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Madden: Mario losing fight to keep team here

Saturday, February 08, 2003

Do you blame Mario Lemieux for punching somebody? I'm surprised he waited as long as he did.

Finances will force the Penguins to trade Alexei Kovalev, one of the few players in the world who can play at Lemieux's level. Dopey yinzers accuse Lemieux of paying himself too much when he's getting the NHL's 41st-highest salary and is, actually, the league's top bargain. Fair-weather Pittsburgh has decided to stay home and think about the Steelers instead of attending hockey games. Cash keeps swirling down the Penguins' drain, and Lemieux talks about having to make some "tough decisions" after the season.

If Lemieux doesn't feel like a legend betrayed, maybe he should.

Lemieux is the city's best athlete ever, he has sacrificed financially to keep the Penguins alive, and now he's playing for a lousy, money-losing team in front of small, unresponsive crowds.

Florida's Brad Ference unwittingly paid a price for all of Lemieux's frustration Thursday, although he certainly exacerbated the situation by playing like a cheap-shot punk.

Lemieux's biggest daily headache, though, is undoubtedly that the Penguins stink.

The Penguins aren't even as good as their meager record. They're capable of occasionally putting together a decent streak based on their stars, their power play and solid goaltending. But when the stars slump and the power play loses the plot, you get a 6-0 home loss to Florida.

People criticize the Penguins' defense, and rightfully so. It boasts precious few big-leaguers and not one legitimate top-four guy. For a while, Dick Tarnstrom played like Ray Bourque. Now he's playing like Dick Tarnstrom. Talk about your worst-case scenario. You could put the Penguins' blueliners in a big canvas bag, beat it with a stick, and whoever got a skull fracture would deserve it.

But the putrid nature of the Penguins' forwards is vastly underrated. Here's a game I invented. Feel free to play along at home.

I'm willing to wager that Lemieux, Kovalev and Martin Straka score more goals after the All-Star break than the rest of the forwards combined. The score right now is 2-0 in favor of the three guys with talent. And you thought there wouldn't be any more excitement this season.

What the Penguins' grinders lack in skill, however, they make up for with really uninspired forechecking.

With the exception of Wayne Primeau, none of the Penguins' so-called energy guys provides much energy. They're too busy displaying the awesome stickhandling skills that can get you waived by, say, Atlanta. When the Penguins come out flat, point the finger at guys like Shean Donovan, Kent Manderville and Ville Nieminen. They're supposed to set the tempo, and they don't.

Don't blame Coach Rick Kehoe too much. You can't turn chicken scratch into chicken salad. Don't blame General Manager Craig Patrick for not acquiring better talent. The franchise can't afford it.

If you'd like to blame Patrick and his organizational minions for not drafting and developing enough good young players, though, that would be OK. The Penguins have not drafted a top-four caliber NHL defenseman since Zarley Zalapski in 1986, and Eddie Johnston was the general manager then.

So, where do the Penguins go from here? Well, how about Portland?

It probably won't come to that. Not for a couple more years, anyway.

The Penguins will likely limp along until the NHL's collective bargaining negotiations in 2004, with the money saved by dumping the salaries of Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr enabling the club to survive what figures to be a lengthy work stoppage. If the new labor agreement includes a salary cap and revenue sharing, and if a few teams fold and put some talent on the open market, the Penguins might wind up smelling like a rose. Or maybe they'll figure out a whole new way to screw things up.

But if the situation gets dire, I have some advice for Lemieux: Sell the Penguins to the highest bidder, even if it means moving the team. Play one more year for $15 million to $20 million in your native Montreal, where no one will accuse you of being overpaid. Then retire with enough money to buy a hockey franchise, not that you'd be tempted to do so again.

Lemieux has done enough for a city that has shown little gratitude. That goes for the politicians, much of the corporate community and many of the so-called fans.

I have loved the Penguins since I was a little boy. I would be heartbroken if they left. But Lemieux has moved heaven and earth to prop up this franchise since the day he was drafted in 1984, and what does he have to show for it? An ancient arena, a failing business, a dwindling audience of discerning consumers and a team that makes him look like a diamond in a pile of manure. OK, a lot of money, too, but Lemieux would have earned big coin anywhere.

If Mario Lemieux ever decides to do what's best for Mario Lemieux, I won't blame him one bit.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1360).

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