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Penguins Penguins Q & A with Dejan Kovacevic

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Friday, June 07, 2002

Q: Hi, Dejan. I hope you've been enjoying the playoffs at least as much as I have. Talk about playoff overtime stress! Watching the great goaltending in these games makes me remember Johan Hedberg's unimaginable performance last year. Which leads me to wonder: What's he up to now? Is he back in Sweden? Working with a goaltending coach? While I recall he didn't want to let anyone know what he might need to improve on over the off-season, do you have any ideas? He was outstanding in the first half of this season, then, as we all know, seemed to fall victim to fatigue (or something) after the Olympic break. I have every confidence he'll be back in top form in the fall, but what might he do during the off-season to better prepare for a full NHL season? Hope you're enjoying your vacation.

Sherry Hutchison of Chartiers Township

KOVACEVIC: Yes, I have enjoyed the playoffs, Sherry, mostly because the natural intensity at this level of competition is so high that it obscures the fact that the games remain low-scoring and not terribly free in their flow.

To answer your question, Hedberg is back in Sweden with his family for the summer, but it doesn't sound as if he's planning to take in much leisure time.

In a pretty long talk we had before he left, he told me his plan is to work hard on the ice to improve certain aspects of his game. You are correct that he didn't want to divulge what exactly those were, but he sure did bristle when I asked if improving his stamina was among them. Hedberg does have a fairly slight build at 6 feet, 184 pounds, but he takes pride in his conditioning, and he reiterated to me that the fatigue he felt he experienced after the Olympics was more mental than physical.

I, too, have confidence that his top form will return next season, just as I envision that he will be able to maintain that form over the course of a full NHL season if:

A. He gets more help in clearing his crease of crashers, such as he received late in the year with the additions of Jamie Pushor and Rick Berry.

B. He gets more reliable work from his backup, be that Jean-Sebastien Aubin or someone else.

Q: Dejan, I think there might be a mistake in the latest Penguins Q&A. I went to Toronto to the Hockey Hall Of Fame to finally see the Stanley Cup up close. I was very disappointed when the staff member who was working in the trophy room said the Cup at the HHOF was actually a replica. The real Stanley Cup travels all over the world and is only at the HOF during the annual inductions. But in your answer, you said the opposite ... that the real Stanley Cup is in Toronto. So, which is it? Did I touch the Cup or not? Thanks!

Mike Phillips of Forest Hills

KOVACEVIC: Depends upon when you went up to Toronto, Mike.

The Stanley Cup which is in the Hall of Fame is, in fact, the real one. And the only time it leaves the building is during the Stanley Cup final, when it travels between the two participating cities until one team claims it. Otherwise, the one which is given out to players and other members of the winning team for the summer -- such as the one which took a dip in Mario Lemieux's pool -- is a replica. This also is true of the one which travels to various shows across North America.

So, if you visited the Hall of Fame during a Stanley Cup final, you might well have seen the replica.

By the way, I've been to the Hall of Fame several times, mostly to cover inductions and the like but a couple of times just on my own to take extra time to enjoy all of the exhibits. I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone who is a fan of the game. Not only is it a first-rate facility with tons of activities and great artifacts, but it also is located in the heart of one of the most vibrant downtowns in all of North America.

Q: Assuming no defenseman is acquired this summer through a trade (perish the thought) or as a free agent (bite my tongue), which seven players on the current Penguins roster open the 2002-2003 season?

Bill Maloni of Washington, D.C.

KOVACEVIC: First, Bill, I really can't envision a scenario in which Craig Patrick wouldn't acquire defensive help of some kind this summer. This, I believe, will be especially true if he is unable to sign Robert Lang, for it's logical that such a scenario would leave Patrick with at least $3 million or so in playing-around money. And one could easily form the argument that such a situation could work out the Penguins' advantage, as they have far more candidates to be second-line centers than they do to be first-rate defensemen.

Anyway, to address what you asked, if the Penguins make no moves whatsoever, I predict the battle for spots in training camp will be spirited, to say the least. That simply would have to be the case, given that there aren't even clear-cut candidates for the Nos. 1 and 2 roles, much less lower on the depth chart.

My seven would start with Janne Laukkanen, who was a shadow of himself pretty much all of last season because of various ailments and never having fully recovered from knee surgery. You might remember that, in the handful of games in which he actually felt fine, he was scoring a goal every other game and even throwing the odd check. Couple that with the fact he will be playing the final year of a contract before unrestricted free agency, and it's a promising mix.

From there, Ian Moran, Michal Rozsival, Josef Melichar, Jamie Pushor and Rick Berry figure to round out the starting six, with Andrew Ference and others possibly battling for a seventh spot. Given that the team needs some kind of offense from its blue line, of course, Ference or even Ross Lupaschuk figure to move up on the chart with a good camp. Same goes for Brooks Orpik, given the previously mentioned need for more physical play. But Glenn Patrick made it clear after this past season that both likely will spend another year in Wilkes-Barre, and it's likely the organization will go along with that.

Q: Every time I turn on ESPN Classic, my anger over the Mario Lemieux "SportsCentury" documentary grows. How can they give a kid like Kobe Bryant or a player who has never reached his potential like Eric Lindros one hour and Mario only 30 minutes. Worse they give a drunk, Billy Martin, two hours. To whom can we write to complain?

Michael Goldberg of Centreville, Va.

KOVACEVIC: I've gotten quite a few submissions like yours, Michael, along with a few others who criticized ESPN's Web site for some top-10 list they did recently which labeled the 1991 Penguins as one of the worst sports champions of all time.

