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Penguins Penguins Q & A with Dejan Kovacevic

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Friday, July 19, 2002

Q: Dejan, in the past week, the Penguins signed players of less-than-sterling quality for a total of maybe $2 million this year. Meanwhile, there are still some much more solid players on the market. Do you think that money would have been better spent on a guy like Jiri Slegr? True, he wasn't exactly a stud when he was in Pittsburgh, but he was a pretty solid defenseman. I think the money spent on the new guys could have been better spent on a guy like Slegr. Do you agree?

Mike Adams of Madison, Wis.

KOVACEVIC: I agree with your general premise, Mike, if not your specific example of Slegr because I'm not sure there is any team in the NHL that would want to pay him more than the $1.8 million he made last season. If that much.

There was ample precedent to have predicted that, if the Penguins were to have had any leftover money this summer, it was going to get divided into little bits and spread around to several players rather than going toward one truly significant signing. And that's exactly what appears to have happened.

You have to wonder if that approach is the correct one, for more reasons than one.

First, the Penguins are not a shallow team, which makes building from the bottom up seem plenty curious. They might not have 20 megastars, but they certainly have more than enough forwards with high-level talent and way, way more than enough of the role-playing variety. Same is true on defense, where there isn't really a star of any kind but the difference in the depth chart from No. 1 to No. 8 is marginal at best.

Second, the signing of lower-tier players in many ways is riskier than the signing of those who are considerably more expensive. One line of thinking is that it's no big deal if whichever no-name guy signed to a modest contract goes bust because the team didn't invest that much in him, anyway. I don't buy it. You sign one Mike Wilson, then another Vladimir Vujtek, then someone else and someone else, and pretty soon you've got maybe two out of your four guys pan out. Worse still, the money you spent on those guys was enough that maybe you could have kept Bob Boughner and/or Darius Kasparaitis in Pittsburgh.

Yes, you have to pay more than you like to keep players like that, but you never have to wonder what you're going to get out of them.

Q: Vladimir Vujtek? Where does he fit in? The Penguins have Mario Lemieux, Aleksey Morozov, Randy Robitaille, Martin Straka, Alexei Kovalev and Jan Hrdina on the first two lines, and Kent Manderville, Shean Donovan, Ville Nieminen, Wayne Primeau, Dan LaCouture and Kris Beech for the third and fourth. They also have Milan Kraft, Steve McKenna, Toby Petersen, Eric Meloche and Tom Kostopolous on the depth chart. Where does Vujtek fit in? Is Vujtek this year's Mike Wilson?

Michael Litzenberger of Reading

KOVACEVIC: You might have made a much more dramatic impact with your submission, Michael, just by ending it with that very first question of yours. It says it all.

I don't want to say too much about Vujtek too early, because the Penguins' scouts have seen him play a whole lot more than I have in the past three years - that being zilch - but there surely is precious little in his track record to bring optimism that he will succeed in the NHL. He has a history of being injury-prone, of not putting out his best effort and of not producing any significant scoring totals. In his most recent go-round, he lasted only three games with the Thrashers in their expansion year, and one needs only go back and review the names of that illustrious group to recognize the magnitude of that achievement.

We will see. He has size, and he has skill. Most important, he's also 30 years old, and he has to understand this will be his last chance to stick in the NHL. If that doesn't push him to meet the expectations so many teams have had for him over the years, it won't be long before he can go back to being the third-leading scorer in Finland.

Q: Dejan, great job on your coverage of the Penguins and the insights you provide! Do you see the signing of Francois Leroux as a way of adding a veteran presence in Wilkes-Barre, or do the Penguins actually think their defense needs someone who wasn't good enough for the NHL last year and played in Germany?

Steve Foglia of Monongahela

KOVACEVIC: I can't imagine any scenario other than multiple injuries at the NHL level which could cause the Penguins to use Leroux in Pittsburgh this season. But that sentiment, too, is coming sight unseen, as I have no idea how or if Leroux has progressed as a defenseman during his recent stints in the AHL and in Germany. To be sure, his skating will have to have improved by leaps and bounds for him to challenge for a spot on the starting six in Pittsburgh next season.

That said, Steve, it's worth noting that neither the Penguins nor Leroux have indicated anything to the contrary. The Penguins signed him to a two-way contract and made clear that there was an excellent chance he would spend much if not all of next season in Wilkes-Barre. And Leroux, exasperated by a lack of options elsewhere, wholeheartedly embraced this.

In that regard, it's a difficult signing to fault. He will cost roughly $75,000 if he spends the year in the minors, and there is no question Wilkes-Barre needed to replace the toughness lost by the departures of Steve Parsons and Darcy Verot. For all the enemies that team has made in leading the AHL in penalty minutes, if Jason MacDonald was left to do all of the fighting next season, he might not make it to November.

Q: Dejan, can you offer any explanation for Craig Patrick's signing of Steve McKenna, Francois Leroux and Marc Bergevin other than, maybe, he's trying to get himself fired?

