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Smizik: Penguins' off-season woes mount

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Some 12 weeks remain until the season opener with Colorado, and the Penguins can't wait. Anything has to be better than this miserable off-season.

The almost storybook season of 2000-01, in which Mario Lemieux came out of retirement to lead the Penguins to the semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs, has been followed by a nightmarish string of events.

Consider:

Defenseman Bob Boughner was lost to free agency, and despite that the Penguins still seem intent on trading Darius Kasparaitis, further depleting what was nothing more than an ordinary defensive corps.

What figured to be a booming market for the services of Jaromir Jagr has dried up to the point there might be only one team bidding for his services.

There is talk, although not necessarily of a serious nature, of signing Brett Hull, who is just what the Penguins don't need.

General Manager Craig Patrick is in the process of lowballing another promising goalie, having presented Johan Hedberg with the dreaded and insulting two-way contract in his first offer.

The most significant of these downturns seems to be the market for Jagr. In the latter stages of the playoff, there was a belief there would be a deluge of offers for Jagr, which might be expected for a five-time scoring champion. There was talk of the Penguins dealing with the New York Islanders and getting in return the second pick in the draft and also for a couple of players who could offer immediate help.

But that deal never materialized as the Islanders traded with Ottawa for forward Alexei Yashin.

There was believed to be interest from the Los Angeles Kings, but they recently have said they can't afford Jagr, whose contract calls for him to be paid $20.7 million over the next two seasons. The Washington Capitals, desperate for offense and rejected in attempts to acquire other high-profile players, have shown some interest but don't appear ready to take on Jagr's contract.

Money isn't the only thing keeping teams from lining up. Jagr's poor postseason and what appears more and more to be a bad attitude also are scaring teams away.

The only team publicly coveting Jagr is the New York Rangers. They can afford him, for sure, but, without competition, the bonanza of prospects, immediate help and/or cash the Penguins were expecting to receive for Jagr might be significantly less than expected.

The only thing comforting about the talk of signing Hull is that Patrick's name has not been connected to it.

The notion that the Penguins need another goal-scorer is nonsensical. Without Jagr, they'll still have the fourth-, sixth- and 20th-leading scorers in the NHL -- and Lemieux. Why would they want to add an aging veteran, especially one known for his one-way style of play.

If the Penguins have any extra money to spend, it would better be used in acquiring defensemen or young, moderately paid forwards who play both ends of the ice. In Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, Robert Lang -- all restricted free agents -- and Lemieux, they have plenty of goal-scoring ability.

What the Penguins need are players who can stop the other team from scoring. They had the second-highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference last season and could do no better with that firepower than finish sixth. The reason: Only four teams allowed more goals.

The signing of free-agent defenseman Mike Wilson to a three-year $2.65 million contract will not cure the Penguins' problems at that position. He's a journeyman, at best. If they trade Kasparaitis, the Penguins certainly will have to get a defenseman in return. Still, that won't make up for the departure of Boughner.

The lowballing of Hedberg, only the team's most valuable player in the postseason, is not surprising. That's how Patrick operates. He's very protective of the team's payroll, and with good reason. The two-way contract offers the team protection in the event it's necessary to send the player to the minors.

Hedberg's initial remarks about the Penguins' first offer were, not surprisingly, mature and understanding of the situation. That's a positive for the Penguins. Still, these matters have been known to spiral out of control.

Most of these off-season problems can be corrected. Hedberg eventually will be happy, if for no other reason than his leverage is minimal. If Kasparaitis is traded, the Penguins will get a defenseman in return and then will look to their talented corps of young but mostly untested players at that position. Hull, if Patrick acts remotely in character, will never see a Penguins' contract.

But the limited interest in Jagr does not figure to change greatly, which makes this an unsettling summer for the Penguins.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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