My advice: Don't watch them or read them if they bother you, if they have lost credibility with you. In this age of information, your options for sources of national sports news are virtually limitless.

I've already written here of my disappointment with the Lemieux documentary, so I won't repeat that. But I've also had other sources of national sports news which have lost credibility, most recently Sports Illustrated for its scandalous cover which attached Espen Knutsen's photograph to that of the girl who was killed by a puck in Columbus this season. Implying blame on Knutsen, in my opinion, hurt Sports Illustrated far more than it hurt Knutsen because it cost them a large chunk of credibility in the eyes of their more knowledgeable readers.

Believe me, that's how you hurt them. Same goes for the Post-Gazette. If somebody doesn't like what we have to offer or loses faith in us, trust me when I tell you the worst thing you can do to us is to stop reading.

Q: If Carolina wins the Cup, will Tom Barrasso get his name on it? He played in 34 games this season with Carolina, logging more than 1,900 minutes.

Mike Polinsky of Mt. Lebanon

KOVACEVIC: No, he won't have his name on it, Mike, because he is now with another team.

There are certain minimum requirements for having players' names etched onto the Cup, but they are generally pretty loose. For example, even though Ed Olczyk didn't participate in any of the Rangers' games in the 1994 final, they asked for and received permission to include his name because of his valuable contributions in previous rounds.

Still, those go out the window when a player or anyone else is not with that organization during the playoff run. You might remember how the Penguins dearly wanted to include John Cullen on the 1991 portion of the trophy's etchings for his massive contributions to that team in the regular season before he was traded to the Whalers in the Ron Francis deal. But it simply isn't allowed.

Q: Dejan, with all that's being written about Darius Kasparaitis' "new" disciplined style, it occurred to me that several years ago, a former Penguins coach, I can't remember which one, asked him to play a more disciplined game and it didn't work. He didn't seem capable of playing well then if he wasn't running around causing mayhem. Do you think this change in his abilities or attitude was caused by the move to a team more disciplined than the Penguins?

Chris Endler of Golden, Colo.

KOVACEVIC: You're probably referring to Kevin Constantine, Chris, and you're correct that Constantine and assistant coach Don Jackson attempted to rein in Kasparaitis. That didn't turn out well, just as it probably won't work for Kasparaitis should he stay in Colorado next season.

Yes, Kasparaitis was a plus-10 in the playoffs and led everyone in hits. But the Avalanche failed to get the most out of Kasparaitis in that they didn't allow him to be himself. Sure, he's going to get caught out of position on occasion, but some would argue that such lapses are more than worth it if he can create a sense of fear in the opponents on every shift.

Might that have made a difference in putting away Detroit when Colorado had the chance? We'll never find out.

Q: What are the chances of Martin Straka's injuries catching up to him by the start of the season?

Kerry O'Connor of Dormont

KOVACEVIC: We won't know until we see him skate in training camp, Kerry, but it could turn out that his second break of that leg will have been for the best.

Commendable as it was that he worked as hard as he did to try to come back and get the Penguins into the playoffs, doctors insist that such an injury really requires a full year to completely heal. He was back in four months, and you saw what happened. Markus Naslund, of course, had a similar injury, but he also had the benefit of having it near the end of one season and using the full off-season to rehabilitate.

Q: Hi, Dejan. I was lucky to get videotapes of the Penguins' Stanley Cup seasons. Watching the series against the Stars, I recognized Ronnie Francis wearing No. 9. Do you know why or how he switched to No. 10 later?

Steve Binder of Vienna, Austria

KOVACEVIC: Francis actually started his career with the Whalers as No. 21, which you might have spotted in some of the old footage of him they're showing during these playoffs. He went to No. 10 soon after that and doubtless would have kept it when he was acquired by the Penguins in 1991 except that Barry Pederson already had it.

This might seem ridiculous now to those who are familiar with Francis' career and less so with Pederson's, but Pederson was a respected player in the NHL for many years before his career began winding down with the Penguins. Pederson was gone after the 1991 Cup year, a healthy scratch throughout, and Francis reclaimed the No. 10.

Q: Dejan, with each passing year, I am more disappointed with Gary Bettman's work as NHL commissioner. He was hired with the promise of bringing the NHL into the modern age of sports, but now he seems to ignore all the league's problems and any significant changes that would improve the game. Do you think he's really this blind to the league's issues or has he simply become a puppet for the league's old guard owners, a la Bud Selig?

Adam Haberman of Chicago

KOVACEVIC: I'd go with your first theory, Adam, but I would change the word "issues" to "issue." Bettman doesn't seem to understand that the root of the game's problems -- on the ice and, to a lesser extent, off it -- are in the diminishing scoring.

When he took over as commissioner in 1993, the league was coming off a year in which games averaged 7.2 goals per game. Six players had 130 points or more: Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine, Adam Oates, Steve Yzerman, Teemu Selanne and Pierre Turgeon. Two had 76 goals: Selanne and Alexander Mogilny. Hockey was never more exciting.

Since then, scoring has plummeted to 5.2 goals per game. Shutouts are not extraordinary; they are the norm. This past season, only Jarome Iginla scored 50 goals. The game has gotten dull. The game's scoring stars, for the most part, are still the same people I mentioned in that previous paragraph or other players from that generation.

Rather than acknowledge any of that, though, Bettman leans on his NBA days and attempts to explain to the hockey public that close games are exciting, not necessarily high-scoring ones. Well, that thinking is fine in basketball, when each team will put up 90-100 points even on a lousy night. It just doesn't work in hockey.

I don't think it's the people around him who are filling his head with that idea, either. It seems he just doesn't get it.

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