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Penguins Penguins Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

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Friday, August 08, 2003

Q: Dear Dejan, I approach each new season with optimism and excitement, especially the coming year with a new coach and the return of Mario Lemieux.

I think Eddie Olczyk's strategy to insert a system similar to that of Jacques Lemaire's Wild is refreshing. I especially like the notion of using two forwards to attack and force passes in the neutral zone while the third skates freely and cuts them off. Sounds like a great formula for odd-man counter-rushes. My question, though, is: Do the Penguins have the personnel to implement that approach? I don't believe it's a style that most of the roster is accustomed to playing. Will the probable line of Lemieux, Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov also follow this system? I would say it's doubtful. And, if they don't, what type of mentor is Mario at that point? I also think it would put Olczyk in a compromising position of being able to run his system only during certain shifts, thus casting a negative shadow on his authority over the team.

John Juliano of Gibsonia

KOVACEVIC: Your concerns might not be without merit once the season starts, John, but they are presuming quite a bit at the moment.

Start with the strategy.

In an article I wrote last week about Lemieux's announcement, I likened Olczyk's pending system to that of the Wild for what must have been the 100th time since he was named coach. He called me on the day that paper came out because he wanted to underscore the point that he plans to vary significantly from Minnesota's ways in the neutral zone. He sees the Wild as being more passive between the blue lines than what he wants the Penguins to be. He would like to see the Penguins be, first, positionally responsible and, second, aggressive in their approach to getting the puck back.

I believe that I noticed Minnesota going to a more aggressive stance between the blue lines as the Wild's season went on, but I will not dispute Olczyk's general notion without having the benefit of studying game tapes of that team in the summertime. And I am thankful that I was able to find more entertaining things to do during this off-season.

Anyway, any talk of the Penguins' strategy when getting to specifics is slightly premature. Olczyk is planning to meet with his staff within the next two weeks to begin hammering out details. And even then, work on the system surely will not be complete, for the very concern you cite.

Any system has to work with the talent at hand, or it surely will fail. If Olczyk finds, for instance, that his left wingers are inept defensively or incapable of due diligence, he will not want to install a left-wing lock. It will not be enough to yell at a given player or two if those players are genuinely incapable - or unwilling - to perform the tasks necessary to make the whole machine run smoothly.

Regarding Lemieux, Straka and Morozov ...

You are first assuming that they will play together. I am far from certain that will happen, even if Straka is not dealt. Lemieux could benefit from having a crash-bang type on his left side to clear space for him, go to the net and keep opponents honest. Even if that player is not terribly skilled, Lemieux should have enough viable passing options in Morozov and you-know-who jumping into the play late.

Also, when you worry that the Lemieux line might work outside the system, you undoubtedly are worried solely about Lemieux. Straka and Morozov always have been diligent in following any ascribed system, as evidenced by their solid defensive work under Kevin Constantine. Lemieux is another story, of course. He will have to illustrate to Olczyk, to his teammates and to the fans who heard him last week say he will lead by example and follow a systematic approach when the Penguins are without the puck.

There were times when he did that last season. Sticking out in my memory is a December game in Toronto when Lemieux worked the trap with passion and precision and was a dominant defensive force. If someone in that building that night was watching him for the first time, he or she might be convinced Lemieux actually was enjoying what he was doing out there.

But there obviously is far more precedent to indicate that Lemieux has little natural use for such hockey, and I get the idea there are plenty of people skeptical that his declaration of support for going defense-first will last 82 games.

I count myself among those skeptics, but he has proven me, and many others, wrong before.

Q: Since Ramzi Abid and Sebastien Caron did not accept their qualifying offers, what does this mean regarding their status with the Penguins? Are they restricted free agents now?

Eric Cupp of Dormont

KOVACEVIC: I usually try to avoid the Collective Bargaining Agreement-type stuff here, Eric, if only because it can make for some seriously drab reading. But I did get quite a few submissions like yours on this subject, so ...

Abid and Caron became restricted free agents July 1, and they continue to have that status today. That means, in theory, another team could sign them but only if giving up the exorbitant price of five first-round picks, in most cases. This almost never happens.

What happened last Friday was that Abid, Caron and Micki DuPont became the Penguins' only restricted free agents who chose not to accept qualifying offers with the minimum 10 percent raise by the NHL deadline. All three felt they were worth more or that they deserved NHL-only contracts rather than the two-way deals they have had.

Their rejection of the qualifying offers meant only that the Penguins no longer are required to pay them the 10 percent raise. In fact, the Penguins actually could come back with lower offers, though that obviously would kill any kind of negotiation.

