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Cook: A Kovalev trade benefits Penguins

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

It's not a matter of if the Penguins can afford to keep Alexei Kovalev. They surely can. This isn't like the Jaromir Jagr deal a few years ago when the team, fresh from bankruptcy, had to dump his enormous salary. Times are about to change in the headed-for-disaster NHL. The players can argue all they like, but there will be no NHL without a salary cap and revenue-sharing by the start of the 2004-05 season. Under that new system, all teams will be able to afford a marquee player. By then, Mario Lemieux will be 39 and probably retired for good. The $5 million per year the Penguins are paying him would go a long way toward meeting Kovalev's $9 million-per-year demands.

The question is this: Is Kovalev worth it?

It's hard to knock the Penguins' decision that he's not.

That has little to do with Kovalev scoring just one goal in the past 13 games, although it would be nice to see him come up a little bigger while Lemieux is out with his groin injury. Kovalev is still one of the game's premier offensive players and has 20 goals and 55 points. Despite his slump, he still was fourth in the scoring race behind Lemieux, Vancouver's Markus Naslund and Boston's Joe Thornton going into games last night.

It's just that it's hard to shake the feeling Kovalev isn't quite as good as he should be. Yes, he's come a long way from a few years ago when he was maddeningly inconsistent, an incandescent star one night, an inexcusable no-show the next. And yes, he has averaged a point per game -- 338 points in 337 regular-season matches -- since joining the Penguins early in the 1998-99 season. But isn't it fair to expect a little more from the man Lemieux has said has "the talent to be the best player in the world?" Lemieux, who still is the best player, has averaged 1.96 points per game during his career. That includes a remarkable 1.62 points per game since he came out of his first retirement a little more than two years ago.

It's also hard to imagine Kovalev putting fannies in the seats at the new arena the Penguins hope to build. That's not so much a reflection of him as it is of us. Lemieux and Jagr are tough acts to follow. We're so spoiled that even Lemieux, who was playing some of his most amazing hockey before his groin problem, no longer can sell out Mellon Arena. Only a winning team -- a legitimate Stanley Cup contender -- will be able to do that.

Last summer, the Penguins offered Kovalev a five-year, $30 million contract extension, which he promptly rejected. While that's a mind-boggling number to you and me, it was a clear indication they don't believe he's worth franchise-player money. Now, there's news they are actively trying to trade him. It makes perfect sense to do it while they have the leverage. Kovalev won't be an unrestricted free agent until after next season.

What Craig Patrick has to do in any Kovalev deal is get a much better return than he did for Jagr. The Penguins can't afford to take prospects and cash again. They have lost too many good players for virtually nothing. Robert Lang. Bob Boughner. Ron Tugnutt. Ron Francis. They need to get equal value for Kovalev. The ticket-buying public demands it.

The good news is Patrick should have a few more options than he did with Jagr. Teams knew Jagr had him in a tough spot because Jagr so desperately wanted out of Pittsburgh. Few were capable of taking on Jagr's $10 million-and-change salary. Fewer still wanted him because he's -- how do we put this put this politely -- a pain in the butt. His many mood swings annoy management and teammates. You don't think opposing general managers read his absurd "dying alive" quote, do you?

Kovalev shouldn't be nearly so difficult to move. He's a model citizen, one of the game's hardest workers and a popular figure in the locker room. It's not hard to think Patrick could fill the Penguins' most glaring need -- a No. 1 defenseman -- by trading him. It might not happen by the All-Star break at the end of the month, but it should happen before the March 11 trade deadline.

Such a deal wouldn't just make the Penguins a better team this season. It would make them better for the long run.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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