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Penguins Penguins Q & A with Dejan Kovacevic

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Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Q: My question is regarding the unthinkable news of the trade of Darius Kasparaitis. Why did this occur? I'm a hockey fan, although I'm not fanatical. I don't know everything there is to know about the game or the team. Why trade a player who is doing probably the best on your team, someone who plays his heart out and loves it?

Susan Katz of Shadyside, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: With the, um, avalanche of submissions this week bemoaning Kasparaitis' departure, Susan, I chose your question as perhaps most representative of the passion the people who live in our city feel for this very special athlete.

You're right: The trading of Kasparaitis was unthinkable, even though it had seemed a foregone conclusion for so many months. He was a perfect fit for the fans who frequent the games, a driven, determined, no-nonsense type who invariably put the team ahead of personal goals. He struck fear into opponents, much the way Jack Lambert and Ulf Samuelsson did before him. And, above all, he was a winner.

Look back at that goal he scored in Buffalo last May. It's so easy to view it as a fluke, as something to laugh at. I don't. Not in the slightest. Look back at the history of hockey, and you will find that the players who most enjoy the big games, those who lick their lips in anticipation of the fiercest competition, are the ones who tend to come through in tense times. Kasparaitis had the courage to jump into the attack in overtime of a Game 7, and he demanded the puck from Robert Lang, shouting, "Hey!" at the top of his lungs. He wanted, he got it, and he buried it behind Dominik Hasek.

Not everyone wants to be anywhere near the puck in that situation.

Yes, Susan, the trading of Kasparaitis is a mistake. You know it, I know it, and I'm confident that even Craig Patrick knows it. But rather than address all that here, I'll take on your other points with the questions below.

Q: My thoughts about Craig Patrick and how he botched the Kasparaitis arbitration process are unprintable in a newspaper. Why has no one pressed Patrick to explain what he could have been thinking when he was in the arbitration hearing with Kasparaitis and his agent?

Bill Rote of Springfield, Va.

KOVACEVIC: With your question, Bill, we're getting more to the root of why Kasparaitis is no longer here.

But first, I have a question for you: How do you know that no one has pressed Patrick to explain what happened in that arbitration hearing?

Patrick has been asked about it time and again, and he has steadfastly declined comment. The closest he has come to speaking on the matter came after the trading deadline, when he was asked about it -- yet again -- and replied simply, "I don't know if there was any trickery. Circumstances are what they are. I feel we made the best of the circumstances."

These aren't Senate hearings, Bill, and we aren't operating in Guantanamo Bay. We can ask all we want, but Patrick works for a private company and is obligated to tell us nothing.

I'm not going to rehash the whole incident or my view of how it went down because I did that last week, and you're free to look up that link at the bottom of this page. But I will reiterate that this mishandled arbitration process, coupled with the Penguins' feeling that Kasparaitis was on the verge of asking for nearly double what they felt comfortable paying him, was what drove him out of Pittsburgh.

Q: Hey, Dejan, I was wondering: Do you think the Penguins are going to make any sort of pitch to sign Kasparaitis from the Avalanche in the off-season?

Jonathan New of South Park

KOVACEVIC: You mean like the Pirates did with Mike Williams last year? Trade him then sign him back when the season is done?

No, I don't think there's any chance of that, Jonathan.

Kasparaitis really liked it here, and I have no doubt he would have been happy to play out his career in black and gold. But given the choice between taking a salary of $2 million, which would be the absolute maximum the Penguins would be willing to pay him, or getting the $4 million or so he can get on the open market, that's not exactly a tough call.

If relatively mundane players such as Brian Savage and Patrice Brisebois are signing new deals worth $4 million a year, it seems impossible to imagine Kasparaitis will receive no less than that from somebody. He is a known commodity, a name brand, a favorite with crowds, and he is a winner.

Did I mention that already?

