap-friendly contracts in the future.

Then there are the “big” names, such as Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, and Chris Kunitz, that will get tossed around. Fact is, though, teams looking to making a Stanley Cup run add veterans with the experience this trio has. They’re not looking to trade them.

So, to put things into perspective, don’t expect Shero and the Penguins to make any blockbuster trades, like the one made several years back to acquire Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. It’s just not in the cards this year.

But with a few minor adjustments, Shero will have the ability to add a low-level scoring winger, a bottom six specialty forward, and/or a bottom-pairing defender.

Later this week, I’ll take a look at some of the names floating around the trade market and discuss why they may or may not be good fits in Pittsburgh.