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Penguins Beech presented a super task

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

"The kid looks good."

That was one rather relevant assessment of Kris Beech's work during the Penguins' practice at Southpointe yesterday morning.

No, it didn't come from General Manager Craig Patrick. Or Coach Ivan Hlinka. Or any of the various scouts charged with evaluating training camp.


The Penguins' forward combinations and defense pairings at practice yesterday:

Kris BeechMario LemieuxStephane Richer
Martin StrakaRobert LangAlexei Kovalev
Jan HrdinaMilan KraftAleksey Morozov
Kevin StevensToby PetersenDan LaCouture
Darius KasparaitisIan Moran
Mike WilsonAndrew Ference
Josef MelicharMichal Rozsival
Brooks OrpikRoss Lupaschuk

Penguins Notebook
Jagr makes visit; Lemieux to get 'C'


Rather, it came from Jaromir Jagr, the player the Penguins dealt to the Washington Capitals in July for Beech, two other prospects and cash.

Jagr stopped by to visit his old teammates and share a few laughs during a two-day break in the Capitals' workouts. And, in the process, he couldn't help but pause to check out the talent the Penguins received in return for him.

"Who knows?" he said, grinning. "Maybe it was a good trade for Pittsburgh, right?"

That, of course, won't be known for years. What is certain for the Penguins is that they plan to give Beech, the key acquisition in the Jagr deal, an immediate chance to pay dividends.

Major dividends.

Yesterday, for the first time, Beech was inserted onto the No. 1 line next to center Mario Lemieux and right winger Stephane Richer. He will be asked to produce plenty of offense and assume the primary defensive responsibilities on that unit.

It's a formidable challenge, particularly for a 20-year-old with four games of NHL experience. But if he was fazed by any of it yesterday, he did a remarkable job of disguising it.

"Even now, my only goal is to make the team," Beech said. "I still have to work hard to stick around here. Nothing's set in stone. I'm just going to continue to skate, keep moving the puck and working hard. That's what I did all through camp."

As for getting to play with Lemieux ...

"I've never played with anyone like that," Beech said. "This is my first year and ..."

He paused, shook his head and then rephrased his response.

"Well, obviously, I haven't played with anyone like that. We're talking about Mario Lemieux here. It's exciting to me. I've watched him play a lot. I mean, obviously, I haven't seem him play as much as other people have. But it seems like I just know where to put the puck, whether it's down below or in front of the net or wherever."

Beech registered only a goal in four preseason games, but he showed exceptional vision, a good touch with the puck and remarkable maturity in his two-way play.

Lemieux is most impressed with Beech's ability to hold the puck longer than most players.

"He handles the puck very well," Lemieux said. "At this stage of my career, I need somebody who can hang onto the puck a little bit and make plays. He seems to be the perfect guy."

Richer is most impressed with Beech's work ethic and diligence on defense.

"I'm not surprised he's on the top line. Not at all," Richer said. "I've seen over the years a lot of young guys who can come into a camp and have a lot of points. But to have somebody who does all those things well defensively, all those little things, that's special."

Richer motioned to Beech at the next locker stall, speaking softly while surrounded by cameras and microphones.

"Look at him now," Richer said. "You can't see it, but I'm sure he's really excited to be with the big man."

Lemieux and Beech haven't played much together -- the left winger on the top unit for most of camp was Kevin Stevens, who yesterday skated with the fourth line -- but it was enough to convince Lemieux a longer look was in order.

"It's important to get him some confidence early, give him some responsibility early in the year," he said. "We're going to try to make him comfortable. If he makes a good play, I'm going to skate over and tell him."

Lemieux has flirted this summer with the concept of abandoning his natural position at center to move to the left wing. He was at center in all drills yesterday but made it clear he still might spend much of his time on the left side of the rink with Beech working the middle.

When the Penguins have possession, Beech could use his speed to cut through open ice and keep defenses honest against Lemieux. When the Penguins don't have possession, Beech will be the first forward back to help the defense in the slot, with Lemieux and Richer covering the points. And on faceoffs, Beech, a left-handed shot, will take draws on the left side of the rink, and Lemieux and Richer could split those on the right.

"I'm going to start at center," Lemieux said. "But, as I told Beech, I like to be on the boards a lot, just to create a little movement and speed. He's going to be in the middle most of the time."

Perhaps more surprising than being placed on Lemieux's line was that Beech also worked yesterday as the trigger man on the No. 1 power-play unit. With Lemieux functioning as the quarterback on the left boards and Stevens crowding the net, Beech is required to dart in and out of the high slot, attempting quick shots without stopping the puck.

That was Jagr's role on the power play last season.

"He's a big kid, and he's got a quick release, so we're going to try him in there and see how well he does," Lemieux said. "If you look at years past, we had Kevin in the slot there as the trigger man, and we were very successful. It's a tough play to defend if you do it quickly. We'll have a few different looks and see if it works."

The role was new to Beech, who was the playmaker on power plays throughout his amateur career.

"I've never really done that before, but I'll work on it," he said. "I think I've got a pretty good one-timer. It's an awkward place to shoot from, but I'll work on it after practices and try to get better."

No one informed Beech yesterday that he would be skating on the top line. Rather, when he reported to Southpointe, he saw a white practice sweater hanging in his stall, then glanced around the locker room to see Lemieux and Richer were the only other players with that color.

"It definitely put a smile on my face."

Beech is aware, though, that there are potential pitfalls in his playing with Lemieux. Most notable, if he becomes so mesmerized by skating next to a living legend that he blindly feeds Lemieux the puck at every opportunity, he will do little to help Lemieux and, just as important, he could damage his development.

He doesn't seem worried.

"You're going to give the puck to Mario whenever you can, but I know I have to keep skating, too," Beech said. "My objective is to get him the puck and try to work off him."

Lemieux didn't seem worried, either. Not that Beech might falter, nor that Beech might feel added pressure in having been acquired for Jagr.

"Pressure's part of the game," Lemieux said. "If you can't play with it, you're not going to be in this league for long. He seems to have a good mind for the game, he works hard, and he wants to be the best he can be. So far, I like what I see."

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