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Penguins Despite uncertain future, Kasparaitis still a big hit

Monday, December 03, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Darius Kasparaitis of the Penguins knew exactly what he was saying a few months ago. He meant every bitter word of it, too.

At least he thought he did.

Kasparaitis wasn't kidding when he suggested that he might not be inclined to play while injured this season, and that performing with his usual disregard for personal welfare might not be a good career move.

 
 
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Penguins Report: 12/03/01

   
 

Especially when he was working for a team with little interest in making him part of its long-term plans.

Trouble is, all those threats ran contrary to the very makeup of the man, to the competitive nature that is perhaps his greatest asset.

"I was just mad," Kasparaitis said. "That's why I was saying things like that. That I wouldn't sacrifice, because it's not worth it. But it's me, and if I go out there, I'm going to play hard, and I'm going to play hurt."

He has done all that through the first 26 games this season, and played pretty well in the process. Despite his limitations -- he's guilty of an occasional poor decision and sometimes lets emotion cloud his judgment -- Kasparaitis probably has been the Penguins' best defenseman.

"He's had a good year so far," said assistant coach Randy Hillier, who oversees the defensemen. "He's been real steady. The guy comes to play, gives you 100 percent every night."

Kasparaitis contributes more than a maximum effort, though. He leads the NHL with 114 hits, including eight during the Penguins' 5-2 loss to Phoenix Saturday night, and has a team-high 56 blocked shots.

Kasparaitis is doing all the things usually expected of him. As often -- and maybe better -- than ever.

"If anything, he's doing it more," said Ian Moran, Kasparaitis' defense partner. "He's a great competitor, a great guy to have on your team."

Most of the Penguins seem to realize that. They also know he's a virtual lock to be gone in a matter of months.

Kasparaitis, thanks to some deft maneuvering by agent Mark Gandler during a salary-arbitration hearing in the off-season, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and the chances of him staying with the Penguins for more than a few months fall somewhere between zero and none.

General Manager Craig Patrick has not spoken to Gandler about working out a new contract or extending the old one and, while Kasparaitis said that re-signing with the Penguins is "always an option," the prevailing sentiment inside the organization seems to be that he will be dealt before the March 19 trading deadline.

Hold onto him beyond that and the Penguins risk losing him with no return.

No matter what swap Patrick negotiates, though, the Penguins shouldn't expect to get back a guy with a knack for handing out the kind of highlight-tape bodychecks that are Kasparaitis' forte.

Opposing forwards who aren't aware of where Kasparaitis is risk finding out when he splatters them along the boards or dumps them on their heads in open ice.

"He gives you that presence on the ice, a little bit of an intimidation factor," said Hillier, who routinely deploys Kasparaitis and Moran against the other team's top line. "He makes people keep their heads up.

"There aren't a lot of guys that provide that. He possesses that, and it's a weapon for us, and a real attribute for him."

There's more to Kasparaitis' game than big hits, however. "He does all the little things, makes all the sacrifices that allow a team to win," Moran said.

Those are the traits that should make Kasparaitis attractive on the trade market. The New York Islanders, Detroit and Florida are among the clubs that showed interest in him during the off-season, and that list should grow when Patrick invites other clubs to submit offers.

Kasparaitis said he expects "probably, at some point" to be dealt, but insists that it isn't an issue with him, let alone something that dominates every waking thought.

"I don't worry about being traded," he said. "If it happens, it happens. My point is to go out and play hard every game, to play good. And to prove I'm a good player. That's pretty big motivation before every game.

"Something's going to happen, but I don't control those things. The things I control, go there and play hard and enjoy every moment I have with my teammates and this organization. I've been here long enough, and I enjoy being here. But if things are going to change, they'll change."

What won't change is his style. There's not much doubt Kasparaitis will approach his final shift as a Penguins player with the same passion he showed on his first, that giving anything less than a total effort because of his uncertain future is pretty much out of the question.

"He doesn't think like that at all," Moran said. "He wants to win as bad as anybody. It doesn't matter if he has a 10-game tryout or if he's signed for 10 years. He's going to do whatever it takes to win."

And Kasparaitis will do that wherever he is, even though he makes no secret that his first choice is to not change teams.

"It's best to stay, to not move anywhere, just play [for the Penguins] all the time," Kasparaitis said. "But if nothing changes [about his contract status], that's OK, because I'll never be disappointed about my six seasons as a Pittsburgh Penguin."

He hasn't given the Penguins any reason to be, either.

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