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Kasparaitis signs 2-year, $3 million deal

Feisty defenseman shoots for mid-October return

Thursday, September 30, 1999

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

As a raw, rabid 20-year-old rookie for the New York Islanders, Darius Kasparaitis carved a name for himself in the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, pestering and pounding Mario Lemieux and the Penguins into submission, then elimination.

 
Darius Kasparaitis' toughness is something the Penguins miss when he's not in the lineup. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

But, the way Kasparaitis sees it, Lemieux gained a hearty measure of revenge this summer.

"He tortured me in my contract negotiations," Kasparaitis said, grinning. "That's probably why. He was probably getting me back."

Kasparaitis was thrilled to be making jokes yesterday, even ones aimed at his new boss. He was breathing a large sigh of relief after signing a two-year, $3 million deal yesterday morning. The contract, the details of which were finalized late Tuesday night, will pay him $1.4 million this season, $1.6 million the next.

That's a raise over the $1.1 million Kasparaitis made last season, but well below the $2 million salary he and agent Mark Gandler were initially seeking. Still, Kasparaitis made it clear he simply couldn't stay away from the rink.

"The numbers are good," Kasparaitis said. "I don't want to say, like, I'm happy, but I'm very happy to be here. I think I signed a good deal. I'm just happy to be here and play hockey."

Gandler grudgingly went along with the contract.

"Darius did it against my recommendations," Gandler said. "He did it to get back playing. He did it for his family. That's the kind of guy Darius is. Maybe that's why they take advantage of him."

But Kasparaitis said any hard feelings from a long summer of sometimes heated negotiations have been set aside.

"The one way to prove anything is to go back and play like I always did. I'm a consistent hockey player. I play the same way every year. It doesn't matter what anybody said about me. I know I'm here, I have a good deal, and I'm going to play here."

Penguins officials also seemed relieved to have the dispute resolved. Kasparaitis had been the team's lone remaining restricted free agent.

"He's a big part of our club," Lemieux said. "To sign him now, before the season starts, is a big plus for us."

"I'm happy and relieved," General Manager Craig Patrick said. "We're excited to have him back."

"It's good for all of us," Coach Kevin Constantine said. "We're kind of young on defense. Now you put some experience back there. It's a great help. There's a million good things that come from it, like his energy, his enthusiasm, how much fun he has, and the fact that he keeps the other team off-balance because they never know when he's going to deliver a big hit."

Kasparaitis isn't sure when he's going to deliver that next big hit, either. He is coming off March 24 surgery to repair a torn meniscus and replace the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He has been skating and rehabilitating for months, but doesn't project playing in a game until "maybe somewhere in the middle" of October. That, most likely, would keep him out of the first five games, including the Penguins' opener tomorrow night in Dallas.

In the meantime, he will continue undergoing physical therapy on his knee with Penguins trainer Mark Mortland, and he will skate with the team, starting today at Southpointe. But he will not engage in any physical contact until team doctors give their approval.

"I know I'm in good physical shape, but I haven't practiced for real in a long time," Kasparaitis said. "The knee feels good. As soon as I'm ready, I'll play. But I'm here for the long haul. I want to make sure I'm ready so I can play the rest of the season and in the playoffs."

While the Penguins expressed delight at adding Kasparaitis' grit and fire to an already deep defense corps, this signing also sent up a caution flag for the team's finances. Lemieux suggested yesterday that the team might be over its self-imposed $30 million player payroll limit and that, if it is, Patrick must make a trade soon.

"We gave a budget to Craig, and he has to meet that budget," Lemieux said. "I have to answer to investors and to people who have supported me. If he's over budget, I'm sure he's going to do something about it in the near future."

Lemieux paused and winked at one of the reporters in the Southpointe news conference room.

"That's probably why Craig's not here right now. He's probably working on making a few deals."

NOTES -- The Penguins sent defenseman Sven Butenschon to their Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate in the American Hockey League. Butenschon had to clear waivers to be demoted, meaning the Penguins risked losing him to another team had he been claimed. ... Twenty-four players remain in camp, one more than the NHL limit and two or three more than the Penguins plan to keep. Nine of them, including Kasparaitis, are defensemen. Final cuts will be made today. ... The Penguins probably will place Kasparaitis on injured reserve, which would keep him from counting against the roster. A player can be recalled off injured reserve after seven days. ... Lemieux will accompany the Penguins on their trip to Dallas, and he plans to address the Civic Arena crowd at the home opener Oct. 8 against the Colorado Avalanche. ... Kasparaitis' contract does not include a games-played bonus, despite the uncertain status of his knee. "I didn't get that because I didn't want to think about it. I just got whatever bonuses hockey players get. I have a bonus for scoring 10 goals. I think I'm going to score 10 goals this year." He has never scored more than four. ... Neither right winger Steve Leach nor defenseman John Slaney, both of whom are trying to work out two-way contracts with the Penguins, signed yesterday.



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