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Savran: Future depends on Patrick's deals

Saturday, March 09, 2002

There is much more at stake at Mellon Arena this afternoon than two points. The future -- immediate, short term and beyond -- might also hinge on the outcome of today's Penguins-Rangers game.

That might seem overly dramatic. But if you buy the premise that a loss today, which would push them seven points behind the Rangers, would justify the pronouncement that the Penguins' playoff chances are dead on arrival, then you also buy the conclusion that impending personnel decisions will be based largely on that pronouncement.

And what Craig Patrick does from that point on will shape the future of the franchise for years.

For the first time in a decade, Patrick is the hunted, not the hunter.

Since 1991, the Penguins' general manager has pursued that player, or combination of players, who would strengthen his team for a run to the playoffs or a long run in the postseason. But now, given the likelihood there won't be a postseason, Patrick can listen to offers from Cup candidates, teams believing they're a player or two from June hockey and willing to pay, or overpay, for the privilege.

And Patrick has those players.

He doesn't sit at this high-stakes table of player poker trying to bluff with a low pair. He has a solid hand with Robert Lang and Darius Kasparaitis.

His only vulnerability is the financial and contractual reality that both likely will leave this summer, leaving the Penguins uncompensated. The only thing worse than losing them would be to lose them for nothing. The return in a trade could serve as the foundation of the franchise for several years.

The two Stanley Cups the Colorado Avalanche own were forged in Quebec when the Nordiques traded the rights to Eric Lindros for a bevy of players and draft choices. Colorado (nee Quebec) got Peter Forsberg and a number of other players who contributed to or were used to acquire players who contributed to one or both Cups.

Plus, they received two number one draft choices from Philadelphia, one of which was instrumental in getting Patrick Roy from Montreal.

This is not to suggest that Lang or Kasparaitis, or both, would result in the same quality of return. But either or both would be valuable to any club that believes it has a chance.

So, given his deadline deal acumen, Patrick could extract what might become the foundation for the future of his team.

While it's too early to tell definitely, that foundation isn't visible from the Jaromir Jagr trade.

Another factor to be considered: After the Lindros deal, the Quebec/Colorado franchise still had some building to do and waited four years to celebrate their first championship in 1996.

The Penguins don't have that luxury of time because the window of opportunity is sliding shut on Mario Lemieux. Not even Chuck Tanner would be optimistic enough to believe he'll still be playing in 2006. Maybe not even 2004. So that means that the bulk of the return in these two potential deals must be NHL-ready, rather than players who need a year or two in the minors -- or worse, a year or two in juniors.

Those NHL-ready players would have to knit with the current hopefuls, still young and mostly unproven. Kris Beech, Josef Melichar, Michael Rozsival, Andrew Ference and the very disappointing Milan Kraft, among others, are going to have to get a whole lot better.

And soon.

And despite the fact Aleksey Morozov appears to have emerged, I'm not yet convinced. Nine of his goals came in a 13 game span with -- guess who -- as a line mate. Without Lemieux, or even with him playing at a greatly reduced capacity, Morozov has two goals in his past 11 games.

So was it Morozov? Or Morozov shot full of Mario?

In any event, the young nucleus of this team must get better and get better quickly next year to support the talents of Lemieux, Marty Straka and Alexei Kovalev, the latter two joining the 30-something club next season. The quickest way to do that is to maximize your assets.

Clearly, in a more perfect world, you'd love to keep Lang and Kasparaitis. But if they no longer can be assets to the Penguins on the ice, Patrick still has the opportunity to use them as assets nonetheless. And where the Penguins are a year from today, or three years from today, might well hinge on what he does in the next 10 days.


Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat at 6:30 p.m. weekdays on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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