DuPont decided to leave North America and play for Eisbaren Berlin in Germany's top league, where he will make more money than he would have in Wilkes-Barre. Abid and Caron are sure to sign new deals with the Penguins, and I have firm reasons to believe they will do so before the start of camp.

Q: Maybe, being a hockey expert, you can answer this question because I sure can't. How can the Penguins justify the zero return on their trades last season? I thought Joel Bouchard was the main return on the Alexei Kovalev trade? The Penguins let him walk away. And the Shean Donovan trade ... granted, it was no blockbuster, but I'd rather keep him than trade him. Instead, four months later, neither player that the Penguins got for him was signed. Now, Ramzi Abid is unsigned. If the Penguins are going to let him walk, too, they should have kept Jan Hrdina. I have a small amount of tolerance for the Kovalev fire sale, but how does letting players the Penguins acquire get away make them better?

Drew Kariotis of Lower Burrell

KOVACEVIC: Of all the trades Craig Patrick made at the NHL deadline March 11, the Donovan deal is the only one I would characterize as bad. There is no question that any deal in which you ship out an enthusiastic and fairly productive player for two players you basically shoo away within a matter of months is not beneficial for the organization in any way.

On the other hand ...

Sending Ian Moran away for a fourth-round pick is not bad if your team has decided it does not want to pay him the market price for an unrestricted free agent, as the Penguins did. Sending Wayne Primeau to the Sharks for Matt Bradley, many hockey people feel, could turn out very nicely for the Penguins in the short and long term. And the Hrdina deal, which also sent minor-leaguer Francois Leroux to the Coyotes, netted not only the promising Abid (he will sign) but also the surprisingly solid Dan Focht. Getting a 6-6 defenseman who is tough and can skate makes for a fairly decent throw-in.

Criticizing the Hrdina deal, I cannot understand.

Regarding your view of the Kovalev trade, as you suggest, there is tolerance to be had for the financial considerations the Penguins felt they needed to address there. But I would add that I never heard anyone inside or outside the organization refer to Bouchard as the prime return on the deal. At the news conference to announce the trade, Patrick readily acknowledged that Rico Fata had the greatest upside of the four players acquired and that he could end up being the centerpiece from the Pittsburgh perspective. Add to this that one of the players acquired, Mikael Samuelsson, was the player sent to the Panthers to move up to No. 1 in the June NHL Entry Draft and select Marc-Andre Fleury. That is an asset acquired and invested.

As I have written before, if all the Penguins accomplished with the Kovalev deal was to get Fata, land the No. 1 pick in the draft and retain the franchise's solvency, that is a good bit more than teams are getting now for high-priced players they are trying to move.

When analyzing trades, Drew, it almost always is better to do so one at a time. If you are disappointed with the net of the Donovan deal, you have ample reason to be. But trying to attach the other deals to it as part of some negative trend simply does not add up.

Q: Dejan, my questions deal with the nature of the NHL's two-way contracts. I understand that the player essentially receives 1/82 of the contracted rate per game respective to the league to which they are assigned. Your recent article describing the exodus of Micki DuPont to Germany implied that the lower minor-league rate was not acceptable to him. Are there any rules about the minor-league salary rates? Are there established ratios or salary tables for two-way contracts? Finally, anything you can provide over the course of the upcoming season on the actual attributes and contents of the CBA and NHL contracts will be appreciated, at least by this avid reader.

Marc Finder of Buffalo Mills

KOVACEVIC: Another CBA-type question sneaks in. Slow news week.

There is a set floor for minor-league players, but there is no set formula for determining their pay. Often, you will see me write that a two-way salary means that a player receives "a fraction of his NHL pay for time spent in the minors." I hope that does not mislead anyone into thinking that means a player receives 1/10 or something precise like that. A minor-league salary is negotiated into a two-way contract just as the NHL-level salary is.

In some cases, the minor-league salary is even more important. You might recall that Tom Kostopoulos took a peculiarly long time to sign his contract last summer, and that was because he felt he deserved a high-end minor-league salary for what he had achieved at the AHL level. He also had a pretty good idea that he would spend much more time in Wilkes-Barre than Pittsburgh, and he was right.

Regarding your request for more of this type of information, Marc, I promise to be as diligent as possible in describing these situations as they apply to the Penguins. If am not, you, as all readers, are more than welcome to contact me with questions.

