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Penguins Inside the NHL: Caron's contract crystalizes future of Penguins' goaltending

Sunday, August 24, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

When the Penguins signed Sebastien Caron to that surprising four-year, $3.2 million deal Thursday night, they sent a clear signal as to how their most important position will look for years to come.

And it will not take long to see the fallout.

The greatest impact is on Johan Hedberg, the incumbent starter who now has little chance of staying in Pittsburgh beyond next season.

Hedberg, 30, can become an unrestricted free agent in July 2004, and the only way he would be retained by the Penguins is if they view him as a necessary mentor for Marc-Andre Fleury, the No. 1 overall pick in the June NHL Entry Draft. But with Caron signed until 2007 and Fleury having to be signed within two years of being drafted, it is outlandish to imagine the team keeping three goaltenders at NHL pay for any significant span.

It is far more likely that Hedberg will be dealt by the March trading deadline. His palatable, $1.2 million salary plus the memory of his run with the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final in 2001 should make him coveted by contenders.

Hedberg is having no difficulty interpreting the Penguins' plans.

"Yeah, it seems like they're stocking up for the future," he said. "Where I fit in, I don't know. It could be my last year there, I guess."

Hedberg added, however, that he is not resigned to leaving.

"Not at all. I do want to stay in Pittsburgh, and I hope there is a way I can make that happen. If I play my best ... I'm going to try to make it hard for them to get rid of me. Believe me, I'm going to make it very hard for them."

The impact hits Jean-Sebastien Aubin, too.

Aubin, 26, has fallen so far out of favor with the organization that he was placed on waivers to be sent to Wilkes-Barre in February. That he was not claimed by another team had to be a disappointment to the Penguins, who must pay his full $870,000 salary for the coming year even if he returns to the minors.

And any notion that Aubin could try to reclaim a long-term spot in Pittsburgh evaporated Thursday when he was shoved deeper down the organizational depth chart.

Even Fleury will be affected in the short term, as his chance of cracking the NHL roster this fall at age 18 -- a notion the Penguins maintain is a possibility -- appears to have been markedly reduced.

The team has $2.72 million in salary invested in Hedberg, Caron and Aubin for next season, and the only realistic route to cutting that figure would be to trade Hedberg early. That is possible, of course, but it has to be considered an unattractive option because it could leave Caron, who is 23 and has only seven NHL victories, overexposed in a starting role.

The cost to sign Fleury will not be small. His agent, David Schatia, plans to follow the model set by previous No. 1 overall picks, which means that his client can expect to average $4 million annually in the first three years of his contract. And Schatia is not ruling out trying to top the model, saying, "Hopefully, it can be improved upon."

For the Penguins to pay Fleury so much when they already have so many capable goaltenders appears to make little financial sense for a franchise aiming for one of the NHL's lowest payrolls next season. The following year, if the new Collective Bargaining Agreement improves hockey's economics and if Hedberg and Aubin are off the payroll, a deal with Fleury is sure to be easier on the budget.

All of which leaves the following as the Penguins' likeliest scenario in goal, long and short term:

Hedberg and Caron share duties most of next season, with Caron getting the most time because of his relevance to the future. Hedberg is dealt by March, allowing Aubin to be Caron's backup for the closing stretch. Aubin is cut loose in July. And, by 2004-05, Fleury can debut a year older and ease his way into the NHL with 25-30 games behind a more mature Caron.

From there, it figures to be those two as the tandem for many years.

That knowledge could present Coach Eddie Olczyk and the rest of management with an immediate challenge in keeping all of the goaltenders from looking too far ahead.

"Yes, it does look like it will be Fleury and Caron for a long time, but that shouldn't change how the other guys approach anything," Olczyk said. "I've told these guys, 'Whether you played 20 games last season or you're a No. 1 overall pick or a proven veteran, you have to be mentally tough. Look at the present. You can't worry who has a long-term contract and who doesn't. Just control what you can.' "

Icy chips

The Penguins have ordered new protective netting for Mellon Arena in response to complaints by season-ticket holders of poor visibility. The new netting is still black -- studies have shown that the white or clear brands distort the view -- but thinner. The team expects to have it ready by the preseason home opener Sept. 20.

Schatia has not had his first negotiation with the Penguins regarding Fleury, and he does not expect to have any talks until the team believes Fleury is ready to make the roster. Schatia had no issue with that but cautioned against waiting too long. If Fleury is not signed by June 1, 2005, the Penguins lose his rights, and he can re-enter the draft pool. "For the next two years, he's their asset," Schatia said. "After that ... "

Olczyk and his organizational coaching staff -- Lorne Molleken, Randy Hillier, Joe Mullen, Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo -- are meeting this weekend to discuss strategy. "We want to make sure we're all on the same page with how we want to play," Olczyk said.

Monday and Thursday, Olczyk addressed groups of 25-30 former season-ticket holders who are undecided about renewing. "When I got this job, I said I would do what I could to communicate with our fans," he said. "I didn't make any promises when I talked to them, but I told them that we need them and that they would enjoy the games if they came back."

An editorial in the new issue of The Hockey News criticized the omission of Herb Brooks from the Hall of Fame. The editors wrote that no American has had a greater impact on the game.

That publication's season preview predicts that the Penguins will be the NHL's worst team next season. Olczyk reserved comment on that, but Caron spoke up: "They really think we're going to be that bad? Why is that? Look at all the talent we still have. ... Whatever. We'll see how it goes."

Hedberg, on the long summer: "I hate it. Two years ago, it went by so fast. Now, it takes forever. I want to start playing. I'm seeing players here for Swedish teams sharpening their skates and getting ready for games. I can't wait. Let's go."

Only 11 days until the revised opening date at Southpointe.


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

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