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Savran: Rangers, Bettman at fault for trade

Saturday, February 15, 2003

You've got to hand it to those New York Rangers. Just when you thought you couldn't possibly hate them any more than you already do, they give you cause to move them even higher on your contemptibility scale.

Here's their modus operandi. They award outlandish superstar salaries to good players. By doing so, they drive up the pay scale around the entire National Hockey League, making life miserable for teams that live hand to mouth. Those teams are then forced to pay salaries they cannot afford to keep their best players.

When they choose survival over bankruptcy, the Vultures -- oops, I mean the Rangers -- come swooping in to pick at the road-kill remains, taking advantage of the market they themselves created.

The Rangers are the only ones who can afford to pay the player the inflated price from the inflated market they caused, and the only ones with the cash reserves able, or willing, to put the victim on life support.

It's a whipsaw plot worthy of Gordon Gecco in the movie "Wall Street". Or George Steinbrenner.

If buying a hockey team wasn't such a bad investment, Steinbrenner might consider climbing over the boards to ruin another league. Although at this point, the NHL doesn't need his help.

And where was Gary Bettman during all this?

Why didn't the commissioner throw in the towel from the Pittsburgh corner, the very same corner occupied by Calgary and Buffalo and Ottawa? Why didn't he step into the ring and stop the fight?

He's stepped into the breach before, ordering reconfiguration of certain trades because they were too heavily weighted as cash transactions. What was the Alexei Kovalev deal?

Did Bettman turn his head because he wanted more ammunition to prove to the players' union that things truly are out of hand? Was it a pre-emptive negotiating tactic?

Does Bettman subscribe to that stomach-turning notion that the league is better off if the Rangers make the playoffs? Something they've not done for five years despite their mind-numbing, league destroying payroll.

More attention, higher TV ratings, and all that nonsense. Is that why he sat idly by and fiddled while Pittsburgh burned? Or given his apparent lack of aptitude for the sport, did he actually believe the return was fair and equitable? The silence from the commissioner's office on the matter of the Kovalev for $23 plus trinkets and beads is ear-splitting.

Most likely, Bettman didn't want his hands further bloodied by bankruptcy. Two's company, three's a disaster. Especially if the third franchise was Pittsburgh, which would be the death knell for hockey here. And so, fully aware that the grim tentacles of finance were once again strangling the Penguins, he allowed the transfusion, even though the price was the amputation of another body part.

Fans have been as upset by Craig Patrick's explanation of the deal as they are of the deal itself. And you have a right to challenge his contention the team is better positioned to make the playoffs after the trade. But if you really want to challenge one of his statements, hold your fire for when he said he's satisfied with the scouting and development arms of his organization.

It was fitting that Ottawa provided the opposition Wednesday night, because a check of the rosters of both teams was very revealing. Of the 23-man Ottawa group, 14 were draft choices, including five No. 1s. On the Penguins roster, only seven were draftees, only two first-round picks drafted by and playing only for the Penguins.

And as you well know, one of those No. 1 choices was selected during Ronald Reagan's first term. The other, Milan Kraft, is a fourth-line center, not exactly the profile you expect from your first pick.

How different a week this might have been had Kraft, Chris Wells, Stefan Bergkvist, Craig Hiller or Robert Dome not been such colossal busts. How much less would the loss of a Kovalev been felt if just one second-round pick in the past dozen years developed into an impact player?

Patrick had better examine those making draft-day decisions, or get more involved in scouting himself. All you can do in the minor leagues is refine talent, not create it.

While watching Mario Lemieux get a standing ovation from the crowd Wednesday night in celebration of his 1,000 assists, I thought of all the wondrous things he and his team have done here. I don't know how many more wonders he or the team have left, but I do know this: It would be devastating if they're not able to do it here, in front of us.

So if this is how it has to be, then so be it. You can't fight back if you're already dead.

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

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