Jay Herring of Sewickley

KOVACEVIC: Tough crowd this week, isn't it?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that not a single season-ticket plan was sold this week as a direct result of any of these signings.

You should see the stuff that's not getting published.

Q: When you interviewed Craig Patrick last week, he revised his story to say there really weren't any quality offers for Robert Lang at the trading deadline. In essence, he now says he made this up to encourage bidding. I think that some people believe he's lying now, attempting to cover himself for the failure to get something for Lang before he left for nothing. Whichever of his comments you believe, the fact remains that either he lied then or he's lying now. As a fan, this is personally disappointing. How do you as a journalist deal with the reality that you are being openly lied to? Doesn't that affect your coverage of someone in the future? Should it? Or do you acknowledge that this happens all the time? Does this compel you, as an objective reporter, to include in stories quoting this person that the last time he said something similar, he was not telling the truth? Does it make your job that much harder, since Patrick so tightly controls information, to know that the only source is actively misinforming?

Lynn Ribar of Monroeville

KOVACEVIC: Wow. Tough questions, Lynn.

I'll take each of your topics individually in the order you asked about them:

First, I don't think any journalist of any significant experience really gets all that fazed by being lied to, though I don't want to speak for others. It's just part of the business. If everyone told the truth all the time, there would be no need for reporters because you and everyone else would already know everything. Besides, it's a reflex of our jobs to check pretty much everything everyone tells us on the record with other sources, a process which by its very nature assumes that the primary source might have been inaccurate or misleading.

Second, yes, I guess it does affect your coverage of someone in the future if someone, anyone lies to you. And it probably should. Turn the process around, and you'll reach the same conclusion: If I write things that are untrue and based on rumor or suspicion on a regular basis, would you want to read what I have to write? I sure hope not. Still, I really, honestly can't bring myself to get all offended by this particular case. If Patrick's last version of the story is the truth, then he simply thought he was raising the value of an organizational asset. I guarantee you that would make him one of exactly 30 NHL general managers who did that in March leading up to the trading deadline, and it hardly makes for an injurious lie. You file away the bad ones more than the good.

Third, no, I wouldn't include some kind of disclaimer every time Patrick is quoted. Just imagine if we printed something like: "Patrick said he expects Johan Hedberg to be healthy in time to face the Rangers tonight, but take that with a grain of salt because he once tried to mislead the media about Robert Lang." Then imagine if we did it every time. Just wouldn't make sense. Now, if a similar scenario to the one that enveloped the Penguins and Lang pops up again, like, say, in March of 2003, that might be different. Then, I think it might be worth reminding readers that the quotes they're reading might be something less than the truth.

Fourth, yes, the job is tougher because the Penguins as a whole are more secretive than other NHL teams on personnel matters. But they're not the only source for information out there, and there are plenty of other ways to corroborate or discover news about the team. That part of it is extra work, but that's why we get paid.

Q: Dejan, I would like to get your opinion regarding Commissioner Gary Bettman's fining Maple Leafs General Manager Pat Quinn $100,000 for comments he made after the first wave of free-agency signings. Nothing Quinn said was inaccurate. Do you think Bettman understands how NHL fans perceive him? Or is he just as oblivious to this as he is to how the game should be played and managed?

David Bohin of Butler

KOVACEVIC: Well, David, if Quinn were fined $100,000 simply for his remarks about the high salaries given to Bobby Holik, Bill Guerin and Darius Kasparaitis, I'd agree with you that the NHL would have been out of line. Trouble is, we don't know why the league issued that fine. Not specifically, anyway, since officials declined comment.

The guess here is that it had nothing to do with Quinn ripping the spending and everything to do with his reckless statement that, "That's why there's going to be a lockout."

There is no way the general manager of any single franchise should say something like that before the first negotiation has been held between the owners and players heading toward the Collective Bargaining Agreement's expiration in 2004. Quinn could not have blundered worse. For one, he undermined the owners, the very people he seems to hope will ultimately restore some sanity to the system. For another, he insultingly threatened the players with an imposed work stoppage while singling out the cases of Holik, Guerin and Kasparaitis, who were guilty of nothing more than taking the money of people who were all too eager to hand it to them.

Look at it a different way, David: Maybe Quinn got off lucky. Remember how much Major League Baseball threatened to fine executives for prematurely addressing labor negotiations? Yeah, $1 million.

Q: Dejan, will Penguins prospect Vladimir Malenkykh, who played in Europe last season, be able to attend training camp this season without the team having to pay the $100,000 fee if he was not signed by July 15?

Eric Neves of Bridgeport, Conn.

KOVACEVIC: As with any European player the Penguins didn't sign by the Monday deadline to pay that fee to the IIHF, Malenkykh will not be in camp this September. Craig Patrick has steadfastly refused to pay that fee in the past, and there is no reason to believe an exception will be made for this player.

