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Penguins Inside the NHL: What is it about Pittsburgh and elite talent?

Sunday, October 26, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It does not require in-depth analysis to determine that Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev would be more productive players today had they remained in Pittsburgh.

All anyone needs to do is ask them, as evidenced by their public remarks made in the past week.

Jagr, to the Washington Post: "In Pittsburgh, they let me do whatever I wanted: I run the power play, I am in every situation, I play 25 minutes a game. It's not the same here. You can't expect me to have the same numbers. It would be crazy. I am tired of hearing that. I didn't put up the same numbers that I did in Pittsburgh because it is impossible."


Face Off: Dominik Hasek

Ice Level: Paul Maurice

Power Rankings


Kovalev, to the New York Post: "To go from playing 24 or 25 minutes in Pittsburgh to 16 or 18 with the Rangers is a little bit of an adjustment. I'm used to playing a lot, but here we go with four lines."

In Jagr's final three seasons in Pittsburgh, he had 344 points in 255 games, an average of 1.53 per game, and won the scoring title each year. In two-plus seasons with the Washington Capitals, he has 161 points in 152 games, an average of 1.06. He did not produce more than 79 points in either full season.

In Kovalev's final three seasons in Pittsburgh, he had 235 points in 200 games, an average of 1.18, and once finished fourth in the league in scoring. Since rejoining the New York Rangers, he has 16 points in 30 games, an average of .533.

For years, many in the Penguins' organization, including Mario Lemieux and Craig Patrick, have spoken of the inviting environment they created for talented players, and there is much to support that viewpoint. Luminaries of the past decade such as Jagr, Kovalev, Kevin Stevens, Petr Nedved, Darius Kasparaitis, Robert Lang and Martin Straka blossomed here and, with minimal exception, shined only here.

To be sure, there have been those who left the Penguins and went on to play just as well or better, including the likes of Ron Francis, Markus Naslund, Glen Murray and Sergei Zubov.

Still, few in hockey circles, even outside Pittsburgh, would dispute the Penguins' gift for getting the best out of their best.

Certainly not Straka.

He started his career in bright fashion with the Penguins, then bounced to three other teams and the waiver wire in 1995-97 before returning to establish himself as an NHL standout. His numbers: .79 points per game here, .54 elsewhere.

"For sure, it all starts with the management here," Straka said. "They always feel that, if you do the job on the ice, you can do whatever you want off the ice. That always helps the players, makes it more enjoyable. ... Don't get me wrong: It's tough here, too. But some teams just are desperate all the time, and that makes things worse."

That approach can be especially damaging, he added, when dealing with those players who bear the greatest pressure to be creative.

"I've been on some teams where it felt like going to work every day. You have to be doing one thing at 9:10, another thing at 9:12. And if you're not where you're supposed to be at 9:12, they turn their back on you. That's hard. The next time you wake up in the morning, you say to yourself, 'Oh, my God, I've got to go practice again.' You're not relaxed. Here, it's more like a hobby. You enjoy it. And when it's time to play the game, you want to do your best for management. The people here give you so much room to have fun, you want to pay them back."

There is more to it, of course. The Penguins long have been the league's most generous team in doling out ice time to their best players. They also might have been the most tolerant of those players' various foibles. When Jagr was "dying alive," the team rolled its eyes. When Kovalev turned over the puck inside the blue line, it was shrugged off as the necessary bad that goes with the good.

Jagr and Kovalev paved their paths out of town. Jagr demanded a trade three times in 2000-01, and the team obliged the next summer. Kovalev rejected a five-year, $25 million extension offer before last season, forcing a trade. He now has a one-year contract for $6.6 million and, given his lackluster showing and the promise of major economic change in the NHL, he might well take a pay cut with his next deal.

Straka is signed through 2005 and has expressed in strong terms his desire to stay put, even with the Penguins rebuilding and even with the knowledge they have shopped him to try to further cut payroll.

Some call him crazy to want to stick around.

He sees it differently.

"This is a great place to play. Believe me, I know that."

Icy chips

Things could not be uglier for the Capitals, who last night finished an 0-5-1 road trip during which Jagr pouted publicly again, captain Steve Konowalchuk was traded, and -- the kicker -- Jeff Halpern and Sergei Gonchar fought at practice Wednesday and had to be separated by teammates. The day before, Dainius Zubrus and Josef Boumedienne nearly came to blows. How much time does Bruce Cassidy have left?

Alexandre Daigle is leading the Minnesota Wild with three goals and might well be carving out a long-term spot on Jacques Lemaire's roster, in part because of leadership he can provide. He played his 500th NHL game Friday, making him the team's second-most experienced player behind Sergei Zholtok.

The NHL's annual study of player size and age determined the average height and weight to be 6 feet 1 and a record 204.6 pounds. Thirty years ago, the average was 5-11, 184.5 pounds.

The rinks remain the same.

The largest increase for any nationality in the league was for Americans, from 93 last season to 113 now. That is 15.5 percent of the league's 728 players. Canadians still dominate with 52.1 percent, and Europeans have 32.4 percent.

Last season, the NHL had 174 shutouts to 65 hat tricks. This year, there have been 24 shutouts to three hat tricks, two by the Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk and one by the Colorado Avalanche's Peter Forsberg.

More on Kovalchuk: His two hat tricks in a three-day span marked the first time a player achieved two that close together since Kovalev's back-to-back hat tricks for the Penguins Nov. 13-14, 2001. Also, his 76 career goals at his age -- he turns 21 in April -- have him on pace to be the sixth-highest goal-scorer in NHL history, which is phenomenal considering the way the game's scoring has deteriorated.

In six periods plus an overtime of hockey at Mellon Arena this week -- 125 minutes of alleged action -- fans witnessed five goals.

The one team that had its mind made up to play real hockey this season, the Avalanche, is doing an about-face after a slow start. A 1-3 slide prompted a directive from coach Tony Granato to play a simpler, less entertaining style. Granato had become so upset with his team's defensive lapses that he benched Teemu Selanne for most of the third period Tuesday.

Bob Clarke voiced displeasure in Philadelphia over the Penguins' acquisition of Steve Webb through waivers Thursday. Not with Craig Patrick, but with the peculiar rule which requires unrestricted free agents signed in October and November to go through waivers. Clarke signed Webb the day before losing him. "We looked at him as a guy who could play for us and help," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The league rule on this is so bad, teams just wait. It's a bad rule. I've been saying that for 10 years."

It is too early for trophy talk, but it bears pointing out that no rookie is off to a significant scoring start. The top performer has been the Vancouver Canucks' Jason King, who has three goals and should benefit from an outstanding supporting cast. But few others have scored much, and, given the way hockey is grossly skewed in favor of goaltending statistics these days, a run at the Calder is looking promising for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Bret Hedican of the Carolina Hurricanes attended St. Cloud State University in the late 1980s and remains a passionate alumnus. Which is why he went out of his way this week upon visiting town to ask anyone he could how Ryan Malone was doing. "I hear he's been great, and that doesn't surprise me," Hedican said. "Every year at St. Cloud, he got bigger and bigger to fill into his frame. Then, you could see him take it to the next level in terms of confidence. He was out there trying to score every night, and that's the sign of someone expecting a lot of himself. As someone who went to St. Cloud, I am very proud of Ryan Malone."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at or 412-263-1938.

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