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Penguins Kasparaitis goes to Avalanche, but Penguins hang onto Lang

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Robert Lang had been hearing the whispers, but didn't know whether to believe them.

Robert Lang -- "It's obvious they wouldn't just keep me for one month if they thought there was no way of getting something done." (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

After all, there's a lot of talk at this time of year, and only a tiny percentage of it turns out to be rooted in reality.

So when word reached him that the Penguins had decided against trading him before the NHL deadline yesterday, Lang wasn't certain what to think.

"I'd rather not believe it until it was for sure," he said.

Well, even though it didn't become official until the deadline actually passed, Lang should have gotten a pretty good hint when Mario Lemieux, the team's owner, told him a few days earlier that he didn't expect Lang to be dealt. And if that didn't do it, the message General Manager Craig Patrick delivered Sunday night required no interpretation.

"I put my arm around him ... and said I wasn't trading him," Patrick said.

Defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, conversely, received no such assurances. All he got were handshakes from friends and former teammates when Patrick informed him after practice yesterday that he had been traded to Colorado for winger Ville Nieminen and defenseman Rick Berry.

 
 
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Kasparaitis, like Lang, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. And while Kasparaitis won't have the chance to get a new contract from the Penguins, he'll get a nice consolation prize: The opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup with the team that won the championship last year.

"It's a good team to go to," Kasparaitis said.

Many feel the same way about New Jersey, which is where Patrick sent right winger Stephane Richer for a conditional draft choice. Patrick said Richer was traded to the Devils, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 1995, because "his ice time was going to be limited."

Kasparaitis and Richer will be allowed to offer themselves to the highest bidder after July 1. So, for that matter, will Lang, although Lang said he is willing -- even expects -- to discuss a new contract with the Penguins before then.

"I'm sure we will talk," Lang said. "It's obvious they wouldn't just keep me for one month if they thought there was no way of getting something done."

Patrick said, "we fully intend to re-sign him," and while it's impossible to predict precisely what Lang's next deal will look like, he figures to seek a four-year contract paying $3 million-$4 million annually.

Paul Kraus, Lang's agent, hasn't discussed a new contract with Patrick, but did not rule out Lang remaining here beyond this season.

"Anything's possible," Kraus said. "Robert would like to stay."

Lang, currently recovering from a broken left hand, will be the Penguins' No. 1 center for the rest of this season. X-rays of his injury taken yesterday afternoon were encouraging, and Lang plans to return to the lineup when Philadelphia visits Mellon Arena Saturday.

The Penguins will be thrilled to see Lang in uniform again, but probably won't feel that way about sharing a slab of ice with Kasparaitis when they cross paths next season. He is one of the NHL's fiercest hitters and is guaranteed to put a little extra energy into checks he throws against his old pals.

Certainly, the guys who were his teammates until yesterday expect nothing less.

"I know Kaspar, so I wouldn't expect [him to give the Penguins a break]," left winger Jan Hrdina said. "I know he'll play hard every shift, every game. I wouldn't expect him to take it easy on us."

Mario Lemieux, who was tormented by Kasparaitis during the 1993 playoffs, chuckled and said, "he's always been soft on me." In reality, Lemieux knows Kasparaitis will have no qualms about crushing him at every opportunity.

"I'll probably hit [Penguins players] even harder," Kasparaitis said. "That's nature. When you play against your old team, you want to play even harder. That happens with any player. The goal-scorers, they want to score goals against their old team. Guys like me want to body-check somebody harder than they usually do."

Few guys in the league hit more ferociously -- or frequently -- than Kasparaitis, and the Penguins do not have another defenseman who provides the dimension he did. Of course, most teams don't.

"He's got an element that only two or three other guys in the league have, with the open-ice hit, the others being [Bryan] Marchment and Rob Blake," defenseman Ian Moran said. "Other than them, there aren't really many [defensemen] that, when you see they're out there, you really have to pay attention. And when he does hit, he hits hard."

But when he hits the Penguins next season, no matter how hard the checks are, they shouldn't take it personally, Kasparaitis said. In fact, he called his tenure with the Penguins "the best time of my life."

"I have no personal stuff against anybody on this team," he said.

And most of the Penguins have no hard feelings toward him. Kasparaitis was one of the most vocal, animated -- and popular -- figures in their locker room.

Goalie Johan Hedberg said, "he's a hard guy to replace, on and off the ice," and perhaps the Penguins shouldn't try. They should just appreciate everything he contributed -- from that knockout hit on Eric Lindros a few years back to his overtime goal in Game 7 of the Buffalo series last spring -- and move on.

On toward a future that, improbably enough, apparently will include Lang, whose presence on the trading block had convinced some teams to submit intriguing proposals for his services.

"We had a lot of good offers out there," Patrick said. "And we all just said in the end that we have a better chance of being successful with him, now and in the future."

Especially if that future extends beyond the next few months.

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