PITTSBURGH — Scotty Bowman took over a powerhouse Penguins team in 1991.
Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr & Co. had hoisted the Stanley Cup the season before. But with the team in a second-half slide in 1991-92 and in danger of missing the playoffs, Bowman felt some grit was missing. So in two of the biggest shakeup trades ever for a defending Cup champion, Pittsburgh dealt future Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey to the Kings and leading scorer Mark Recchi to the Flyers on Feb. 19, netting forward Rick Tocchet, defenseman Kjell Samuelsson and backup goalie Ken Wregget.
The trades were tough at the time, but Bowman says the Penguins wouldn't have repeated as champs without them.
"You know your team," Bowman said. "We needed an infusion in Pittsburgh. It worked out."
General manager Steve Yzerman knows his Lightning team, too, and you have to think he's at least considering making a significant move with the trade deadline nine days away on Feb. 29. Yzerman doesn't believe in making a trade just to shake things up, but he maintains he's always looking to improve his team, which enters today's game in Pittsburgh fighting for an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
The Lightning may be the same group that came two wins shy of winning the Cup in June, but it doesn't look like it, not with season-long inconsistencies and a recent skid of losing four of its past six. Tampa Bay's disturbing third-period collapse Thursday in a 6-5 shootout win over the Jets — it gave up four unanswered goals to fall behind 5-4 — doesn't inspire a ton of confidence.
"We're nowhere where we should be," center Brian Boyle said.
Making a big deadline move isn't easy, especially in a salary cap world, and there are many aspects to consider, like the Penguins did in 1992. But with the window to win a Cup typically small — and captain Steven Stamkos potentially in his final few months in Tampa Bay — it might be worth it for Yzerman to give his team a shot in the arm, whether bolstering the blue line or more.
"You have to be willing to make a move that is going to be really significant, that is the spark that your team needs," said former Flames general manager Craig Button, now an NHL Network analyst. "I think Steve Yzerman definitely is looking at that right now, because the Tampa Bay Lightning can use a spark, and not just a trade for a spark's sake. But it's a trade where you add a meaningful player or a different type of player to your lineup."
Pierre McGuire remembers the Coffey/Recchi trades like they were yesterday.
McGuire, then a Penguins assistant coach, said the organization's top brass completed an internal evaluation before the move. It looked at some of the Penguins' chief competition, from the Rangers to the Capitals and Bruins, and asked, "How reasonable is it for our team to be able to compete with those teams in particular?"
The staff — including GM Craig Patrick, Bowman and McGuire — decided the Penguins weren't as robust or hard-hitting and needed to add size. From Dec. 31 to Feb. 7, the Penguins had won just five games.
"For a team that had won the year before, we weren't really focused," Bowman said. "We had some good skill players, but we were missing that element. Looking back, we knew we had a good chance to win if we could spruce up. Getting Tocchet and Samuelsson meant a lot."
After consulting with Lemieux, the Penguins went after Tocchet, a hard-nosed, well-respected wing. Originally that trade was going to be straight Recchi for Tocchet, Bowman said, but they added defenseman Brian Benning and a first-round draft pick, both received in the Coffey trade, to also procure Samuelsson and Wregget from the Flyers.
Trading Recchi was difficult. He was a fan favorite and a rising star, and best friends with teammate Kevin Stevens.
"It pained Scotty Bowman a lot to see Recchi leave," McGuire said. "Sometimes you've got to make those deals. Those are really hard deals even though you really like the player. … (But) you've got to make those deals to make your team better, and that's the cold part of your business."
Even recent Cup champions have made key deadline deals that helped put them over the top.
There was the Kings getting center Jeff Carter from the Blue Jackets in 2012. The Blackhawks, who beat the Lightning in the Cup final last season, were buoyed by late-season pickup forward Antoine Vermette, who had two goals against the Lightning.
At last season's deadline, the Lightning — one year removed from its blockbuster deal that sent Marty St. Louis to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan — acquired veteran defenseman Braydon Coburn from the Flyers. Coburn played a key role in the playoff run, including scoring the winning goal in Game 7 of the first round against Detroit.
Button said the Lightning is well positioned to make a move this year because of a strong prospect pool, not to mention 2013 No. 3 overall draft pick Jonathan Drouin, who sits in limbo, refusing to play, after a November trade request.
The Lightning doesn't have a lot of cap space — about $1.5 million — which is why finding a taker for defenseman Matt Carle's $5.5 million salary for each of the next two seasons would help. Stamkos — who can be a free agent July 1 and whom Yzerman has made clear won't be traded — said last month he hopes the Lightning is a buyer at the deadline.
"Obviously we trust our management system," Stamkos said. "Steve is going to do what he feels is best for our team moving forward. We can't worry about that. If (a trade) happens, great. If not, we have to believe in this group that is the same as last year. We know what we can do when we play the right play. So we'll see what happens."
It should be an interesting — and telling — nine days for the Lightning.