The Pittsburgh Penguins are deeply entrenched in a heated and tight Eastern Conference playoff race. Uncertainty bequeathed to the roster and organization as a whole with the notable absence of their captain and arguably the league’s best player, Sidney Crosby. While his absence is masked slightly by the exceptional play of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, there’s no doubt that Crosby’s presence is sorely missed in the locker room and on the ice.

The salary cap implications that surround Crosby’s injury are more complicated. Players can be placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) at which point a club is granted the ability to exceed the salary cap in the amount in which the injured player counts against the cap, if it would, in fact, put the club over the cap. Got it? Maybe an illustration would help:

Scenario A: A club is spending $64.3 million (the Upper Limit) and a player making $5 million is lost for the season at exactly the midway point of the year. Contrary to popular belief, the player still counts fully against the salary cap. However, the team may replace the injured player at the midway point of the year and spend up to $2.5 million over the Upper Limit. Which is a $5 million player that would only count half as much at the midway point of the season.

Scenario B: A club is spending $60 million (the Upper Limit is $64.3 million) and a player making $5 million is lost for the season on day 1 of the season. For ease of math, I’ll just kind of round it off. The team can essentially go $700,000 over the salary cap to replace that player – not $5 million. They weren’t spending to the cap as it is, they aren’t granted the ability to go $5 million over it.

Scenario C: A team is spending $49 million (the Upper Limit is $64.3 million) and a player making $5 million is lost at any point in the season. The team may not exceed the Upper Limit as a result of the injury because the replacement overage would not have the team exceeding the Upper Limit.

For the Penguins, without examining every day that Crosby could come back and start playing and the ramifications of such an event, the Penguins can take on a very healthy contract at this point in the season. At just a glance, the Penguins could take on a $2 million per year contract at the deadline without blinking AND with Crosby coming back on March 1. If Crosby doesn’t come back until April 1, the Penguins opportunity for acquisition is nearly limitless. Remember, there’s no salary cap in the playoffs. If Crosby comes back after the regular season is over, all bets are off salary cap wise.

Many playoff teams like to add depth at any position going into the postseason and the Penguins, given their recent injury history, are no exception. However, the assets matter, I’ll explore what the Penguins can do, should do and won’t do below…

The Penguins could use a depth forward that makes the team more difficult to play against. The Pens could have used a player that can both score and play with an edge – basically another Chris Kunitz. Tuomo Ruutu fits this mold very well, but he’s no longer available obviously – and the cost asset wise may have been too great to consider.

So what’s reasonable –

Paul Gaustad, the big 6-foot-4 physical centerman from the Buffalo Sabres, is available. He plays a strong, physical, defensive game and could be an asset to the Penguins third line. He’s unrestricted at the end of the year and coming off of a $2.3 million per year deal. He’s a terrific faceoff taker and can grind it out along the boards well. Buffalo ideally should start fresh with a new owner (check), new GM and new coach…but they won’t. I believe Gaustad can be had for a 2nd round pick or a 3rd and a mid-level prospect.

In Calgary, they have some bottom liners that may be of some use if the Pens can’t reel in a medium-sized fish. Former fan favorite Tom Kostopoulos, grinder Tim Jackman, and speedy David Moss could all be had for very little but, naturally, aren’t that big of a help to the Penguins lineup which has several bottom-six forwards that lack specialty.

From Columbus, Derek MacKenzie and Samuel Pahlsson are both good defensive centers that can take faceoffs well and have great work ethics. Pahlsson was very nearly the MVP of the Ducks run in 2007, so his playoff resume speaks for itself. MacKenzie hits everything that moves until it stops moving and is a hound defensively. He’s not very talented but he can get the puck in deep and obliterate his opponents. Both could likely be had for a 3rd round pick or less and both are unrestricted at the end of the season.

Montreal’s Travis Moen is talking contract extension with the Canadiens, but if he should become available at the trade deadline he would be an asset to the Penguins on the wing. He’s another physical, defensive forward that has great playoff experience. Mathieu Darche is a fine grinder that plays well defensively and cycles well. If Darche is available he could be had for very little, maybe Keven Veilleux and a conditional pick, while Moen might cost as much as a 2nd rounder. Unfortunately, neither are face-off takers.

While it may seem that the Penguins myriad of bottom-six forwards makes adding another one redundant, the market for top-six wingers is shallow and expensive. The Penguins do not have a lot of assets to spare at this point and it’s likely their first round pick is not on the table as they are hosting the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Making a physical, straightforward team more difficult to play against without sacrificing anything significant might be the best that Ray Shero can do.

The Penguins may also look for a veteran shot blocker or crease clearer just to add depth on the cheap. While that acquisition may not see regular playing time, he can sub in in case of injury or poor play. While they haven’t been stellar this year, Bryan Allen from Carolina and Brett Clark from Tampa Bay (the latter victimized by Evgeni Malkin doing his best Mario Lemieux impression) could be had for cheap. In sheltered minutes, these players could step in and look fine and are very low maintenance. Behind Engelland (projected to be a career minor leaguer just a couple years ago) and Niskanen (on the fast track out of the NHL before his trade to Pittsburgh) are backed up by fringe NHLer Ben Lovejoy and rookie Simon Despres. If it can be done for a 4th or 5th round pick or a long shot prospect, adding a veteran defenseman can never hurt.

Big Islander d-man Milan Jurcina has a cannon from the point and plays with a high level of physicality – like a rougher version of this year’s Niskanen, Jurcina may be able to play well in limited minutes where he doesn’t need to over-extend himself for 20+ minutes per game.

Conversely, names like Chris Stewart (a huge piece of a recent blockbuster) is a name we can’t afford and should stay away from as his spotty, inconsistent effort would not fit the Penguins organization as well as many would like to believe. He’s a career underachiever that doesn’t play with much passion and is quite useless when he isn’t scoring – unlike a player like Kunitz. Dustin Brown is unavailable as a team looking to make an impression in the playoffs will not trade a top-six forward and its captain at the deadline unless they’re getting a superstar forward in return. David Jones is incredibly inconsistent and a fairly soft, perimeter player that disappears for long stretches of time. It’s difficult to knock out all the names that the Penguins shouldn’t acquire, but there are a lot of names on Penguins fans’ watch list that don’t make sense because they come from playoff teams that are looking to buy or have long-term, prohibiting deals that don’t mesh with Pittsburgh’s financial landscape or are just plain unrealistic targets given our tradable asset base.

In terms of a backup goalie, I’m not sure the Penguins need or will use an asset to acquire a backup goalie. If Marc-Andre Fleury goes down, the Penguins playoff chances are toast anyhow. With 20 games left in the season and the Penguins locked up in a tight playoff race, the Pens backup (whoever it is) will play no more than a handful of games the rest of the way and none in the playoffs. This might be a good time to give Brad Thiessen a rehearsal for next year’s backup job. Either way, I don’t feel it would be judicious utilization of assets to acquire a backup that may only be a moderate upgrade on the struggling Brent Johnson at this point in the season.

In other words, the trade deadline will be a fairly quiet one for the Penguins. We may see a minor move or two to improve depth, but there doesn’t seem to be anything major on the horizon.