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Unsigned Kasparaitis makes fast recovery

Friday, July 30, 1999

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Darius Kasparaitis has no assurances that his damaged knee will hold up to the rigors of hockey after two major operations. Nor does he have a contract for the upcoming season.

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But those working closely with him this summer insist he will be in the Penguins' lineup for their Oct. 1 opener in Dallas, roughly a month ahead of schedule, and that he will once again be a major force on their blue line.

"You can count on it," said Mark Gandler, Kasparaitis' agent. "There's absolutely no doubt he'll be just like any other player in training camp, and he'll be ready for the start of the season. The way he's recovering has been just tremendous, a pleasant surprise to us all."

Kasparaitis, 26, had his 1998-99 season cut short after 48 games when he had surgery March 24 to repair a torn meniscus and replace a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Only the most optimistic forecasts had him being ready to start the upcoming season. But he has been skating for three weeks, a month before projected, and yesterday flew to Switzerland to participate in a 10-day hockey camp which begins Sunday.

In 1994, while playing for the New York Islanders, Kasparaitis had an operation on the same ACL. That time, doctors replaced it with a piece of Kasparaitis' own patellar tendon. This time, doctors used an Achilles' tendon from a cadaver.

"There is no comparison. This ligament is so much stronger," said Steve Wirth, a Long Island physical therapist who has guided Kasparaitis through both rehabilitations. "If you look at him now, you'd never know anything was wrong with him. He's sprinting, jumping, skating, everything. We're amazed by how strong he is."

Kasparaitis is a restricted free agent, and his knee almost certainly will be an issue when Gandler begins contract negotiations with Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick, even if Gandler insists it shouldn't be.

"If Darius' knee was even 50 percent of what it is now, it wouldn't be an issue," Gandler said. "He's as healthy as he could possibly be."

NOTES -- The Penguins expect to announce their 1999-2000 preseason schedule today. ... While in Switzerland, Kasparaitis will work out with the Kloten club, as will Ottawa Senators star Alexei Yashin, another Gandler client. Kasparaitis will not participate in games, but he could engage in some non-contact scrimmages. ... Agents for some of the Penguins' other nine restricted free agents said they finally had begun to hold some preliminary talks with Patrick this week. Talks had been stalled because of the team's continuing financial uncertainty. ... Paul Kraus, agent for center Robert Lang, said he doesn't think the Penguins will allow all six of their free agents who have filed for arbitration to go that route, even though some of the scheduled hearings are only a week away. "That's just too many guys," Kraus said. "The Penguins aren't going to want to do that." Arbitration decisions in the NHL historically have favored players over management.

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