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Penguins Little-known clause benefits Kasparaitis

Tuesday, August 21, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The recently dried ink on the contract between the Penguins and defenseman Darius Kasparaitis would indicate that it covers the next two seasons.

Chances are excellent, however, that it will end halfway through that term.

Citing a little known but clearly worded clause in the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, Kasparaitis plans to declare himself an unrestricted free agent one year into the two-year, $2.4 million deal he was awarded by a salary arbitrator last week. Typically, players are not eligible for unrestricted free agency until they are 31 years old, which would have meant July 2004 for Kasparaitis, 28.

"This is going to work out for the best for Darius," his agent, Mark Gandler, said by phone from Switzerland last night. "He has one more year of being paid less than he's worth, then he's going to be up for grabs. And believe me when I tell you there are many, many teams that want Darius very badly."

Kasparaitis' path to achieving early unrestricted status was highly unusual.

He and the Penguins had a hearing with arbitrator Gil Vernon in Toronto last Wednesday, but it lasted no more than a couple of minutes. Kasparaitis and Gandler opened the session by agreeing to the Penguins' initial bid of $1.15 million for next season, even though it represented a significant pay cut from the $1.6 million Kasparaitis earned last season.

"We just said 'We'll take it,' " Gandler said. "That's all."

Gandler's intent was to make Kasparaitis eligible for unrestricted free agency after next season under the Group V category. To qualify, a player must have 10 years of professional experience and make less than the NHL's average salary. Next season will be Kasparaitis' 10th, and the league's average salary is projected to be $1.45 million.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement clause Gandler cited on Kasparaitis' behalf stipulates that a player who is awarded a two-year contract through arbitration can void the second year if he becomes eligible for Group V free agency after one year. The NHL Players Association is unaware of any precedent for such a case, but the union is confident in the clause's wording and is prepared to back Kasparaitis.

Without discussion or protest from the lawyers representing the Penguins and the NHL, Vernon closed the arbitration hearing by awarding Kasparaitis a two-year deal -- the team chooses the term before the hearing -- for $1.15 million next season, $1.25 million the following season.

Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick was not available for comment yesterday.

Although Gandler, Kasparaitis and the NHLPA lose out in the short term because of Kasparaitis' pay cut, all are optimistic that he will reap a sizable reward next summer. Gandler's arbitration bid for Kasparaitis was $2.7 million, and he is confident his client can top that figure on the open market.

"No question about it," Gandler said. "You look at what a player like Darius can do for a team, and I'm sure there will be teams willing to pay him much more than what we were looking for in this arbitration."

The Penguins were aggressive in pursuing a trade for Kasparaitis earlier this summer, but they never came close to a deal despite having several teams -- notably the New York Islanders -- show serious interest. Those talks now figure to gain new steam, as it appears all but certain that Kasparaitis will be dealt before the end of the coming season. If the Penguins keep him for the entire year, they risk losing him next summer for nothing more than a compensatory pick in the NHL Entry Draft.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Kasparaitis' new contract to the Penguins is that the team's potential return in a trade now promises to be lower than it would have been a month ago, as other general managers might be reluctant to acquire a player who is a year away from unrestricted free agency.

"I believe the Penguins should move him right away or as soon as possible," Gandler said. "I can't see how they could possibly hold onto him now. What would be the point?"

Last season, Kasparaitis led all of the Penguins' defensemen in average ice time at 19 minutes, 14 seconds. He also topped the team with 345 hits while producing three goals, 16 assists and a plus-11 rating in 77 games. His most memorable achievement was his Game 7 overtime goal against the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Gandler expressed disappointment at the way the Penguins have treated Kasparaitis. He noted that in the team's arbitration brief, Kasparaitis was described as ranking sixth on its depth chart for defensemen.

"I really don't understand it," Gandler said. "This is a player who has given his all for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and I really don't know where all this is coming from. He's been nothing but good for that team."

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