Q: I am interested in your take on the Penguins not trading Robert Lang. I do not agree with the decision to keep him because the Penguins could lose him for nothing on July 1, and I feel signing him to a long-term deal takes ice time away from the young centers already here. How is this move in the overall best interest to the club?

Greg Goeden of Freedom

KOVACEVIC: I'm going to disagree with your general premise, Greg, which is consistent with how I've felt all along. And that is that the Penguins are a better team with Lang than without him.

Set aside the team's weaknesses on defense, and look just at the forwards. Now, try to make up your top two lines for next season. Start with Mario Lemieux between Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov at No. 1, then keep Lang between Jan Hrdina and Alexei Kovalev.

OK, from there, ask yourself which of the current young centers you cited would be ready to step in and make up for the absence of Lang, a big, strong, two-way center cut in the Eastern Conference mold, with skill to boot. Answer: Nobody. Not today, anyway. It's highly likely that Kris Beech will be able to do that someday, but he would be better served by another year in a supplementary role.

Addressing your point about losing Lang for nothing, I would counter that every sign points to the Penguins keeping him.

First, Lang has made it clear his preference is to stay. He has never performed even adequately anywhere except Pittsburgh, and he is plenty comfortable with the organization, the team's style of play and -- don't underestimate this -- the quality of linemates he has enjoyed here. He speaks glowingly of the chemistry he has had not only with Kovalev but also Straka and Hrdina.

Second, the Penguins are serious about signing him. Did they sign Kovalev? Yes. Did they sign Straka? Yes. And that's because they wanted to keep those players. It's become abundantly evident in the past couple of days that the Penguins want to keep Lang. Lemieux has told him so, and Patrick has told him so.

If you need more evidence, consider this: After the trading deadline, Patrick allowed to reporters that the offers he received for Lang were many and substantial. By doing so -- unsolicited, no less -- he essentially mounted more pressure on himself to keep Lang, by letting the public know that what he rejected for Lang doubtless was worth way more than the lousy compensatory draft pick he stands to gain if Lang walks.

Q: Dejan, I assume that, since the Penguins did not trade Robert Lang, they will find a way to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. What kind of deal do you think will be struck?

Jennifer Robertson of Dayton, Ohio

KOVACEVIC: I believe Lang will get Straka-type length, if not Straka-type money. That means four years at about $14 million.

Q: Hi, Dejan! Will the Penguins' fans give Kasparaitis a standing ovation and cheers upon his return to Mellon Arena or will they boo him like they did to Jaromir Jagr and make him feel bad? I mean, Kasparaitis never whined to be traded like Jagr did, and he always was loyal to Pittsburgh and its fans. So what will it be?

Alan Breckterfield of Philadelphia

KOVACEVIC: That's up to the paying customers, as always, Alan. I tend to stay out of these types of arguments, as I feel I lost my right to comment on such matters the day I stopped having to buy tickets to get into the games.

I will say this, though: Kasparaitis will be sorely missed by the local media. Not only did he offer wonderfully spicy quotes and anecdotes, but he also was one of the first to stand up and face the cameras and microphones after a loss, no matter how difficult. His responses to questions were brutally honest and well thought out.

He also is one of the funniest people I've ever met, somehow always managing to keep a stern face even as he was saying something he knew was hilarious.

That said, my favorite Kasparaitis moment was a serious one.

It was right after he scored that goal against Hasek to put the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final last spring. He was interviewed by one wave of reporters, then the next, right at his locker stall. And all through it, he was shaking. I mean, really shaking. His eyes were big as pucks, his mouth barely cracking into a smile, as he told anyone who would listen about the way he scored that goal.

As I stood off to his right, I recall thinking back for a moment to a morning in Phoenix four months earlier, when Kasparaitis went on the rink a half-hour before the rest of his teammates to shoot pucks. Buckets of them. More than 100, probably. One after the other, trying to get them on net. And when he was asked why later on, he replied simply that he wanted to become a better goal-scorer.

As always, everyone around him laughed, while he kept that straight face.

