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Kehoe not at fault as Penguins falter

Saturday, December 21, 2002

This much seems certain regarding the Penguins' 10-game losing streak: Coach Rick Kehoe should not be fired.

With seven players out with injuries and many more playing hurt, the Penguins are struggling because of an impotent lineup, not impotent coaching.

Don't blame General Manager Craig Patrick for not making a quick fix, either. The Penguins simply can't hike their payroll by acquiring somebody like defenseman Kyle McLaren, a Boston contract holdout who likely would command $4 million per season. Howard Baldwin might have told Patrick to spend today and worry about it tomorrow. But, having been on the wrong side of a Penguins bankruptcy (is there a right side?), Mario Lemieux won't.

The only way to repair the Penguins' current situation is to find a faith healer. Given the Penguins' luck, he'd probably get hit by a car in the parking lot.

One thing, however, has been revealed by the Penguins' plight: An incredible lack of organizational depth.

Players summoned from the minors to replace the team's wounded have been adequate some nights, horrendous most nights.

Recently demoted Ross Lupaschuk was so instrumental in setting up opposition goals, I thought he might celebrate with the other team after the game.

Despite scoring Thursday night, Milan Kraft has been invisible. You keep hearing about Michal Sivek's potential as a power forward. I would prefer to see some goals. Kris Beech was about as aggressive as Switzerland before being felled by appendicitis.

Only Brooks Orpik has been swimming more than he has been sinking.

Perhaps more disturbing, most of the aforementioned youngsters look like they've been caught in an air raid the minute things get tight. No bomb shelter in sight, either.

Given these self-evident truths, it's time to once again examine the Penguins' system of player development. I do this once a year, my analysis gets ignored, and we move on.

Hey, it fills space.

I have talked to many Penguins players who have spent time with the team's minor-league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Not one has anything good to say about the teaching skills of Coach Glenn Patrick. In fact, not one has anything at all to say about Glenn Patrick's teaching skills. They appear to be nonexistent. He just kind of throws the pucks out on the ice.

Individualized instruction? Yeah, right.

Orpik once said that while playing with the Baby Penguins last season, he had no idea what parts of his game needed improving because no one ever told him. Orpik later recanted. I believed him the first time.

Some of the players who criticize Glenn Patrick's coaching might do so because of a personality conflict. But not all of them. And it's difficult to believe that every one of them is wrong.

The Penguins have tried to remedy the situation by making Herb Brooks director of player development and having him spend significant time with the Baby Penguins. That's like throwing a butterfly stitch on Kennedy's head wound. The patient just isn't going to make it.

Have I mentioned that Glenn Patrick is Craig Patrick's brother? Problem there?

That's why you can't hire family: Because you can't fire family.

The Penguins need to take a cold, hard look at their system of player development. They need to take a similar look at their scouting department, too, because their past 10 first-round choices have produced only one semi-significant contributor to the team, namely Aleksey Morozov. Only two others from those picks are even with the team, namely Kraft and Orpik, and only because of injury.

Anybody remember Chris Wells, Craig Hillier and Robert Dome?

Me, neither. I realize that drafting 18-year-olds is a very inexact science. But the Penguins have turned it into science fiction.

Even if the Penguins do eventually get a new arena, they will always be a relatively low-budget team. Hockey is still a sport where you can be successful through drafting and developing, but you have to draft and develop perfectly. The Penguins clearly are far from perfect in those departments.

I'm certainly not going to blast the overall judgment of Craig Patrick, who has guided the traditionally embattled Penguins to the only period of sustained success in franchise history. But I am going to say that track record can only go so far.

I still think the Penguins will make the playoffs this season. But if they don't, Craig Patrick has some explaining to do, and some changes to make.

One suggestion for Craig Patrick: Instead of spending $1.3 million total on two bums like Alexandre Daigle and Vladimir Vujtek next off-season, why not throw all that money into one big pile and get one legitimate player?

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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