I love this time of year.

As general managers around the league begin to make trades, the playoff picture simultaneously becomes more defined. The contenders bulk up, while the pretenders face reality.

Last year, in Pittsburgh, we saw Penguins general manager Ray Shero stand pat, hoping the addition of a healthy Sidney Crosby would be enough. He was proven wrong and apparently is intent on correcting his mistakes.

As I mentioned back on March 1 in Powerhouse Or Pathetic: A Look At the Penguins’ Needs, the Penguins had lost the snarl that helped them advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive years, winning it all in 2009.

Back then, Shero made some underrated, yet highly rewarding trades that brought character, leadership, and physicality to the Penguins as they headed into a dogfight with their Eastern Conference foes.

In 2007, Shero brought in a veteran warrior, a man who had broken his neck only to return and play into his 40s. Gary Roberts, who wore jersey number 10, became a fan favorite and remains a folk hero for Penguin fans to this day.

Coincidentally, yesterday’s big addition, Brendan Morrow, will wear jersey number 10. Like Roberts, he’ll become an instant fan favorite by virtue of his gritty, hard-nosed style. And, come playoffs, it’s very likely he’ll be elevated to folk hero as well.

Morrow is the type of player you want on your side when the going gets tough. He doesn’t just hit opponents, he steamrolls them. He doesn’t just stand in front of the net, he creates his own space. And he doesn’t just score goals, he scores big goals.

Don’t expect Morrow to come in and challenge James Neal’s scoring prowess. Heck, don’t even expect him to challenge Beau Bennett’s. But do expect him to come in and challenge his teammates to win.

Vocal, determined, and fearless, Morrow represents the mentality the Penguins need to adopt as they attempt to extend their point streak and position themselves for a deep playoff run.

At the other end of the ice, Shero looked to his past, once again, to realize his team was missing something important: a big, physical, mean defenseman.

Back in 2009, he brought in the towering Hal Gill, whose massive frame allowed him to clear the crease and punish opponents. He was a mainstay on the blueline, anchoring the Penguins’ top defensive unit alongside Rob Scuderi.

Today, Shero brought in the “smaller” Douglas Murray to fill a similar role. Murray, who stands 6’3 and weighs 240 pounds, may be small next to Gill, but he fills the Gill role and adds even more.

Like Morrow, Murray is just plain mean. As Michael Farkas said earlier today, “when he’s on the ice, it appears he hates humans.” Don’t expect Murray to hit his opponents. Expect him to destroy them. And don’t expect him to make it difficult for forwards to play in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. Expect him to make it impossible.

Sure, the price might have been high to add these grizzled veterans. Losing a former first round draft pick (Joe Morrow) and two second rounders might be difficult for some to swallow. But what has been delivered in return is the foundation champions are built on.

Not only has Shero managed to bring in two highly sought-after players, he’s managed to do so more than a week before the trade deadline. By doing so, he’s helped to define the going rate for valuable players, quite possibly making it difficult for Eastern Conference rivals to improve their teams.

The last few days have been classic Shero, and with plenty have cap space and tradeable assets remaining, he might not even be done upgrading the Penguins’ roster.

I think it’s safe to say Shero has defined the Penguins as contenders, if there was any doubt.