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Madden: Youngsters should play with Mario

Saturday, September 22, 2001

Young hockey players everywhere dream about skating on a line with Mario Lemieux. Except for young hockey players on the Penguins, that is. They have learned firsthand that such dreams are futile.

Young players such as Milan Kraft and Aleksey Morozov -- two former first-round draft choices and logical selections to be linemates for Super Mario -- once again will put such dreams on hold this season. Kevin Stevens and Stephane Richer, both picked off the NHL scrap heap within the last year, will play with Lemieux. Both likely will play serviceably. But both are done improving. And neither will be around in three or four years when the Penguins must try to compete without Lemieux.

Kraft, 21, and Morozov, 24, will be used for third- or fourth-line duty, roles that require grit. Roles that Kraft and Morozov are not suited for. They were drafted on the basis of skill and production, not bumping and grinding. They will be ineffective in third- or fourth-line roles. Their work ethic and desire will doubtless be questioned at some point. Their spirits will be broken, their self-doubt increased.

No big deal. After all, it's not like you expect anything out of your first-round draft choices, especially when there are recycled veterans to be had.

It's just another typical series of decisions for the Penguins, an organization that shouldn't even bother to use its first-round pick in the annual NHL draft. Whether their choices are good or bad, heck, I really don't know. That's because most of them never get a fair chance to play in Pittsburgh.

Since 1990, only two of the Penguins' first-round picks have made a significant impact with the team: Jaromir Jagr (who was kind of foolproof) in 1990 and Martin Straka in '92. Straka, of course, bounced around the NHL for a few years before returning to Pittsburgh and excelling.

The Penguins seem to have found a comfort zone resurrecting players no one else wants. Sometimes, it works in a big way. Witness Straka, signed as a free agent in '97 when he had no other NHL offers. Or Robert Lang, claimed off waivers from Boston in '97.

But witness bums such as Kip Miller, too. I wonder how much better Morozov might be if he'd played in the hundred or so games in which Miller played a prominent role.

If Richer and Stevens have good seasons playing alongside Lemieux, that still won't mean the right decision was made. Lemieux is the best player in the world. He has elevated far worse. Richer and Stevens might do very well playing with Lemieux. But Kraft and Morozov might do better. Their upside for the long run is, obviously, bigger. They definitely won't improve by playing in checking roles.

Lemieux has said that the Penguins are definitely a playoff team, that missing the postseason isn't even a remote worry. I agree. Given that, wouldn't it be more logical to play Kraft and Morozov with Lemieux, not Richer and Stevens? Kraft and Morozov, as noted, can improve. Richer and Stevens won't. A season with Lemieux would make Kraft and Morozov better players -- probably much better players -- and thus make the Penguins a much better team for the playoffs.

Line combinations are tenuous. Lemieux might -- and probably will -- have several different sets of linemates over the course of the campaign. Stevens would be a good occasional choice because of his long-established chemistry with Lemieux and his penchant for rushing the net. Toby Peterson also is an interesting candidate because of his speed.

But the obvious choices to start the season with Lemieux are Kraft and Morozov. Their young legs would give Mario extra jump, and Mario's skill and experience would lift them. Kraft is a center, so his presence would enable Lemieux to play left wing, his best position at this point. While Mario is still the top player in hockey, he's a different kind of player these days, a triggerman more than anything else.

Richer is an obvious choice not to play with Lemieux. He's 35, didn't play in the NHL last year, and his last good year was 1994-95. OK, so maybe Richer has had a great camp. Morozov had a great camp last year, and he didn't play the first month of the regular season.

Lemieux has said that Morozov has to show more desire. But can you blame Morozov if he's discouraged? Every time a spot opens up that seems logical for him to fill, the Penguins use a veteran instead, whether it's Roman Simicek at the start of last season or Richer this season. The Penguins just don't use young guys -- well, except on defense, and that's simply because there's nobody else to use there. Then again, they haven't cut Michel Petit yet.

Tonight's exhibition game at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton will feature Lemieux playing with the Baby Penguins against the big Penguins. Mario seems intrigued. "I always wondered what it would be like to play against the Penguins," he said.

I'm intrigued, too. I always wondered what it would be like to see Lemieux play with promising young players. Tonight may be my only chance to do it.

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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