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Madden: Blue-collar attitude needed by Penguins

Saturday, October 12, 2002

It's only one game. That was the nearly unanimous refrain after Toronto annihilated the Penguins, 6-0, in the season opener Thursday night at Mellon Arena. It's only one game.

That's true. The unpleasant shock caused by an evening of being totally non-competitive may have dissipated for the Penguins. But the environment that made that drubbing possible -- and future humiliation likely -- may not be eradicated as quickly. That's because it's an environment created and nurtured by Penguins' management.

The notion that jobs were actually up for grabs at training camp now seems laughable. General Manager Craig Patrick could have picked this roster last April and, excluding a few minor summertime additions, might have done exactly that.

Center Kris Beech, winger Eric Meloche and defenseman Brooks Orpik clearly earned spots in camp. There's any number of Penguins you could lop off to accommodate those three, but names like center Kent Manderville, defenseman Dick Tarnstrom and winger Vladimir Vujtek jump to mind.

Why did Patrick pick the roster he did? Perhaps because the players he sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton make considerably less money in the minors while those he kept have one-way contracts. Perhaps because keeping a lot of veterans equates to playing it safe, and Patrick rightfully believes the Penguins can't afford a terrible start, not in the standings nor at the box office.

At any rate, Patrick has destroyed the notion that working hard in training camp means anything, which will hurt the credibility of future preseasons.

More significantly, several Penguins put forth incredibly lazy efforts Thursday. Vujtek and Alexandre Daigle, two retreads with a lot to prove and guys who should have played with urgency right from the get-go, looked like the skating dead. Vujtek and Daigle showed why they've never made it in the NHL despite plenty of talent, by playing with an absolute minimum of intensity.

But you can't blame Vujtek and Daigle for thinking it's OK to perform that way. Winger Dan LaCouture, a man who displayed a major work ethic throughout camp and for 82 games last year, watchedthe opener from the press box. Meloche, who would skate through a brick wall to get a loose puck, was experiencing the joys of the glorious metropolis that is Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Hard work doesn't matter. I'm not quite sure what does down at Mellon Arena these days, but hard work surely does not.

The Penguins always have set the bar high when it comes to skill. That's because they've always had a ton of talent. But they don't anymore.

They had better set the bar higher when it comes to work ethic. That's the only way they're going to overcome a putrid defense and lack of offensive depth.

The Penguins seem to feel that forward Randy Robitaille, for example, can be a consistent contributor at the NHL level. Maybe he can. But the fact is that Robitaille has played just 199 NHL games in six professional seasons, scoring just 90 points. If Robitaille can rack up some points, great, and he did show flashes of competence last season. But he's hardly a player to count on.

If things don't shape up quickly, this season could turn out to be a waste of a perfectly good Mario Lemieux. Lemieux looked brilliant against Toronto even though the Penguins got shut out, skating with a passion that many of his less-gifted teammates lacked.

It was clear that Lemieux needs a linemate who can think the game at his level when some of his pet plays -- like banking the puck off the goalie's pads into the slot -- ended with the disc sliding through empty space instead of onto a teammate's blade.

Enter Alexei Kovalev. Kovalev and Lemieux skated on the same line quite a bit as the game progressed, and Penguins Coach Rick Kehoe indicated that arrangement probably will continue. Good. Lemieux is still excellent, but can no longer carry a line of lesser lights. He needs an equal partner. Kovalev qualifies.

If the NHL continues to crack down on obstruction throughout the season, the Penguins will be able to get away with putting all their offensive eggs in one basket. Without clutching and grabbing, it's a lot tougher to check a talented line totally out the game.

Thursday was only one game. But the Penguins can't afford many more like it, especially early in the season.

If Lemieux stays healthy, it's easy to see the Penguins fighting for, and earning, one of the last couple of playoff spots in the substandard Eastern Conference. But not if they dig themselves an early hole. Problems need to be rectified quickly.

Recall Beech, Meloche and Orpik. Dress LaCouture. Play Kovalev and Lemieux together. Don't just pay lip service to hard work. Pass out the lunch pails and break a sweat.

It's not the Penguins' traditional formula. But it's the only one that has a chance of working.

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

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