Q: Dejan, just wondering, who do you believe will make the Pittsburgh roster that played for Wilkes-Barre last season? There are a few players, specifically Toby Petersen and Tom Kostopoulos, that I would love to see play in the NHL.

Mike Falcone of Wilkes-Barre

KOVACEVIC: In no order whatsoever, players who spent most of 2002-03 in Wilkes-Barre who should have a good chance of spending most of 2003-04 in Pittsburgh are Kris Beech, Sebastien Caron, Konstantin Koltsov, Milan Kraft, Eric Meloche, Brooks Orpik and Tomas Surovy. Of those, the locks appear to be Caron, Kraft, Meloche and Orpik. And I include Kraft only because of his waiver status.

The two players you mention, while model performers and citizens in Wilkes-Barre, it seems have been tagged as minor-leaguers by the organization. As such, they probably would have to do something otherworldly in camp to make it. Also, Petersen is going to be 25 when the season starts, Kostopoulos 24, which means their window for being viewed as NHL prospects is closing rapidly. To be sure, given their AHL achievements and limited success in the NHL, they will get the odd chance to fill in at the major-league level, whether in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. They would do well to seize those opportunities when presented.

Q: Hi, Dejan. Do you feel that a specific type of character player is being brought in to help care for the Penguins' young roster -- specifically, the signings of Mike Eastwood and Kelly Buchberger but perhaps others -- off the ice as well as on? It's a pretty big lifestyle change to go from junior or college hockey to making six or seven digits in the NHL and to receive an overwhelming amount of attention. While all rookies have to battle with some sort of adjustment, I would think perhaps that 15 kids together would have an even bigger job of not leading each other astray.

Kent Hayden of Toronto

KOVACEVIC: The Penguins made much of bringing in Eastwood and Buchberger for their leadership traits, but I cast a cynical eye on this.

Yes, Eastwood sets a terrific example on the ice with his attention to detail and work ethic, and everyone will be aware of Buchberger for having been captain of two teams and a three-time Cup winner. But my inclination for why the Penguins got these players is no different than how I will feel when they sign that pending free-agent defenseman: They needed certain players to fill certain holes in their NHL roster, and they felt there was no one in the organization ready to do that.

We had discussed in this forum this summer the need for a checking center. It was clear that no one was ready. The only prospect who was close was Shane Endicott, whose development took a backward step last season. We also discussed the need for another tough guy to supplement Steve McKenna. That will be Buchberger. Patrick fairly acknowledged as much when announcing the Buchberger acquisition, as he quickly mentioned Buchberger's fighting ability among his traits.

Be sure that Drake Berehowsky or whichever defenseman is the Penguins' final acquisition of the summer will be brought in for the same reason. If that player is not acquired, plain and simple, the Penguins would need to promote Rob Scuderi or Brendan Buckley or someone else they might not feel certain is ready to do the job.

Leadership helps, as you write, Kent, but it does not appear to be the determining factor in these decisions.

Going a step further, one might hope that the Penguins continue to take the proper rebuilding measures and dedicate themselves to making sure that young players have a legitimate shot at beating these older guys out. By no circumstance should Buchberger or Eastwood be taking ice time from young players who are equally - or even close to equally - deserving.

The No. 1 focus with this team should be development, not winning. I heard an awful lot of talk about winning at the Lemieux news conference, from the owner himself and others, and I understand where all concerned are coming from. Winning should be the goal of any sports team. But that should not derail the larger process. If a kid has to play at the expense of an older veteran with no future here, so be it.

Q: Hey, Mr. Kovacevic, since the inception of the Blue Jackets, I have thought that it would a fairly good idea to perhaps manufacture something of a rivalry between them and the Penguins. I realize that, being in different conferences, they could play a maximum of two games a year. But, since Columbus is the closest NHL city to Pittsburgh, such a rivalry is natural. The Penguins should lobby the league to schedule a home-and-home with Columbus every year, perhaps around a holiday. Then, each club could work in concert to bus fans to and from each city, not unlike the road trips that occur to go see the Capitals games in Washington.

Jason Kumpfmiller of Uptown, Pittsburgh

KOVACEVIC: The most enthusiastic supporter for your idea, I can guarantee, would be Doug MacLean. He and I have spoken many times about how silly it seems to have these two cities this close and then to have them barely play. This year, they will meet only once.

MacLean was involved with the Blue Jackets before they played their first game, and he lobbied to have them included in the Eastern Conference. But he was shot down because of the NHL's desire to have a balance of 15 teams on each side. That much is understandable, just as it is in having the nearby Red Wings in the West. But it does not mean the NHL could not find a way to accommodate an exception for each team, a rivalry series of sorts. Already, the league bends its schedule to appease Western Canadian teams that all insist on having the Maple Leafs in town regularly (they used to be the primary team for English-speaking Canadians nationwide). Why not insert a Pittsburgh-Columbus four-game set into the computer and see what it spits out?

