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Inside the NHL: Depth ices youth movement for Penguins

Sunday, July 21, 2002

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Penguins are planning a youth movement for the coming season, but not the conventional variety. The movement is likely to begin with a stint at Southpointe in September, followed by a two-hour drive up I-79, then another three hours east on I-80 to Wilkes-Barre.

And it will be General Manager Craig Patrick providing directions.

"It's going to be hard for a young player to get into our lineup," he said. "We feel we have a lot of depth, and that's going to make it tough."

This is especially true at forward. Start drawing up a depth chart, and you will fill the 13 roster spots in a hurry: Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, Jan Hrdina, Aleksey Morozov, Randy Robitaille, Ville Nieminen, Wayne Primeau, Shean Donovan, Kent Manderville, Dan LaCouture, Vladimir Vujtek and Steve McKenna. All have NHL-only contracts or are expected to have one by the start of training camp.

That does not bode well for youngsters Kris Beech, Milan Kraft and Toby Petersen, who spent most or all of last season in Pittsburgh. Nor does it offer much hope for prospects Eric Meloche, Tom Kostopoulos and Shane Endicott. All have two-way contracts.

One reason for Patrick's approach is that he felt some younger players didn't deliver when given a chance last season and might have been rushed.

"We don't want to be in a position where we're forcing someone to play in the NHL."

Another is that he wants to make sure the team is not caught unprepared if Lemieux's health again becomes an issue.

"We have to have the type of lineup that will be successful with our without him. That's my job, to make sure we'll have that type of lineup. We have good quality now."

The situation on defense is little different. Nine players will have NHL-only contracts by camp: Ian Moran, Josef Melichar, Michal Rozsival, Jamie Pushor, Janne Laukkanen, Hans Jonsson, Rick Berry, Marc Bergevin and Mike Wilson. Throw in Andrew Ference, who has a two-way contract but three years of NHL experience, and you have 10 players battling for seven roster spots.

Factor in Brooks Orpik, the team's top pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft and the one prospect Patrick is expecting to challenge for an NHL spot.

"We don't like to push people," Patrick said, "but he could make our team."

All that competition figures to make for a spirited September at Southpointe, where the only entrenched position will be goal with Johan Hedberg and Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

And the primary beneficiary of the trickle-down process when NHL-experienced players are demoted will be Glenn Patrick, the coach in Wilkes-Barre.

"That's how it looks to be shaping up," he said. "It will be a battle at training camp."

Icy chips

Vujtek can only hope his fourth shot at sticking in the NHL will be less painful than his previous two. His one season with the Lightning (1997-98) was limited to 30 games because of an unexplained illness that continually made him weak. He lasted only three games with the Thrashers two seasons later after a skate blade caused a major laceration on his face. Neither of those teams nor any other gave him another chance until the Penguins signed him Monday. Vujtek is glad they did, telling the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes that they plan to use him on the top two lines to make the most of his offensive style. "Pittsburgh is playing hockey the way I like it played," he said, as translated by Faceoff.com.

In the past month, the Flames have picked up three of the Penguins' minor-league castoffs: Martin Sonnenberg, Darcy Verot and Robert Dome. In the case of the first two, Calgary management recalled being impressed with their work for the Baby Penguins against the Flames' Saint John affiliate in the 2001 Calder Cup final. In the case of Dome, they felt that a first-round pick from 1997 was worth giving a try. "With young players, we tend to have high expectations of them and aren't as patient as we need to be," General Manager Craig Button told the Calgary Sun. "He has the ability. He has size, he can skate, he competes, and he has good passing and shooting skills. Sometimes a change of scenery can be helpful." Dome is sure to start out in Saint John.

Glenn Patrick on what the signing of Francois Leroux will mean to the Baby Penguins: "We're really excited to have him. He is a veteran who fills a number of roles. He will add some leadership to our club, plus he adds a lot of toughness."

History shows it won't be easy for Dave Lewis to take Scott Bowman's place on the Red Wings' bench. Of the eight men who have succeeded Bowman -- Al Arbour, Sid Abel, Bernie Geoffrion, Roger Neilson, Jim Roberts, Jim Schoenfeld, Craig Ramsay and Ed Johnston -- seven lasted one season or less. The lone exception was Johnston, who took over the Penguins in 1993 and produced winning records the next three-plus seasons.

Hoping that the Penguins' summer signings don't stop with McKenna, Vujtek, Bergevin and Leroux? Here are the remaining unrestricted free agents of note among forwards and defensemen: Theoren Fleury, Dmitri Khristich, Martin Rucinsky, Ulf Dahlen, Andrew Cassels, Bryan Berard, Igor Kravchuk, Jiri Slegr and Gary Suter.

Bergevin on his old friend Lemieux's expectations of playing 65-70 games: "He says that's what he wants to do, and you better believe he's going to give it everything he has to make it happen."

The Penguins haven't opened contract talks with Kovalev, but they are encouraging the business community to bid on his services ... on the golf course. The team is auctioning a chance for a foursome to play a round with Kovalev at the team's annual Summer Sticks tournament Sept. 9 at Southpointe. For information, call 412-642-1988.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@ post-gazette.com.

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