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Penguins Penguins trade Kovalev, three others to Rangers

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

All that Craig Patrick, the Penguins' general manager, would say about the importance of finances in his blockbuster trade of right winger Alexei Kovalev yesterday was this: "I have no comment on cash."


Top row: Joel Bouchard, Rico Fata, Richard Lintner and Mikael Samuelsson.

Bottom row: Alexei Kovalev, Dan LaCouture, Janne Laukkanen and Mike Wilson.


It was money, however, that did all the talking.

Just as it has been the primary influence for several other transactions in the past five years in which the Penguins allowed a star player to leave for a negligible return or none at all.

Kovalev, the NHL's fourth-leading scorer, was sent back to the New York Rangers, the team from which the Penguins acquired him Nov. 25, 1998, along with left winger Dan LaCouture and defensemen Janne Laukkanen and Mike Wilson, for right wingers Mikael Samuelsson and Rico Fata, defensemen Joel Bouchard and Richard Lintner and a cash payment of $3,999,999.99.

Clearly aware that the deal is sure to be enormously unpopular with the team's fan base, Patrick attempted at a Mellon Arena news conference to paint the new acquisitions as an upgrade, going so far as to suggest that the Penguins' chance of qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs had improved. All four of the players acquired had been performing well for the Rangers of late, but all but Samuelsson also have spent much of the season in the American Hockey League.

"We acquired mostly guys that are having an upswing right now," Patrick said. "This is the best deal we can make for what we think we need in our lineup right now to make the playoffs. Based on that, we believe we made a deal that will enable us to make the playoffs and have a good run."

 
 
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Asked if that meant his team was better, he replied, "It does make us better at this point. I feel very strongly that our team will be more competitive going forward, and that's why I went ahead and did it."

Patrick acknowledged, too, the undeniable and obvious, that the team never would have dealt Kovalev if not for the leap in pay he is certain to experience next season.

Kovalev, 29, is making $4.6 million in the final year of a two-year contract. He is arbitration-eligible this summer and is expected to be awarded $7 million or more, then is eligible for unrestricted free agency in July 2004. The Rangers have the NHL's largest payroll at roughly $70 million, while the Penguins rank 24th at $31 million.

"Naturally, it's no fun when you have to let somebody like Alexei go," Patrick said. "He's meant an awful lot to us, and not only on the ice. He's forever giving to the community and just a great human. He's an individual we don't like to see go, but the fact of the matter is we couldn't have kept him beyond this year, so ... we had to make the move."

The inclusion of Laukkanen and Wilson was the most obvious sign that the Penguins' main motive was to find a deal in which they could produce the best financial return.

Laukkanen, making $1.6 million in the final year of his contract, has an arthritic hip and doubts about his ability to continue his career. Wilson, making $875,000 this season and $950,000 the next, has spent almost all of his two seasons in the Penguins' organization collecting his full salary with their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. The Penguins insisted that any trade partner take on their cumbersome salaries.

They also insisted on a cash payment as large as the NHL would allow. A league official confirmed shortly after the deal was finished at 3 p.m. that the league would not permit any cash payment of $4 million or more, hence the one penny reduction. That is the same amount the Penguins received in the July 2001 trade of right winger Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals, plus a $1.2 million savings with the inclusion of defenseman Frantisek Kucera.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has threatened in the past to reject trades in which money is the dominant factor, but a league official confirmed that the Kovalev trade was studied closely before being approved as a reasonable deal from the hockey aspect. The thinking, the official said, was that it was essentially Kovalev for four players who could contribute to the Penguins immediately. Talented as Kovalev is, the official said, he is not four NHL players.

Using the eight traded players' 2002-03 NHL salaries as a measuring stick, the Penguins dealt away $7.63 million while acquiring $2.45 million. Add to that the $950,000 Wilson is due next season, plus the cash payment, and the difference in monetary value of the deal approaches $10 million.

Despite the amount of money necessary for other teams to enter the Kovalev bidding, interest was high at the start, with as many as a dozen contacting Patrick with serious inquiries. The field was whittled to three -- Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche -- by last week, then Colorado pulled out before the weekend.

