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Madden: Penguins stifle young players

Saturday, November 04, 2000

During Jean-Sebastien Aubin's preseason contract holdout, Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick said Aubin still had to prove himself as a No. 1 goalie at the NHL level.

The statement smacked of negotiating via the media, of public posturing. Few took it seriously. Aubin had a solid rookie campaign last season, going 23-21-3 with a 2.58 goals-against average. He shuttled back and forth between the Penguins and the minors -- moves based on salary, not performance -- with minimal complaint. He showed character. More important, Aubin made saves.

Besides, who else did the Penguins have that could play goal in the NHL? When Patrick made his statement, nobody. The Penguins then signed well-traveled Garth Snow just before the season.

Now there's an inexplicable battle for the Penguins' No. 1 goaltending job. A battle symptomatic of an organization that stifles young talent in favor of recycling scrubs.

Make no mistake, Snow is of big-league caliber. But he has rarely been a No. 1 goalie. He has played for four NHL teams in eight seasons. If you look up "journeyman" in your handy hockey dictionary, you might see a picture of Garth Snow. He's good, but no better.

Aubin isn't great, either. But he's 23. He has ability. Aubin can get better. Snow, 34, probably won't. Aubin could be the future. Snow is a stopgap. Heck, he's been a career stopgap.

Putting the No. 1 netminding job up for grabs when the choice is so obvious seems absurd. But when you look at the way the Penguins have handled young talent this decade, it's hardly surprising.

Witness Aleksey Morozov, a first-round pick in 1995, on the bench in favor of fringe players Roman Simicek and Josef Beranek. This after the best training camp of Morozov's career. Morozov has never had a lengthy chance at anything better than third-line duty.

Robert Dome, a first-rounder in '97, is playing in Europe rather than ride the pine in Pittsburgh. Like Morozov, he never got a shot at playing on a line where skill matters.

The list goes on and on. Vancouver captain Markus Naslund was the Penguins' top pick in 1991. He played a half-season on Mario Lemieux's line in 1995-96, ranking among the NHL scoring leaders for a while. Then he was demoted and traded, the former for no good reason, the latter for a bum named Alek Stojanov. Except for his too-brief stint with Lemieux, Naslund never got a chance to shine with the Penguins. Now he produces and leads with the Canucks.

Martin Straka (first round '92) was largely on the pay-no-mind list during his first Penguins stint. He kicked around the league for a while. Then, of course, the Penguins took him seriously. Luckily, Straka remembered he had a pedigree and has played like a first-rounder since his return.

Of the Penguins' 10 first-round picks in the '90s, only four are on the team. Only two -- Straka and Jaromir Jagr -- play major roles. Either the Penguins can't draft, or their draft picks don't get a chance.

A young guy makes mistakes, sure. Let him play through his mistakes. Given good coaching, you'll have a much better player by springtime. Springtime, of course, is when the games count.

There are additional complications to the Aubin saga, to be sure. The buzz among Penguins insiders is that the players don't believe in Aubin. They consider his work habits suspect, and with good reason. Aubin, as his bowling-pin build indicates, doesn't toil very hard off the ice. In addition, Aubin's teammates think he's strange because he's a loner. In hockey, you're not considered a man unless you're one of the boys.

Who cares if Aubin doesn't pump iron after every practice? Who cares if Aubin doesn't have a beverage with the guys? Hockey players, that's who.

The most important question about Aubin should be this: Can he stop the puck? The answer is yes, though San Jose's winning goal against Aubin Wednesday was kind of a soft one.

I find it laughable that the Penguins players won't embrace the affable Aubin considering that they tolerated the totally intolerable Tom Barrasso. I like Aubin for many reasons, but the biggest is that he's not Barrasso. It's possible that much of the ill will in the locker room toward him was generated by Barrasso, who terrorized Aubin as much as he could last year, and that it will fade as the memory of Barrasso does.

At any rate, the Penguins' players better find a way to believe in Aubin. Believing in Snow never has gotten any team anywhere.

Penguins management, meanwhile, had better find a way to believe in some of the talented young players that pass through Pittsburgh. Believing in journeymen never has gotten any team anywhere. Sure, Patrick shrewdly acquired some veterans to boost the team to Stanley Cups in '91 and '92. But what if then-youngsters Jagr, Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens hadn't been thrown into the mix in a big way? If the Penguins were coached then like they are now, that would have been the fourth line. Those three would have been on the bench watching Jiri Hrdina, Randy Gilhen and Tony Tanti.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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