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Smizik: Jagr trade first step in busy summer

Thursday, July 12, 2001

When a team trades one of the most talented player in the world for three prospects, only one of whom has a large upside, the normal assumption would be the team is about to enter a rebuilding phase.

Unless, of course, the team's owner is also a player who remains among the super elite of the National Hockey League and who wants to end his career with a third and possibly a fourth Stanley Cup -- not as an aging relic on a rebuilding team.

As long as Mario Lemieux's main function with the Penguins is as a player and not an owner, the team's top priority on the ice will be to win and win now.

Which is to say the trade yesterday of Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals figures to be only a first step in the off-season for the Penguins. If it's not, the team is in trouble.

The deal, in which Washington also took overpaid defenseman Frantisek Kucera, is the biggest trade in that franchise's history and establishes the Capitals as a Stanley Cup contender.

Jagr gives the blue-collar Capitals, a team the Penguins have dominated in the playoffs, the offensive force they have so sorely lacked. And they were able to add such a force without touching their core of players, a rare feat and one that has the Capitals and their fans talking about the Cup.

At the same time, the trade temporarily, at least, removed the Penguins from the list of teams that might challenge for the NHL championship. As presently constituted, the Penguins, a sixth-place finisher in the Eastern Conference with Jagr, are significantly less than the team that advanced to the Cup semifinals before losing to New Jersey.

But there is more to come for the Penguins -- much more. There has to be. General Manager Craig Patrick, who rarely says anything more than he must, noted as much at a news conference yesterday announcing the trade.

By lopping Jagr and Kucera from the roster, the Penguins dropped $11.2 million from their payroll. Not all of that will be needed to sign the team's restricted free agents, which include high-scoring forwards Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang.

The additional funds remaining in the team's budget will allow Patrick to go shopping. Some of that shopping might be done with the Capitals. Part of the deal had the Penguins receiving "future considerations." That could be cash, but it also could mean a player.

Certainly, the Penguins would figure to have more coming.

Although Patrick was positively giddy about the package of prospects, the three players he received are nowhere near what the team was expected to obtain for Jagr -- who has won five NHL scoring titles, including the past four.

Although the Penguins could not expect to receive equal value for Jagr because he was being traded, in part, to lower the payroll, it was believed he could bring some immediate help in the form of young, moderately priced players who could step in and fill important roles. Certainly, the team needs such help.

There is little reason to believe the three prospects -- centers Kris Beech and Michael Sivek and defenseman Ross Lupaschuk -- can provide what the Penguins need. All are 20, and only Beech has a chance of playing for the Penguins next season.

Patrick described Beech, the best of the three, as a "Ron Francis-type," which is quite a mouthful. Of course, being a Ron Francis-type and performing like a Ron Francis, a certain Hall of Famer, are two different things. Beech played for Calgary in the Western Hockey League last season and was the team's fourth-leading scorer.

Lupaschuk was described as a fourth or fifth defenseman and Sivek, a Czech, as a third or fourth-line center.

Reports that the New York Rangers were offering winger Jan Hlavac, center Mike York and defenseman Kim Johnsson -- a significantly better package than what Washington gave the Penguins -- were not believed to be correct.

Patrick indicated he wanted to take care of the team's free agents -- and possibly trade defenseman Darius Kasparaitis -- before adding to the team.

Patrick has built a strong reputation in the NHL as a shrewd trader. But in yesterday's deal, he gave up much more than he received. He has the rest of the summer to even out the deal. If he can't, the Penguins will still be a team to be reckoned with but not likely one that will bring the franchise a third Stanley Cup.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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