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Smizik: Penguins reward fans with real rebuilding, but will it matter?

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

In plotting their future in what one of these years will be the post-Mario era, the Penguins had no choice. They have little money to pay the kind of big-name talent that dominated their roster in the glory years. They have, in fact, systematically been eliminating almost all players who made anything approaching the NHL average salary.

Which meant there was only one way for a team so short of operating capital to go, and that would be toward the very slippery slope known as rebuilding.

Rebuilding is part con and part hype with a dash of reality. It sounds good because it sells hope, a commodity that eternally optimistic fans are always eager to buy. But in the end, it too often fails.

By rights, the Pirates should have eliminated rebuilding as a method of team construction in this town. No one -- except a sports fan -- should believe in rebuilding after what the Pirates have done to the concept.

The Pirates so badly butchered rebuilding that they are too ashamed to use the word, although they are in the very midst of yet another such phase. How do we know that? Maybe it has something to do with the fact they have or are attempting to unload every high-priced contract on the team without regard to the merits of the player attached to that contract or to who is obtained in return.

In 1996 -- in the rebuilding process that should have deterred other teams from following such a course -- the Pirates swept out the door almost every remnant of their championship teams of four, five years and six earlier. In doing so, they built up hope and then, year after year, after year have crushed those hopes.

So why are the Penguins taking this same course of action and why are their fans, if not enjoying it, at least accepting it?

As stated, the Penguins have no choice. And the same is true of the fans.

There is no more loyal fan in this town than those who passionately embrace hockey. They are the least critical and the quickest to forgive. They love the sport so much they'll accept it on any terms.

Which is what the Penguins are counting on.

The Penguins have dallied in rebuilding the past several years while they traded away their championship-level roster. They dealt Jaromir Jagr for three prospects, none of whom has contributed to any team success and who might never.

The best product of their own system, Milan Kraft, has been such a disappointment in various trials there now is a belief he'll never make it.

The cornerstone of the ongoing, full-blown rebuilding is No. 1 draft choice Marc-Andre Fleury, who, by all accounts, can't miss. But anyone can miss at 18, and if the Penguins insist on playing the supremely gifted Fleury behind a suspect defense and a low-octane offense, the results could delay his emergence.

Beyond Fleury, there's nothing approaching dead-certain NHL talent.

There is a collection of players in their early 20s upon whom the Penguins are counting heavily. But that might be more wishful thinking than anything. The likes of Rico Fata, Brooks Orpik, Konstantin Koltsov, Matt Murley, Ryan Malone and Ramzi Abid might never excel. They might become complementary players, which is OK only if there are players of whom they can be complimentary. You win with complementary talent only when you have superior talent to mix with it.

Lemieux -- once again in the "best shape of his life" -- remains a brilliant talent, although it's doubtful he can be a serious contender for another scoring title on this team. He'll play alongside, for now, Martin Straka, another proven talent, and Koltsov, perhaps the fastest skater in the NHL but also one who could produce only nine goals and 21 assists in 65 American Hockey League games last season.

The Penguins have sprinkled in some character guys such as Mike Eastwood and Kelly Buchberger and the usual collection of suspects.

Considering their circumstances, it's about as good a plan as might be hatched.

But it doesn't figure to be enough. The Penguins have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. Doing that three times in a row isn't easy in the NHL, but this rebuilding teams seems up to the challenge.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.

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