Not that there would have been any room for him in Pittsburgh, anyway. Has anyone else noticed that the Penguins now have nine defensemen signed to NHL-only contracts? And that's not including Andrew Ference or Brooks Orpik.

Q: Dejan, what is the story on Konstantin Koltsov, from what you know? I know he's fast, but does he have hands of stone, poor depth perception or just bad luck? Pavel Datsyuk played on Koltsov's team and put up way better numbers. His numbers weren't great, but they were way better than Koltsov's.

Steven Wargo of Oakland, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: I'm not sure which stats you're checking, Steven, but they don't jibe with mine that are culled from the respective media guides for the Penguins and Red Wings, along with one comprehensive Russian Web site.

The one season Koltsov and Datsyuk played on the same team was 2000-01, with AK Bars Kazan in the Russian Super League. Koltsov had seven goals and eight assists in 24 games, Datsyuk nine goals and 18 assists in 42 games. And given the extra number of games for Datsyuk, you'd have to give the production nod to Koltsov for that year. The career numbers are comparable, too. In 99 games spread over four years, Datsyuk had 15 goals and 28 assists. In 120 games over the same length of time, Koltsov had 15 goals and 14 assists.

If you would take Datsyuk on your roster, Steven, and I assume you would, I'd give Koltsov the benefit of a chance. I won't see him in person until his arrival in Pittsburgh, but the scouts rave about his speed as being something truly special, and that's not the sort of thing that's prone to slumps.

Q: Steve McKenna ... now Francois Leroux. Give me a break! As a Pittsburgh native and longtime fan, I must say that my allegiance to this team is just about gone. It looks like Craig Patrick is trying to put together a real nice AHL team in Pittsburgh. I think I'm going to have to start following the Hurricanes now.

John Bryer of Charlotte, N.C.

KOVACEVIC: Um ... whatever. Go nuts.


Q: Dejan, for all the criticism about Craig Patrick, and although I do believe some is well warranted, there is something that at least I as a fan have not lost focus on: The Penguins have limited cash flow. As understood by me, that cash flow comes from several sources like merchandising which is split between all the NHL teams, but the only one exclusive to the Penguins is ticket sales at Mellon Arena, which makes me sick when I think I have been supporting the Panthers for a while. As fanatical as my wife and I are, we would love to have season tickets to the Penguins, but we happen to live in Florida and that would be a misuse of income. As good fans, we want to support our team even from afar, and my realization while reading your Q&A of the existence of Penguins fans worldwide makes me there exists an untapped source of cash flow for the Penguins that would be worth tapping. Does any way exist, other than buying a ticket at Mellon Arena, for us estranged fans to exclusively support our team?

Neil Lifeson of West Palm Beach, Fla.

KOVACEVIC: Well, the first thing you can do to advance the cause of all out-of-town Penguins fans, Neil, is to drop a line to the author of the previous question and inform him of your stance. Sounds like he could stand to hear it.

We get all kinds of submissions from loyal followers of the Penguins who don't live in Pittsburgh, people who are passionate and knowledgeable about the team even without having a chance to see their games on a regular basis. In the past year alone, I've received international questions from England, Austria, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Chile and, of course, many from Canada. Of course, I've also gotten them from across the United States, notably Virginia and Maryland, which unfortunately seems to have stolen way too much of our population in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The answer I'll give you, unfortunately, is the one you predicted: The Penguins' major source of revenue is tickets bought for games at Mellon Arena. Well behind that is local broadcasting revenue. And way behind that is national broadcasting revenue, which remains a relative pittance in the NHL. Merchandise, as you stated, doesn't make a dent. The Penguins would make just as much profit if you bought a personalized Peter Worrell sweater as for one of Mario Lemieux.

That's just how it is, and I apologize for not having anything more grand to offer. I could suggest that you buy a pair of season tickets and donate them to a charity, which probably would get you a decent tax deduction in addition to the satisfaction of contributing to the club, but it would be presumptuous on my part to assume your level of disposable income.

Just for kicks, here's one idea I actually think about a lot: Everybody who left Pittsburgh, just come back.

It doesn't have to be forever. Just for a couple of days. Just long enough to see how much it's changed, how much it's stayed the same in the right ways, how much it's cleaned up and embraced its riverfronts, how much its neighborly people still give it a village feel despite its brilliant and powerful skyline.

No one can promise you that you will be convinced to return for good, but you surely won't be disappointed.

Q: I was disappointed to see that there is no Frankie Leroux or Steve McKenna bobblehead on this year's promotional schedule, but maybe it all happened too late. However, I am pleased to see Ulf Samuelsson and Joey Mullen on the list. When do you think Craig Patrick is going to sign those two for the Penguins' 2002-03 Reunion Team?

Jonathan Edmonds of Crafton

KOVACEVIC: What was I saying about those neighborly people?

Tough crowd this week ...

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