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Penguins Fiscal realities force Penguins to make five trades, embrace survival mode

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Penguins finally are using the R-word.

Ian Moran

After making five trades yesterday at the NHL deadline, all designed to pare the payroll and make the roster younger, there no longer is any avoiding it.

"This is unique for this organization in the 13 years I've been here. We haven't had to rebuild," General Manager Craig Patrick said. "But now we're there. Now, we're rebuilding."

Patrick and owner Mario Lemieux regularly had hinted as much after the salary-dumping trade of right winger Alexei Kovalev in early February. But in dealing away center Wayne Primeau, left winger Jan Hrdina, right winger Shean Donovan and defensemen Ian Moran and Marc Bergevin off their NHL roster, they did more than remove five veterans who make a combined $3.96 million this season and cut $1.3 million in committed salary for 2003-04. They also sent a powerful message of concession, allowing publicly for the first time that they no longer are willing or able to compete in the league's current economic structure.

No fewer than a dozen times in the course of his Mellon Arena news conference, Patrick stressed that the Penguins are rebuilding with an eye toward an improved Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and its players when the current one expires in September 2004. Owners will be pushing for a salary cap and, perhaps, revenue sharing to help close the growing gap between the league's haves and have-nots. The Penguins' payroll is less than $25 million, roughly a third of what the New York Rangers are spending.

"We're looking to come out of this and into a new CBA where we can compete," Patrick said. "A lot of these guys we brought in are young, and they're going to be 24 or 25 under the new CBA. If we blend those people in with the people that age we already have in our organization, we feel we're going to field a really strong team when we get to that point."

More Penguins Coverage:

Analysis: Penguins' moves put future on hold

Moran joins playoff hunt, returns to Boston roots

Penguins Report: 3/12/03

Trades at a glance

NHL Deadline trade deals


He minced no words in evaluating the strength of that base of prospects.

"As an organization, when you look at the 19-23 age level, we feel we have way more depth there than any team in the NHL. We've got an awful lot of talent," Patrick said. "Because of that, we think we're in great shape for the new CBA. But right now and going into next year, we're pretty much in a survival mode."

Patrick also was significantly more direct in explaining why the trades were made than he was on the day of the Kovalev deal, when he drew heavy public criticism for saying the team was improved by the move. He acknowledged making the trades yesterday, in large part, because the Penguins are trying to minimize their financial losses for the season.

"We kind of have our own ... people don't like to call it a cap, but we can't afford to lose money," Patrick said. "We've got to spend properly and make sure we can put the best team on the ice with what we have to spend."

He was no less blunt in revealing that every player on the roster -- except Lemieux, who cannot be traded because he is an owner -- could have been had by another team yesterday. That included left winger Martin Straka and goaltender Johan Hedberg. Straka, 30, is making $4 million and is due $9.05 million the next two seasons. Hedberg, 29, is making $1.1 million this season, $1.2 million next season.

"For the right price, maybe," Patrick said when asked if all players except Lemieux were available. "We fielded calls on whoever there was to field calls on, and we made the deals that made sense to us."

Patrick declined to speculate on the long-term futures of Straka or Hedberg.

"Going forward, we've got a limit on what we can spend," he said "We'll make decisions as we go."

In the busiest trading day in franchise history, the Penguins dealt:

Primeau, 26, to the San Jose Sharks for right winger Matt Bradley, 24.

Hrdina, 27, and minor-league defenseman Francois Leroux, 32, to the Phoenix Coyotes for left wingers Ramzi Abid, 22, and Guillaume Lefebvre, 21, and defenseman Dan Focht, 25.

Donovan, 28, to the Calgary Flames for center Mathias Johansson, 29, and defenseman Micki DuPont, 22.

Bergevin, 37, to the Tampa Bay Lightning for center Brian Holzinger, 30.

Moran, 30, to the Boston Bruins for a fourth-round pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

Of the seven players the Penguins acquired, five will be in the lineup for the game tonight against the Nashville Predators at Mellon Arena. Patrick also said that one or more players will be recalled from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre for the game.

The only two acquisitions who will not play are Bradley, who is out for the season because of wrist surgery last week, and DuPont, who has been assigned to Wilkes-Barre.

The Penguins will pay little to the newcomers. Only Holzinger makes more than $500,000, and the Lightning agreed to pick up a portion of his $1.25 million salary this season and next. Bradley and Johansson are the only others with NHL-only contracts. Abid, Lefebvre, Focht and DuPont receive a fraction of their NHL pay for time in the minors.

Patrick described the older acquisitions, Holzinger and Johansson, as being made "primarily to help us get through the next short period of time." He also expressed optimism that the rest could be part of the franchise's long-term future.

The one who figures to have the greatest upside is Abid. He is 6 feet 2, 210 pounds, powerful in his stride and reckless in charging the net. He has 10 goals in 30 games as an NHL rookie, the first two of those coming in an exceptional showing against the Penguins Dec. 17 in Phoenix.

"He's a guy who can be a real impact player for us long term," Patrick said. "He's great at going to the front of the net and scoring goals, and that's something we've needed."

Patrick also praised Bradley, who was among the NHL's most productive rookies in 2001-02 with 22 points and a plus-22 rating in 54 games with the Sharks.

"Great speed, great character," Patrick said. "We think he can bring little more of a scoring touch than Wayne had given us."

Patrick learned of Lefebvre from his brother, Glenn, the head coach in Wilkes-Barre. Lefebvre spent most of this season with the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms and did some of his best work against the Baby Penguins before being dealt Monday to Phoenix as part of the trade that sent star right winger Tony Amonte to the Flyers.

"Glenn told me he was thrilled when he heard Lefebvre went to Phoenix, just to get him out of our division down there," Craig Patrick said. "He was dominant against us."

Patrick allowed to feeling "a little bit of excitement" at the new role in which he will be cast as overseeing a rebuilding operation, but he also recognized there will be significant challenges.

One is ensuring that an organization long built from the top down now places its greatest emphasis on its youngest members.

When asked if rebuilding would entail change in the team's operations or non-player personnel, Patrick replied: "Not a major change. But I'm sure we'll have modest change to go forward. ... The main thing is that we get the proper development of all our people."

Another is selling the concept of rebuilding to a public weary of seeing its favorite players shipped away on a regular basis the past five years.

"I think this is the type of team the fans are going to enjoy watching," Patrick said. "We've got some kids here who are willing to bang, go to the net, pay a price, have a puck go in off their behinds."

Patrick had been working on the trades he engineered yesterday for several days, but he added that he did not expect all of them to fall into place.

"Half the deals that were made around the league today, I had no idea they were coming."

By contrast, he fully expected the day would come that he would have to make a cluster of moves such as he did yesterday.

"It's been creeping on us since about 1995, slowly eating away at us until we're finally here," Patrick said. "We've been treading water for a long time, and I've been thinking every year, 'This is going to be the year we can't do it anymore.' So, here we are. Now, we go forward."

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

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