In some ways, Jason, the rivalry already exists. Although these teams have yet to strike up anything meaningful on the ice, initiatives took place off the ice immediately upon Columbus' entry into the league for territory and fans in the area between the two cities. This, the Penguins have acknowledged, is the main reason they created the ECHL affiliation with Wheeling, as kind of a line in the sand. Also, more recently, the two teams engaged in a swap of territorial broadcast rights in Ohio, designed to further establish this invisible border.

In fact, perhaps as evidence that this plan is working, our next question comes from one of those cities in the demilitarized zone ...

Q: Dejan, how do you feel about Theo Fleury? He is due back in the NHL in November. Say that the Blackhawks decide not to keep him. Do you think it would be feasible to see Fleury take a pay cut and possibly sign with a team like Pittsburgh? If Fleury were willing to play for $2 million, imagine a power play of Lemieux, Straka, Morozov, Fleury and the great Dick Tarnstrom.

Lou Arrico of Steubenville, Ohio

KOVACEVIC: The Penguins, as declared, are going to acquire one more player, and that will be a defenseman, so that aspect of this issue does not even exist.

As for Fleury, as I have written previously, I wish him nothing but the best. Alcoholism and substance abuse are diseases that must be treated daily, and he will need the support of his friends and family to get through it. No doubt, that will be truer than ever if he is to be without hockey.

But if I am an NHL general manager, there is no price at which I would sign him.

Which is not to say that no one will, of course ...

Q: What, if anything, legally binds the Stanley Cup to the NHL? If the Stanley Cup pre-dates the NHL by 25 or 30 years, how can the NHL hold it hostage during the looming (and seemingly apocalyptic) work stoppage? Would it be possible for an international Stanley Cup tournament while the millionaires and multimillionaires duke it out?

Judd Fuoto of Reston, Va.

KOVACEVIC: Interesting thought, Judd. When I saw your question, my initial reaction was to shake my head, thinking it impossible.

But, upon further review ...

You are correct that there was competition for the Cup way before the NHL's inception in 1917, as the first victor was the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association in 1893. The National Hockey Association took possession of the Cup in 1910, shortly before becoming the NHL, but it was not until 1926 that only NHL teams competed for it.

Now, here's the rub: From the time Lord Stanley bought the Cup, he appointed two men as trustees and declared the following five conditions. These are direct quotes:

1. The winners to return the Cup in good order when required by the trustees in order that it may be handed over to any other team which may win it.

2. Each winning team to have the club name and year engraved on a silver ring fitted on the Cup.

3. The Cup to remain a challenge competition and not the property of any one team, even if won more than once.

4. The trustees to maintain absolute authority in all situations or disputes over the winner of the Cup.

5. A substitute trustee to be named in the event that one of the existing trustees drops out.

One might think the idea of having these trustees has long since passed, but the Hockey Hall of Fame, caretaker of the Cup, has the following to say on this matter:

"When Lord Stanley donated the Stanley Cup in 1893, he appointed trustees to care for the Cup. The main responsibility of the trustees was to maintain the rules, govern the competitions and ensure the Stanley Cup was awarded and returned in proper condition. When one trustee chooses to resign or is in need of replacement, the remaining trustee nominates a substitute. The trustees have absolute power over all matters regarding the Stanley Cup."

Read that last sentence again. This still applies.

There are two present trustees: Brian O'Neill, who has had the role since 1988, and Ian "Scotty" Morrison, nominated by O'Neill a year ago. To the best of my knowledge, neither of these men is in the employ of the NHL.

The NHL does have a legal trademark on the "word mark and image" of the Stanley Cup, but it does not have power over it. Those two trustees have that, and nobody else.

Now, the chance of those trustees agreeing to deviate from a tradition which carries back for more than eight decades - especially if it were being done for the primary purpose of embarrassing NHL owners and players - is about as far-fetched a concept as I can imagine in this sport.

But ... a loophole is a loophole.

Who knows? Maybe our man Micki had the right idea.

Anyone who had questions submitted the week of Lemieux's announcement that did not pertain to that subject, please feel free to resend them. In the chaos of that week, I accidentally deleted a few that I had hoped to use.

And no, nothing about the CBA, please. We have all of 2004 to talk about that ...

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