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Madden: Hlinka's strategy stymies Morozov

Saturday, October 21, 2000

After three seasons of underachieving, Aleksey Morozov finally seemed primed to make a move toward stardom, or at least toward contributing consistently.

The Penguins' right winger added some much-needed muscle over the summer, then dominated the pre-season by tallying three goals and six assists in seven games to lead the club in scoring. The Penguins' first-round draft choice in 1995, Morozov was widely hailed as the best hockey player not in the NHL until he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1997. Since then, however, he hasn't done better than 31 points in a season.

That appeared ready to change. Morozov, 23, absolutely sparkled in the exhibition campaign. He used his new-found strength to win battles along the boards. He skated with a confidence he had never before displayed. He made plays with passion instead of handling the puck like it was a hand grenade.

But Morozov has done nothing since the regular season started.

Sadly, it's not the young Russian's fault.

In an inexplicable coaching maneuver, bench boss Ivan Hlinka chose to break Morozov's momentum by not playing him for even one shift in the team's opener and has used him as a fourth-liner since. Morozov has zero points. His confidence seems shot.

Morozov has gotten a bit more ice time the past two games, even skating on a line with Jaromir Jagr occasionally. But the damage has been done. It's like the pre-season never happened for Morozov.

Hlinka also has played center Milan Kraft sparingly. But Kraft, the Penguins' first-round pick in 1998, did not dominate the exhibitions like Morozov. Unlike Morozov, Kraft is just a rookie.

But like Morozov, Kraft has talent. Kraft, 20, has a pedigree. Morozov and Kraft are players that could improve over the course of a season and help lift the Penguins to another level.

Roman Simicek, Josef Beranek and Kip Miller are not. They're journeymen. Yet so far this season, they've usurped ice time that could and should be used to pull the potential out of players like Kraft and especially Morozov. Simicek, Beranek and Miller have average skills -- at best -- yet they play on the top three lines while Morozov and Kraft languish relatively unused.

Can Simicek, Beranek and Miller help the Penguins win more than Morozov and Kraft can? Right now -- right this second -- maybe. Probably not, but let's just say they can.

Simicek, Beranek and Miller won't improve. They're as good as they're going to get. Ice time will not help them get better, certainly not like it would enable Morozov and Kraft to take strides.

Simicek, 29, is a strange case. The Czech center was the Penguins' ninth-round pick this season. Previously, he played his entire pro career in Europe. It would be nice to pretend that the Penguins found some undiscovered gem that no one else knew about, but it also would be ridiculous. Scouting isn't an exact science in hockey, but it is a pretty thorough one. Simicek played in Europe all those years because no one thought he was good enough to play in the NHL.

Simicek has impressed with his grit and attention to detail. That said, he's nothing more than a solid third-liner.

Miller, 31, has been, basically, a career minor-leaguer since his pro debut in 1990, although he has spent the last two seasons in the NHL. Miller is with the Penguins only because Jagr wants him on his line. Jagr feels that Miller understands Jagr's style -- i.e., Miller will pass Jagr the puck constantly.

Is that a good enough reason to play Miller? Sure -- if he produces. So far, Miller has just three assists and is consistently getting muscled off the puck. Three assists in six games is chicken feed when you're on a line with the best player in the world.

OK, so maybe they gave up two goals in one shift against Carolina on Wednesday. But it's time to elevate the roles of fourth-liners Morozov, Kraft and Rene Corbet.

Corbet is the classic grinding winger the Penguins have seemed to lack since Troy Loney and Bob Errey left the franchise. He can get loose pucks, stir the pot and, given the chance, could probably score as much as Simicek, Beranek or Miller.

Morozov should replace Miller as Jagr's left wing. It seems like Hlinka is at least thinking about that possibility. Morozov would be playing out of position, but the sudden surge of confidence and excitement that would accompany playing with Jagr would make Morozov's adjustment easier.

Kraft should play on one of the top three lines until he proves he can't. If Kraft proves he can't, put him on the fourth line -- or on the first line with the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team -- and let him have a low-pressure rookie pro season. But give Kraft's ability a chance to shine first.

Hockey types like to blather about grit and guts and mucking and grinding, but nothing makes up for talent. Morozov and Kraft have talent. Each was drafted in the first round. The Penguins have made a considerable financial investment in each player. They should play ahead of journeymen.

Give talented players fourth-line duty too long, and they start to play like fourth-liners. Dump the puck in, then get off so the good players can hit the ice. You see that in Morozov many nights.

It would be a shame to see it even one night more.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weeknights on WEAE-AM (1250).

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