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Madden: Balanced lines won't bring Cup

Saturday, March 24, 2001

Envision this scenario: The St. Louis Cardinals drop Mark McGwire from the fourth spot in the batting order to seventh. Imagine this justification by Manager Tony LaRussa. "A lot of times, the seventh guy comes to bat in a crucial situation. When that happens, we'll have McGwire at the plate."

Ridiculous, right?

No more ridiculous than the Penguins going with three "balanced" lines.

Splitting up Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr is really being done for two reasons, both bad. It makes learning how to match lines unnecessary for Coach Ivan Hlinka (not that Ivan the Horrible was lying awake at night pondering his problem), and it provides Jagr with the hockey equivalent of slave labor, a situation he grew to appreciate with Kip Miller as his left-wing lackey for parts of several seasons.

With Lemieux and Jagr on different lines, the opposing coach can't use his top defensive players against both stars at once. Me, I'd have sacked Hlinka and hired a coach who knows how to match lines -- like Eddie Johnston -- but this does diffuse the problem a bit.

Jagr, now, will have Jan Hrdina and Aleksey Morozov toting that barge, lifting that bale and passing him the puck every time, any time, all the time, open or not. Good thing Hrdina and Morozov make more than minimum wage or someone could accuse Jagr of running a sweatshop. Jagr's demands will make Hrdina a nervous wreck like they did in the glory days of the Jagr-Hrdina-Miller line, but this isn't about developing Hrdina. It's about getting the puck to Jagr. As for Morozov, he'll be grateful for any ice time after his disastrous season. It's actually good to see him get a chance.

The plan is to use three lines equally. This should give each player on those lines about 17 to 18 minutes of ice time per game. Power-play and penalty-killing specialists will play 22 to 23 minutes.

That sounds good in theory. But it won't work out that way.

When you bat seventh, you get fewer at-bats than when you bat fourth. That's the mathematical reality of the situation. The reality of the Penguins' situation is that their three "balanced" lines will not rotate equally. Someone will get shortchanged.

Hlinka is a two-line coach. He has proven that all season by leaning heavily on the top two lines. Using three lines equally will be a major adjustment, especially considering Hlinka has done almost nothing adjusting to most NHL philosophies since taking charge.

I don't think Hlinka will stiff the owner for ice time, although I wish he would because then Lemieux would finally fire him. I don't think Hlinka will cut Jagr's playing time, because Jagr is the squeaky wheel who always gets the grease (and he's contending for the NHL scoring championship).

Well, then, the solution is obvious: Knock down the minutes for the Alexei Kovalev-Robert Lang-Martin Straka line. All they've done is play good two-way hockey and produce consistently.

This isn't going to work. Or last. As soon as the Penguins get behind in a game, Jagr will go back with Lemieux and it will be a two-line team again. I hate to think what's going to happen when Josef Beranek gets healthy and Ivan the Horrible feels the need to stir his protege into the mix. Lemieux and Beranek skating on the same line? The long wait might soon be over.

The line combinations aren't bad. Kovalev-Lang-Straka is certainly a proven commodity. Playing Wayne Primeau with Lemieux and Stevens provides that line a strong defensive presence, giving Lemieux more offensive freedom. Jagr is getting what he wants on his troika.

But Hlinka won't know how to use three lines equally. Mark my words, he'll mangle it. Just like he has mangled virtually every situation that doesn't involve speaking Czech to a Czech player.

Regardless line juggling results, the Penguins' playoff prospects do not look good. There are just eight games remaining in the regular season and they are still experimenting with line combinations and have not picked a number one goaltender. You need stability this time of year.

I like the lines the Penguins used against Boston Tuesday. Primeau, Hrdina and Billy Tibbetts formed a third line that played like a third line. They worked hard, forechecked well, didn't make mistakes defensively and wore out whomever they were skating against. If you matched them against the other team's top line ... oops, I forgot, Ivan the Horrible doesn't know how to do that.

The Penguins franchise might be focused on winning in word. But not in deed.

Hlinka should have been fired months ago, after Lemieux came back and after the team tilted a bit more toward North American in style and composition. Yet Hlinka still coaches, mostly to spare him the embarrassment of being fired and to spare the organization embarrassment for hiring him.

Lemieux should be captain. He's a gifted leader. Jagr is not. Wearing the "C" seems to provide Jagr unwanted pressure. Yet he wears it, mostly to spare him the embarrassment of it being taken away.

If there's a trophy for saving face, the Penguins should have their names engraved on it. But right now the Stanley Cup seems a million miles away.

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

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