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Madden: Signing Kovalev a must for Patrick

Saturday, July 06, 2002

There' have been a lot of negative things written and said lately about Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick.

Patrick has been criticized for not dealing free-agent-to-be Robert Lang at this past season's trade deadline when the playoffs were a pipe dream and Lang obviously was set to bolt. For not getting enough back for Jaromir Jagr. For negotiating inefficiently with Bob Boughner and Darius Kasparaitis. For signing Mike Wilson, the $2.4-million mistake. For placing zero value on coaching. For overseeing a series of lousy drafts. For putting his brother in charge of the Penguins' American Hockey League team.

These criticisms are valid. But they're not enough to warrant Patrick's dismissal. After all, Patrick got the Penguins into the playoffs for 11 consecutive seasons before they missed this past campaign.

But the minute winger Alexei Kovalev leaves Pittsburgh, Patrick should be escorted out of town right behind him. Perhaps on a rail. Kovalev has one more year left on his contract, after which he'll be eligible for restricted free agency. He can become an unfettered free agent after the 2003-04 season.

The Penguins must re-sign Kovalev now. Long term. The longer, the better. Patrick needs to eschew the playground stare-down and go to Kovalev's agent with hat in hand. Today, not tomorrow, because the price goes up every day.

Kovalev, 29, is on the brink of superstardom. He had 76 points in 67 games this past season and was the only thing that kept the injury-riddled Penguins in the playoff chase as long as they were. Kovalev was among the NHL's top 10 players, and among the league's five most valuable. If the Penguins had made the postseason, Kovalev might have beaten out Montreal goalie Jose Theodore for MVP.

Kovalev is a good bet to blow up into a Jagr-sized supernova. Heck, Kovalev was a better player than Jagr this past season.

Will Kovalev cost big bucks? Yes, obviously. But to be competitive consistently in the NHL, you've got to pay somebody. The Penguins need to pay Kovalev. If they give him a five-year deal worth between $45 million and $50 million, he'll wind up being one of hockey's biggest bargains by the end of the contract.

But the clock is ticking.

If the Penguins wait until their quest for a new arena is resolved, it might be too late. Kovalev will smell the money and be as good as gone. If anything, signing Kovalev now would be a good public-relations move that might help the Penguins as they lobby for a new building. Or say the Penguins don't get a new arena and Mario Lemieux wants to sell. A signed, sealed, delivered Kovalev would add value to the franchise.

Hockey's collective bargaining agreement expires in the summer of 2004. Significant revenue sharing probably will be instituted at that point. If the Penguins give Kovalev a big ticket now, the new CBA could very well make his salary more financially palatable then.

There are dramatic and definite risks if the Penguins don't extend Kovalev's contract.

If Kovalev departs right behind Ron Francis, Jagr, Boughner, Kasparaitis, Lang, etc., it will be crystal-clear to the players and to the ticket-buying public that the Penguins are a team that's going to be run on the cheap, a team that has more concern for the bottom line than it has for competing.

Since the day Lemieux hit town in 1984, the Penguins have treated their fans to a non-stop parade of stars. If Kovalev leaves, the great unwashed won't pay to see Dan LaCouture forecheck.

The Penguins can't spend stupidly. Throwing cash around willy-nilly was a ticket to bankruptcy court not long ago. But the Penguins can spend intelligently.

Lang has never been a first-line center. The Washington Capitals are idiots for giving him $5 million per year. Bobby Holik is a checking-line player. The New York Rangers are dolts for giving him $9 million per year. This summer's spending on free agents has been largely irresponsible.

Kovalev, though, is among hockey's very best players. He deserves big coin. Giving Kovalev $9 million to $10 million per year comes under the category of spending intelligently.

Whether Patrick believes it or not, Kovalev's presence is more important to the welfare of the franchise than his is. Patrick can't afford to roll his eyes and act like the idea of negotiating with Kovalev immediately is stupid. Bluntly put, Patrick can't indulge his ego on this one.

How Patrick handles his negotiations with Kovalev is a litmus test. Patrick has had a lot of recent failures, but none that can't be fixed.

If Kovalev leaves, it can't be fixed. If Kovalev leaves, it will confirm a popular theory that Patrick is played out as the Penguins' general manager, that he can no longer be effective here. At that point, Patrick has to go. If he doesn't, the blame shifts to Lemieux.

Lemieux is a man who appreciates the value of a superstar. If Patrick doesn't see the absolute necessity of keeping Kovalev, here's hoping Lemieux does and acts upon it.


Mark Madden's talk show is heard 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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