Exploring Eric Tangradi as Sidney Crosby's Winger

The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Sidney Crosby to a sweetheart extension this June, but after missing out on Zach Parise, it appears he'll begin the 2012-13 without the scoring winger Pittsburgh has long coveted.

Whether they get that player this summer or not, the franchise center will spend the next 12 years in Pittsburgh at just $8.7 million per season, shaving off roughly a third of what he could have earned in a spend-happy free agent market.

With the cap space he left on the table, the expectation has become that the Penguins will reward his loyalty with his own version of James Neal.

Given Crosby's (relative) sacrifice, they should. When the time is right, they will.

But in a free agent market high on bloated contracts and low on talent, the answer doesn't have to be found right away. It doesn't have to be found on the free agent market at all, or even through a trade.

Pittsburgh can turn to its own forward depth for an answer, shallow as that pool might be.

Among those forwards is Eric Tangradi.

Cue the groans.

The big winger has had a terribly unproductive young career in the NHL, scoring just one goal and five points in 40 career games despite putting up 72 points (35G-37A) in 107 games with AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Whether or not that disconnect is due to Tangradi's skill (or lack thereof) at the NHL level has never properly been tested. Tangradi averaged less than nine minutes of ice time in his 24 regular season games in 2011-12. Virtually none of those nine minutes were spent on the power play, nor skating alongside Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or James Neal.

Few NHL wingers would be offensive powerhouses when flanking Craig Adams and Joe Vitale.

The Penguins have other in-house options to skate with Crosby this season, though it's Tangradi who is most quickly approaching his 'now or never' window.

Beau Bennett, Pittsburgh's 2010 first-round selection, will enter his first pro season in 2012-13 and has reportedly added over 30 pounds since being drafted as a small, speedy NCAA sniper (his lack of size and physicality being early knocks on his prospect status).

There are veteran options, too. Matt Cooke scored a career-high 19 goals last season and saw his production pick up sharply after being placed on a line with Crosby and Tyler Kennedy. Kennedy also figures to at least get a look on Sid's wing.

Until Bennett develops into the NHL-caliber sniper he projects to be, those three may be the best options currently in the system.

The Pens could ignore Cooke, Kennedy and Tangradi altogether and pursue the trade route. But, like the free agent market which awarded two of the five richest contracts in NHL history to men who were the second-best players on their former teams, any trade for established talent is going to cost a pretty (funny) penny.

Simon Despres' name has been tossed into potential trade scenarios, though none with any validity. Armchair GMs who would explore this route to help lure Bobby Ryan or Rick Nash to Sidney Crosby's vacant wing should instead explore a preferred brand of aspirin.

Despres is a 6-foot, 4 inch defenseman with plus-skating and top-pairing potential. He happens to play for a team which allowed 30 goals in its last six postseason games. The very idea of trading him should be nauseating—especially given that he would be only one of a few pieces in a trade for a player whom Pittsburgh does not need.

Pittsburgh led the league in scoring in 2012. Crosby missed all but 22 of 82 regular season contests and still managed to post a scorching 1.68 points per game clip with the lowly Cooke and Kennedy as his linemates. Since 2009-10, Crosby's PPG average is a mammoth 1.47, and his best winger over that span has been Chris Kunitz.

The numbers say moving valuable defensive prospects for the scoring winger is not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful.

Thus, Tangradi.

The 6-foot-4 forward has more talents than some give him credit for. He's the biggest skater on Pittsburgh's roster and one of only three forwards at 6-feet, 3-inches or taller. New Jersey and Los Angeles made their way to the Stanley Cup Finals with crops of big forwards who could stifle their opponents defensive zone breakouts.

For a team that covets forechecking like Pittsburgh does, and with a center like Crosby who can get the puck deep on his own, Tangradi's size could be tremendous in maintaining the Pens' preferred form of forechecking.

For as long as Pittsburgh has sought a winger for Crosby, they've also sought a genuine net-front presence. Tangradi has the size to create havoc for opposing goalies, and has served the power play well in this role in the few times he's been given man-advantage minutes.

Above all else, Tangradi represents virtually no risk as a first-liner. If he doesn't pan out in the increased role, move him. There's no loss of prospects or mammoth payroll burden attached to him like there would be with a high-end free agent or trade acquisition.

There's a good chance the Penguins will eventually sign a proven winger from a stronger free agent class than was available this summer. The cap space they opened up this offseason has granted them that luxury.

Until that time comes, Tangradi deserves a shot to play a meaningful role in Pittsburgh's offense.

Follow me on Twitter (@SlewFooters) and make sure to "like" The Checking Line on Facebook and on Twitter (@TheCheckingLine) to stay up to the minute with all the latest team news and notes.