It wasn't until May that it dawned on me that he was serious. I really believe that it was that goal -- not the Eric Lindros hit or any of the other rough stuff -- that was the highlight of his career. He had been called dirty for so long, even back to his youth days, and it was a tag that bothered him deeply. He had longed to be known as a real hockey player, a good skater, a good passer and, yes, a good shooter.

On that night in Buffalo, it all came together. And you could see it in his face.

Q: Dejan, what do you think of the two Avalanche players just picked up?

Tim Crawford of Bloomfield, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: I've gotten scouting reports from Denver, and I've looked up the statistics, Tim, but I always prefer to judge players by watching them play with my own eyes. That's probably a fair policy for anyone, I think, as hockey is a lousy television sport and a difficult one to quantify through numbers, particularly for players whose roles go beyond producing points.

So, from what I have seen, I really like Ville Nieminen. It helps, of course, that he scored two gritty goals in a game here last season. But even from watching him carefully Wednesday against the Coyotes, he seems to have a magnet between him and the opponent's net that few players in the Penguins' organization have. He always wanted to be near Sean Burke and, if he couldn't get there, he was satisfied to push the puck there.

I asked Craig Patrick -- who has seen plenty of Nieminen, having scouted him during his Hershey days -- if a comparison to the Red Wings' Tomas Holmstrom was fair. He replied that it was, except that he feels Nieminen has better hands and will be able to make more of the opportunities he creates by going to the net.

As for Rick Berry, it's probably best to set aside the reports I got from Denver, as they were considerably less than glowing.

I also watched him as much as possible Wednesday, and I was impressed with his grit, the way he seemed to take umbrage with anyone who got near him anywhere on the rink. But I also saw at least two breakout passes that were miles off the mark, one of them winding up at the other end for icing, and I can't help but wonder how patient the Penguins' skilled forwards will be if that sort of thing is the norm.

We'll see, though. It was one game.

Q: Dejan, it seems that the NHL is quickly going the route of Major League Baseball, where there are a few teams that can afford to be competitive. Do you think that a team such as the Penguins can survive in the long term, or do you see big changes in the NHL?

Mike Bahorich of Hampton

KOVACEVIC: I'm not sure if it was the Pavel Bure trade that triggered this, but it certainly seems that the hockey-is-turning-into-baseball theory has become the cliche of the week.

I choose to look at it this way, Mike: Even if hockey is turning into baseball, it won't be baseball for long.

The NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement is expiring in two years, and more than one high-ranking team executive has predicted nothing less than Armageddon for the owners to reel in salaries and restore some fiscal parity among the 30 teams. And, unlike the baseball owners, hockey owners are almost universal in their desire to see this system repaired. Remember that, in baseball, it's the owners' lack of will rather than the players union's stubbornness that keeps baseball operating in such a caste-like system.

Also, to the four readers who submitted questions about the Penguins possibly turning into the Pirates because they can't afford to keep their best players, I politely recommend that you rethink your analogies: The Pirates haven't done much right in the past few years, but they have gone out of their way to keep their best players. That's why Brian Giles, Jason Kendall, Kris Benson and now Aramis Ramirez are signed to long-term contracts. Is anyone on the Pirates' roster better than those four?

Q: Dejan, is there any possibility for saving Mellon Arena while still building the new one? The memories you shared last week of going to the games with your younger brother really hit home with me. I've been attending Penguins games with family there since the 1967-68 season, and I still go, even though now I'm 270 miles away. The building is still a construction marvel. Philadelphia kept the Spectrum across from its new arena; why couldn't Pittsburgh keep something far more worth saving?

Frank Cmar of Middletown, Ohio

KOVACEVIC: Really, Frank, there is no way to keep it functional, at least not as an arena.

I do recall a while back an idea for converting the building into other uses, specifically a vo-tech school, but the amount it would take to transform what is essentially an empty bowl into a more conventional facility with floors and elevators just wouldn't be worth it. Also, the cost of maintaining the world's largest retractable steel dome -- it has to be opened for maintenance every summer and is starting to show its age -- would be a burden any prudent developer wouldn't want to take on.

