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Savran: Penguins, Patrick caught in a bind

Saturday, January 05, 2002

You can hear the white stallion, snorting and pawing at the ground, anxious to carry the gallant knight on yet another rescue mission. Damsels in distress are the least of Mario Lemieux's worries. It's a hockey team he must save, one in very real danger of not making Lord Stanley's postseason tournament.

Certainly his return will make the Penguins significantly better. But will it be good enough?

Having Lemieux, Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev healthy for every game likely would have allowed the Penguins to look down on the Eastern Conference teams that are looking down at them. But the spate of injuries also exposed the more central issue: How good is the supporting cast?

This is a team caught in transition. Once the owner/captain/center stated his desire to transform his team from an all-star squad to more closely resemble the New Jersey Devils, and certainly once Jaromir Jagr was granted his get-out-of-jail-free card, the Penguins were not only building a new team, but a new kind of team. One less reliant on one or two individuals. And while no team could withstand the loss of such players, it's also evident that the quality and depth of players necessary to play the Devils' style of hockey has not been assembled. Thus, the transition.

They are built to win now because of Lemieux, Straka, Kovalev, plus Darius Kasparaitis and Robert Lang. On the other hand, they're not built to win now because there's no in-between with this team. Not enough quality, mid-to late 20s, experienced and productive players who might not be stars, but form the nucleus of a winning team. And no wonder. You look at what the Flyers received for Eric Lindros, what Ottawa received for Alexei Yashin. They got players who are contributing right now. Kris Beech gives all the appearances of developing into an outstanding NHL player, one who will be a franchise cornerstone. But not yet. The Penguins had hoped that players such as Milan Kraft, Toby Petersen and Billy Tibbetts would develop rapidly. Not yet.

We're now in the fifth year of the never-ending wait for Aleksey Morozov, and what do we have? Pretty much what we've gotten in years 1 thru 4: 33 games, 4 goals. Even worse news, there are only two games left against New Jersey. It's not happening for this guy, and there's little reason to believe it ever will.

This isn't to suggest that the youth cupboard is bare. Josef Melichar is a keeper. He has the potential to be outstanding, not just a middle-of-the-pack defenseman. Andrew Ference and Michal Rozsival have shown enough to think they'll get there, perhaps by season's end. But like the rest of the rookies, will that be in time, or good enough, to get them into the playoffs?

So what the Penguins have is a hockey sandwich. A top slice of bread consisting of players as good as any. And a bottom slice made of players who have the potential to either become top slices, or at least sandwich filling. But their development will come spasmodically. And maybe not in time for this team to play beyond its scheduled 82 games.

What they're missing is the middle part. And even Mario's return, or Straka's, cannot camouflage that void. Because even with those two in the lineup, this team appears to be only slightly better than average. At best.

All of this creates an interesting dilemma for Craig Patrick, because the Penguins include first-round playoff revenue in their budget. So making it is a financial concern.

Given that additional pressure, does Patrick make trades that might salvage the string of 11 consecutive playoff appearances? In doing so, he would he have to offer his developing talent for proven veterans, perhaps destroying his youth movement.

Or does he dangle his most valuable and tradable commodities, Kasparaitis and Lang, whom he surely will lose to free agency after this season?

But could they possibly make the playoffs without those two?

Or does he trade them regardless, in effect tossing in the towel on this season, but retooling for those that follow?

The Penguins are facing tough times right now. Even tougher decisions are on the horizon.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 8-9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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