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Savran: Penguins forget future, go for now

Saturday, October 12, 2002

The future is now. Apparently, that is the Penguins' philosophy, by deed and design. One need only to look at the age -- or if you prefer the positive, experience -- of the opening night roster. There are 10 players who will creep beyond 30 before the Stanley Cup is raised again. The number increases to 11 when you include Martin Straka, who will return eventually. Two more will reach that crusty hockey milestone before the start of training camp next year.

In any professional sport, this would be considered old. In hockey, it's ancient. If there is ever the formation of an NHL/AARP group, Pittsburgh would be the alpha chapter.

There were a number of issues that came up during Penguins training camp, the health of Mario Lemieux chief among them. There was the attempt to catch lightning in a bottle with Alexandre Daigle.

Attention also was focused on the spate of acquisitions made late last winter.

The party line was that even if these players -- Ville Nieminen, Jamie Pushor, Kent Manderville and Shean Donovan -- weren't enough to get the Penguins into the playoffs, they would represent a stronger foundation for the new season. They are especially important with the anticipated healthy returns of Lemieux and Straka, and the expected continued excellence of Alexei Kovalev.

This group is. The problem is, the team's "stars" will be on the dark side of Thirty Mountain by March. That's why I felt the most important question of the preseason was: which, if any, of the young players would step forward to form the beginnings of a new nucleus as age and finances inevitably tear the old one apart? You want to see the new nucleus, if that's what they will become? Hop in the family cruiser and head due northeast.

The easy answer for what should be considered a major training camp disappointment is that none of the babyfaces performed well enough to deserve to start the season here. And if that were the case, it's hard to argue with keen hockey minds that see more and know more.

But I'm wondering how much the actual performance of the young players mattered.

Was the composition of the roster predetermined? And now they inexplicably don't have room for Dan LaCouture, 25, in the lineup?

Scratching him won't determine whether they make the playoffs. But this team is sorely lacking in youth and speed, plus this guy has been defensively responsible, is an excellent penalty killer, and, perhaps most important, provides an energy sorely missing a year ago.

So what's the matter with him? Too young?

Which leads us back to the "future-is-now" philosophy.

There seem to be three major factors. One, the organization was truly rocked by not making the playoffs last year. And, with a dozen teams vying for eight playoff spots in the conference, they cannot afford a bad start, Thursday night's dud of a performance notwithstanding.

So, the thinking goes that they can't conduct the on-the-job training program they were forced to implement last season and that a total veteran presence will help avoid the rookie mistakes that might help dig an inescapable hole.

Also not to be discounted is the Lemieux factor. Mario is healthy ... for now. As long as he remains so, the Penguins want to surround him with as much veteran help as possible, although I would hardly classify what he got from linemates Jan Hrdina and Aleksey Morozov Thursday night as "help."

Finally, one cannot ignore the very real financial pressures on them to win this season. The Penguins need the money from the playoffs and tickets sold for the regular season run to the postseason. They think the thirty-somethings give them their best chance to do so.

But what they really need to do is somehow create some buzz surrounding this team. Currently, there is none. Part of it is missing the playoffs, although most fans understood that the string eventually would end.

One year could be an aberration, two in a row is a trend.

But it goes deeper than that. It's also a string of management decisions which has the natives restless.

The return from the Jaromir Jagr trade, not dealing Robert Lang when they had the chance. The unproductive drafts. And yes, the Rick Berry fiasco.

Because of these pressures, the Penguins probably can't look much beyond today. Whether it's the best course of action is debatable.

It certainly doesn't bode well for the future. But then for this franchise, the future is now.

Stan Savran hosts a sports talk show weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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