Philadelphia can support the Spectrum as a second facility because the First Union Center is far more heavily booked than Mellon Arena and there is enough activity to spill over. Pittsburgh, by comparison, draws 220-250 events a year. Besides, the kind of smaller events that in Philadelphia go to the Spectrum in Pittsburgh can go to the University of Pittsburgh's new 12,000-seat Petersen Events Center or Duquesne University's 6,500-seat Palumbo Center, just a block away from where the Penguins want to put their new arena.

Q: First, Dejan, let me say thanks for your recollections on the Civic Arena last week. I share those sentiments regarding the building, and your summary was to the point. I hope you're right in that, in its own way, the new arena will be as singularly striking. Second, do you think that we're looking at a four- or five-year absence from the postseason as the organization retools?

Jim Fischer of Ostrander, Ohio

KOVACEVIC: No, and I think the moves of the past week underscore that any fix Craig Patrick is pondering is hardly a long-term one.

Just look at grabbing Shean Donovan and Jeff Toms off waivers, as well as his acquisitions of Kent Manderville and Jamie Pushor, all before picking up Ville Nieminen and Rick Berry in the Darius Kasparaitis deal. These were designed to fill a gaping hole for experienced players with size and speed on the third and fourth lines. And these are not the kind of moves a rebuilding team makes.

Without repeating the projected lines I cited for an earlier question, you can see that the team has two strong scoring lines, along with plenty of depth, competition and even a bit of youth on the third and fourth.

That leaves defense as the burning issue for Patrick and, really, what will define how competitive the Penguins will be in the immediate and more distant future. The defense must be upgraded in every facet. It must be faster, bigger, stronger, meaner and more skilled. And given the dearth of quality at the position league-wide, that won't be easy.

Yes, there could be help on the way with Brooks Orpik and Ross Lupaschuk from Wilkes-Barre, but neither is older than 20 and neither has done anything this season to make management even flinch at the notion of promoting them. Most likely, both will have to excel at the AHL level before the organization considers trying them in Pittsburgh. If that happens for either before the end of next season, it will be a surprise.

That leaves Patrick two options: He can sign free agents not named Mike Wilson, or he can trade some of his depth at forward for help on the blue line.

Q: Dejan, you said in last Friday's Q&A that the one player that you would most like to add to the Penguins' roster would be Ilya Kovalchuk. Why then wasn't more effort made by the Penguins to trade Jaromir Jagr for this No. 1 pick overall? Even if Atlanta wouldn't have been interested in Jagr, couldn't Patrick have traded Jagr as a package that would've been appealing to Atlanta? I believe that Patrick is now skating on the record of trades of years past and isn't sharp enough to get quality talent in exchange for the guys he's trading.

Matt Hoffman of South Park

KOVACEVIC: Well, if that's your belief, Matt, it's based on a faulty premise.

As I've written previously, Patrick actually did offer Jagr to the Thrashers for the rights to the first overall pick. And Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell pondered the notion briefly before calling Patrick back to reject it, his reasoning being that he didn't want to invest such a large portion of his team's payroll into one player when the rest of the roster would still be young and developing. So it doesn't add up that trying to wrap Jagr as part of some package would have done a thing to change Waddell's opinion on not wanting Jagr.

I must say that some of the submissions this week were a bit surly and depressing, as they almost always are at trade-deadline time. It seems that there is so much buildup to this event because so many are expecting that their general manager is going to produce some cure-all deal every March that addresses all of their team's weaknesses while giving up absolutely nothing.

How about Hans Jonsson for Paul Kariya? Or Krzysztof Oliwa for Mats Sundin?

The fact of the matter is that the trades Patrick made in 1991 and 1992, particularly the first one, are once-in-a-lifetime deals. To boot, they were made in an era where NHL teams were skating on a more level playing field in terms of finances.

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