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Penguins Zubov trade improved Stars

Thursday, October 25, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

There is only one Sergei Zubov.

He is a magician with the puck, the slickest of the NHL's defensemen. He keeps possession for an eternity, waiting for his play rather than the one opponents try to force. He sees the rink with 360-degree vision. He nails the tape of his teammates' blades with passes so hard yet so soft. And, from time to time, he balances that playmaking with a powerful, precise slap shot.

History will note that he once flashed those skills in the employ of the Penguins, running up 66 points in 64 games in 1995-96 and playing a major role in the team's run to the Eastern Conference final. His superhuman effort in the four-overtime, Game 4 victory against the Washington Capitals in the first round remains one of the great individual performances in franchise history.

And then he was gone.

Less than a month after the Penguins' season ended, on June 22, 1996, General Manager Craig Patrick shipped Zubov to the Dallas Stars for defenseman Kevin Hatcher. By some accounts, the phone call placed by Patrick to his Dallas counterpart, Bob Gainey, lasted two minutes before Gainey gleefully accepted.

The Stars and their followers are still laughing, even if Zubov is careful not to rub it in.

"Trades happen," he said yesterday before Dallas' 3-2 loss to the Penguins last night at Mellon Arena. "The management in Pittsburgh decided to get more defensive and ... whatever they've done, they've done it. It's part of the business. You can't blame anybody."

But blame has been passed around in some quarters, notably through a long-standing tale that it was Mario Lemieux who wanted Zubov gone. Zubov made too many passes and didn't shoot enough, some theories went. Zubov didn't pass the puck often to Lemieux for that patented one-timer from the left dot, others said.

Zubov yesterday offered his own thoughts on the matter.

"I would say that's all B.S., all that stuff about Mario not wanting me. I never had a problem with Mario. To me, it was very simple. One team was looking for one thing, and the other was looking for something else. That's all. That's all there is about the way it happened."

Zubov refuted another widely held view that he asked for a trade because Pittsburgh didn't have enough of a Russian population to suit him and his family. He had been delighted with the number of Russians in New York, where he played for the Rangers in 1992-95.

"I wasn't happy about the move, obviously, because that wasn't the place to go. The team pretty much sucked," he said, noting that Dallas finished 26-42-14 and last in its division the season before he was deal there. "Plus, it was pretty far from New York. Just look at it from that point of view. How far are we here from New York? And how far is Dallas from New York? No, I didn't want to go there at all. I think, when I first heard about it, I would have been happier anywhere else."

In the five years Zubov has been with the Stars, they have won their division each time. They also won the Stanley Cup in 1999, reached the final twice and the Western Conference final three times. In 396 games since leaving Pittsburgh, he has 53 goals and 195 assists and, at age 31, he still has plenty of good seasons ahead of him.

By comparison, Hatcher, 35, is out of the league, an unrestricted free agent sitting at his Michigan home and still waiting for an NHL team to call. Hatcher spent three seasons with the Penguins, producing 46 goals and 95 assists in 220 games, before being dealt to the New York Rangers for defenseman Peter Popovic on Sept. 30, 1999. And Popovic left the Penguins through free agency last summer, leaving them with only a draft pick to show for Zubov.

"I don't worry about if it was a good trade or a bad trade for any side," Zubov said. "That's not for me to say. I just worry about my game, and I worry about winning games for the Dallas Stars."

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