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Madden: Economics shout for Mario's return

Saturday, March 08, 2003

As the Penguins' season winds down, player/owner Mario Lemieux faces many situations, most of them dismal. A second consecutive non-playoff season. A scoring title lost because of a lack of talent to skate with. Declining attendance. An organization in disarray.

But nothing Lemieux faces will be worse than the upcoming barrage of questions about his playing status for next season. They figure to start in a couple weeks, then pick up steam and continue unabated until he says yea or nay.

Lemieux has only himself to blame. Everyone assumed he was playing next year until he brought the matter into question himself. Lemieux would have been better off letting the assumption stand, then letting his retirement come like a bolt out of the blue if, indeed, that's what he's planning.

Lemieux says he will discuss the matter with family and friends in the off-season, then come to a decision about playing.

But there's only one decision to be made. For the Penguins to remain remotely competitive on the ice and remotely viable as a gate attraction, Lemieux has to play next season. For the Penguins to have a decent shot at lobbying for a new arena, he has to play next season. For his investment to be protected, Lemieux has to play next season. His family and friends might have some input, but his business partners and accountants will have more.

Looking at the decision purely from a hockey perspective, you certainly couldn't blame Lemieux for retiring. The post-Alexei Kovalev Penguins might be the worst team Lemieux has played for and absolutely are the least exciting.

Make no mistake, Lemieux has played on some lousy teams, particularly the first few seasons after his arrival in Pittsburgh in 1984.

The Penguins didn't make the playoffs in Lemieux's first four seasons. Their worst finish during that period was next to last overall in 1984-85, Lemieux's rookie campaign.

These Penguins are sixth from the bottom overall, but there are 30 NHL teams now as opposed to 21 in Lemieux's salad days. Being among the worst now is worse than being among the worst then.

The biggest difference is that the Penguins back then had hope in the form of a young Lemieux, an instant superstar with a lot of production still in front of him. The Penguins' best young forward now is Tomas Surovy, which isn't quite the same thing.

The biggest difference for Lemieux personally is that the Penguins scored more goals back then. Heck, every team in the league scored more goals back then.

In Lemieux's rookie season, the Penguins scored 276 times. Only five teams scored less that year.

But last season, shockingly, no teams scored more. Vancouver led the NHL with 254 goals, and each team plays two games more now than in '84-85. When you look at those numbers -- or if you look at videotape from the mid-'80s -- you realize the NHL isn't even playing the same game anymore.

The Penguins lost 11 of their last 12 in '84-85. They stunk. But in those 12 games, the Penguins scored less than three goals only three times and never got shut out. Because of the way hockey was then, because the Penguins had some decent offensive talent and because Lemieux was able to elevate journeymen like Warren Young, Mario usually got his points and always got his chances.

Compare that to the Penguins' recent offensive zone play, which has been akin to the Bataan Death March on skates. The Penguins have averaged 1.6 goals in the 13 games since Kovalev was traded. They have been shut out four times, held to one goal three times and held to two goals twice. Ah, the glory of the left-wing lock. If you're trying to win a scoring championship, it's not exactly the perfect system.

Lemieux is still the most potent offensive force in hockey, but he can't turn Mikael Samuelsson into Young. He can't turn Rico Fata into Rob Brown. Those days are gone.

And Lemieux can't have fun on a terrible team that plays an unimaginative style. Take a look at Lemieux's on-ice expression most nights. People on death row look happier.

So, consider the evidence: Horrific team, low scoring, no fun. I have little doubt that Lemieux would prefer to retire. But he needs to do his best to insure the financial health of the franchise he owns, and the best way to do that is by playing next season.

He needs to decide quickly, too. Selling season tickets for a Lemieux-less Penguins would be impossible. Selling season tickets with Lemieux's playing status in doubt would be just as tough.

So, Lemieux will play next year. He'll announce his intentions with a smile, a glimmer of optimism and a nod toward overseeing the rebuilding process. Then he'll go home and kick his dog.

Lemieux is bound by golden handcuffs. That happens to rich people sometimes.

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

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