That left only the Rangers and Maple Leafs, and it went to the wire.

Bill Watters, the Maple Leafs' assistant general manager, told Toronto reporters last night that his team was in the running until 2 p.m. yesterday. He also was insistent that his team's offer of players was better than New York's. The name cited most often as leaving Toronto was that of right winger Nikolai Antropov, but no one connected to the organization could confirm that last night.

"I can't give you the names of our players," Watters said. "But it wasn't even a contest."

Watters did not say if an unwillingness to take on the salaries of Laukkanen and Wilson eliminated his team's chances.

The Penguins' attention apparently was focused most intensely on the Rangers in the past month. Patrick asked for their best young, NHL-ready players -- highlighted by center Jamie Lundmark and goaltender Dan Blackburn -- but New York General Manager Glen Sather balked.

"There were some other guys they asked for and we just weren't willing to part with," Sather told New York reporters. "It was difficult parting with the guys we did. Joel's played well lately. Rico and Sammy, too. That's why we were able to make the deal. We're trying to do our best to build an organization without trading our best kids."

Once the Penguins and Rangers agreed on which four players New York would give up, and that New York would take on Laukkanen and Wilson, Sather insisted on having LaCouture, a player who came up through his system during his time as the Edmonton Oilers' general manager but a frequent healthy scratch with the Penguins this season.

"I tried to avoid it," Patrick said. "But, in order to make the deal, believe it or not, that's what it took."

Patrick declined to offer specifics about the field of bidders.

"We had a lot of dialogue with people," he said. "As the process wore down the past three or four days, we lost some of them along the way. We had other interested parties, but it just didn't work out for us."

The Penguins made an attempt to sign Kovalev to a contract extension before the current season, but their five-year proposal of $30 million fell well below the $9 million average annual salary Kovalev is seeking.

 
 
The bottom line

2002-03 salaries of the players the Penguins traded and those they acquired in the Alexei Kovalev deal:

Traded Away
Alexei Kovalev$4,600,000
Janne Laukkanen$1,600,000
Dan LaCouture$ 550,000
Mike Wilson$ 875,000
Brought In
Rico Fata$1,072,500
Richard Lintner$ 400,000
Joel Bouchard$ 475,000
Mikael Samuelsson$ 500,000

   
 

Patrick spoke again yesterday of an attempt to reopen negotiations with Kovalev's agent, Scott Greenspun, earlier in the week, but Greenspun insisted no talks took place.

"If they did, it happened without my being party to it," Greenspun said.

Patrick did not blame Kovalev for his pursuit of more money, even though Kovalev had insisted his preference was to remain in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career.

"No, you can't blame the player in this situation," Patrick said. "He's got one shot at it. He's 29, and he's earned the right through his play -- which we helped him achieve, obviously, with his being able to play the way he's wanted to play -- to get a crack at the dollars that might be out there for him. I hope, for his sake, he gets everything he wants."

For his part, Kovalev was pleased to return to New York.

"It's tough to leave, but it's nice to go back," he said. "I hoped I would stay in Pittsburgh, but I didn't have that chance."

The reaction at Madison Square Garden was, predictably, the opposite of that in the Penguins' offices.

"Alex is the kind of guy we wanted to bring back to New York," Sather said. "I think he loved playing here. He's a great player with huge talent. It means a lot to get him back. He knows a lot of players on this team. It's just the right fit."

Sather did manage to bristle when asked to analyze the trade from the financial perspective.

"I don't think it's a salary dump at all," he replied. "It's a trade."

Patrick recognized that it is sure not to be viewed that way in Pittsburgh, even if he did not anticipate that the news would be shocking to many. The Post-Gazette reported Jan. 19 that the Penguins were shopping Kovalev.

"Everybody's been speculating about this for a month, and I think you've all written your stories and said it over TV, so I think the fans have come to realize this was going to happen sooner or later," he said. "Unfortunately, it did. We've got to move on. We think the people we brought in will enable us to get the playoff spot that we want so much this year."

Patrick did not rule out more salary-clearing trades.

"We may make more deals, but we've got lots of time between now and the trade deadline."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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