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Penguins New acquisitions eager to establish worth to Penguins

Friday, July 13, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Greg Malone, the Penguins' head scout, recalls attending a Western Hockey League game during the winter of 1998-99. And how his attention continually was drawn to Kris Beech, a promising young center with the Calgary Hitmen.

A center so promising, in fact, that Malone quickly concluded the Penguins had absolutely no hope of getting him with their first-round draft choice, which turned out to be the 18th overall.

"I said, 'We'll never see this kid,' " Malone said yesterday. "Not unless we trade up.' "

Well, the Penguins held onto their choice and ultimately spent it on winger Konstantin Koltsov, long after Washington had invested its top choice, which was the seventh, on Beech.

But Wednesday -- two-plus years after Beech was drafted and at the dizzying cost of arguably the world's finest player -- the Penguins acquired Beech, along with fellow prospects Ross Lupaschuk and Michal Sivek and $4.9 million, from Washington for right winger Jaromir Jagr and defenseman Frantisek Kucera.

The payoff for Washington is obvious; it picked up the most volatile offensive talent in the game. Things are considerably more hazy for the Penguins. The financial boost they'll get from shedding the salaries of Jagr and Kucera will help them re-sign some free agents, of course, and the cash Washington will give them should some in handy, too.

How the deal will play out on the ice probably won't really be known for several years, although at least one objective observer yesterday credited Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick with making the best of the difficult situation created when Jagr demanded to be traded.

"Craig did a great job getting three young players who are close to being real players," Columbus General Manager Doug MacLean said. "It's no secret that those probably were close to Washington's top three prospects. I like all three. I don't know that one jumps out any more than the others."

None of them, of course, likely will stand out the way Jagr has for most of the past 11 years. Few players in the history of the game have.

Lupaschuk allowed that "it's not every day that you get traded for one of the best players in the world, then get to play with one of the best [Mario Lemieux]," and that he, Beech and Sivek might face particularly intense scrutiny because of whom the Penguins gave up for them.

"There's a little bit of pressure in that sense, but they're not expecting us to come in there and be Jagr," he said. "They got us because they liked us, and we're going to come in and do what we do."

When they'll be ready to do it at the NHL level remains to be seen. All three seem intent on trying to earn a job with the Penguins this fall, but none is guaranteed to do it.

For although Sivek said that "when they [acquired] us for Jagr and Kucera, they are expecting us to play there," the Penguins have downplayed short-term expectations for Beech, Lupaschuk and Sivek.

Patrick likened Beech to future Hall of Famer Ron Francis -- "It's nice to be recognized as that type of player," Beech said -- and spoke optimistically of one or two of the newcomers working in the NHL during the coming season, but that's been the exception.

Lupaschuk, for example, is being publicly projected as a fourth or fifth defenseman, even though management believes he eventually will fill a more substantial role.

"Right now, we're probably saying that he'll be a 4 or 5 guy," Malone said. "But he has the potential to be better than that."

Lupaschuk's strong play during Red Deer's surge to the Memorial Cup championship -- "Under pressure situations, he was very reliable," Malone said -- did nothing to taint his solid credentials.

"He had a phenomenal Memorial Cup," MacLean said. "He was an integral part of their success. His shot from point was as big a part of that as anything."

Malone envisions Lupaschuk as the quarterback of the Penguins' power play at some point in the future and expects him to compete for a job in the NHL this winter, although he figures Lupaschuk will spend the season in the minors.

Lupaschuk said, "I don't know if I can play [in the NHL] this year or not," but added, "I think I'm definitely ready to try to make a run at it."

Beech said he is "totally ready" to play for the Penguins this season, that "I don't want to be anywhere else."

Whether he can contribute so soon to the Penguins is impossible to say, although Malone didn't rule it out.

"Craig obviously doesn't want to rush kids," he said. "But if you surround [Beech] with better hockey players, he'll rise to that [level]."

Beech is reputed to be a strong two-way player who is effective on both special teams.

"I love the offense and I like to make nice offensive plays," he said. "But I do take care of every part of the ice. I try to, anyway."

More than a few observers believe he's succeeding.

"He's a top kid who has a chance to be a real good hockey player," MacLean said. "He's close to being one right now."

Beech is listed as 6 feet 3, 192 pounds but said yesterday he has beefed up to 207 since the end of the season because of his desire to add muscle.

Playmaking is widely regarded as Beech's forte -- "He's really dangerous when he gets the puck," Lupaschuk said -- although he insists he does not emphasize that facet of his game.

"I don't want to see myself just as a playmaker," Beech said. "I really want to be known as a guy who can [shoot and pass]."

Beech, like Lupaschuk and Sivek, said he had no idea until Wednesday afternoon, when the Capitals phoned him, that his name even was being mentioned in trade talks.

"Until I got off the phone, I didn't really think about it," he said. "Once it sunk in, I was very excited and quite happy."

Beech spent most of his formative years in Sicamous, British Columbia, but grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan who idolized Mario Lemieux.

"He was my favorite player when I was growing up," Beech said. "So I'd always cheer for Pittsburgh [in the playoffs] when Montreal went out."

Sivek, meanwhile, couldn't help but follow the Penguins. Not when so many of his countrymen, including Jagr, have labored for them in recent years.

"I'm very happy about [the trade]," he said. "Pittsburgh has a great team. Every Czech player wants to play there."

There are times when it seems as if most of them have. That list includes center Milan Kraft, who was Sivek's linemate at Prince Albert and on the Czech World junior team that won its second consecutive world championship last winter.

Thanks, in no small part, to Sivek's contributions.

"He was the captain of that team," Malone said. "He was one of the main reasons they ended up winning."

Sivek is listed as a center but played the left side when he worked alongside Kraft and said he actually prefers to work on the wing.

"I don't really care when I play," he said. "I'll play wherever the coach needs me."

Patrick is viewed as one of hockey's finest general managers and, even when forced to operate from a difficult position like the one Jagr put him in, has a reputation for rarely making moves that hurt his team.

"I've noticed in my short time with Craig Patrick that, if you watch him, he doesn't make many bad deals," MacLean said.

MacLean chuckled when asked if the Jagr trade doomed the Penguins -- "I look at Mario and [Robert] Lang and [Martin] Straka and [Alexei] Kovalev and it's a long way from being the ruination of the franchise" -- and Beech was adamant that, when the final story on the trade is told, his new team will have no regrets.

"For the future, I think they're going to be pretty happy with what they got."

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