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Madden: GM Patrick faces enormous pressure

Saturday, May 26, 2001

Despite being overwhelmed by New Jersey in the Eastern Conference final, the Penguins are not far from a Stanley Cup. They have many of the ingredients, but General Manager Craig Patrick will have to make some shrewd decisions and change some old habits to get the Penguins to the championship level.

Obviously, trading Jaromir Jagr will be the focus of the Penguins' off-season. Sure, Patrick has 19 free agents to worry about, but defenseman Bob Boughner is the only significant one of the unrestricted variety. NHL teams almost never poach restricted free agents. The compensation is too dear -- sometimes as high as five first-round draft picks -- and the player's original team has the right to match the offer.

So, as far as restricted free agents Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, Robert Lang, Darius Kasparaitis and Johan Hedberg are concerned, Patrick can take his time unless his hand is forced unexpectedly.

Some say Jagr's moodiness, gambling habits, poor playoff performance and big contract will reduce what the Penguins can get in return for him. I disagree. Jagr has won four consecutive NHL scoring titles. That overrides one bad spring and a lot of character flaws, real or perceived.

Only so many teams can afford to pay Jagr. I nonetheless expect a relatively spirited bidding war. You hear rumors about the New York Islanders offering a package including center Tim Connolly and defenseman Zdeno Chara. You hear rumors about Tampa Bay dangling center Vincent Lecavalier. Lecavalier would be a perfect linemate for Mario Lemieux, who needs to play wing so he can concentrate on scoring.

But don't be surprised if a team such as the New York Rangers gets Jagr by paying $10 million to $15 million plus a couple of solid young players. Fans hope Patrick makes a deal such as the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche) made in 1992 when they swapped the rights to Eric Lindros to Philadelphia, getting so much in return (including Peter Forsberg) that they set their franchise up for a decade of success. But the Jagr swap might turn out more like the deal that sent Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988, which featured the Kings splashing a lot of cash on the Oilers.

Hey, there's nothing wrong with getting $10 million to $15 million. The Penguins could certainly afford to re-sign all their own free agents and perhaps try to sign a player such as Detroit's Martin Lapointe, an unrestricted free agent who is exactly the kind of relentless, aggressive winger they desperately need.

Patrick probably will try to lowball Straka and Lang a bit by accurately pointing out they've never played very well anyplace but Pittsburgh. We can only hope that Patrick doesn't savage Hedberg's confidence in the process of negotiating a new pact.

Don't be surprised if Patrick trades the rights to Kasparaitis. Kasparaitis is obsessed with the "hit" statistic, which means little to anyone but him, and often delivers a check at the expense of surrendering an odd-man break. Kasparaitis doesn't relentlessly hound opposition stars like he used to, and he really didn't throw that many memorable bodychecks this season. He's still good, but not irreplaceable, and he makes a lot of money. His Game 7 heroics at Buffalo aside, now would be a good time to deal Kasparaitis.

Coach Ivan Hlinka should be sacked. If he's not, it's a travesty. If Patrick is determined to retain Ivan the Horrible, however, he should make Hlinka spend the summer in Pittsburgh to become more familiar with the NHL via the miracle of videotape and, more important, to learn better English. But if Lemieux wants the Penguins to adhere to a system, Hlinka is not the man to install it, enforce it and adjust it.

Patrick also needs a major attitude adjustment in terms of giving his own organization's young players a chance. The Penguins rely on other teams' veteran rejects far too often. Young players make mistakes in October, but they improve over the course of a season and still have energy left for the playoffs. Andrew Ference and Aleksey Morozov, two of the Penguins' most consistent performers in the postseason, are proof of that. The team's older fringe players, conversely, were running on empty.

The Penguins don't need to get smarter. They need to get faster and stronger. They need more stamina and enthusiasm.

The Penguins need to start next season with young, mobile defensemen such as Michal Rozsival and Josef Melichar. They need to give center Milan Kraft a spot on one of the top two lines. Perhaps Billy Tibbetts and Eric Meloche could provide the Penguins some much-needed aggressiveness and forechecking. Maybe big blueliner Brooks Orpik, the Penguins' No. 1 draft choice last year, could make the jump from Boston College and replace Kasparaitis as the team's designated hitter.

Getting good return for Jagr could -- and must -- set up the Penguins for long-term success. But making all the right moves could win a Stanley Cup next season. Patrick should be aware that merely making some of the right moves won't cut it.

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

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