By Andy Clendennen
The Sporting News
Are the Penguins about to take a nose dive in the Eastern Conference
Well, GM Craig Patrick did nothing to make fans think otherwise this
offseason, losing the second most productive player in franchise
history and getting next to nothing -- for now -- in return.
Although the Rangers offered more experienced players for Jaromir
Jagr, their offer also came with salaries steeper than Patrick was
willing to assume. So instead, Patrick peddled Jagr to the Capitals.
The jury on this trade -- for centers Kris Beech and Michal Silvak
and defenseman Ross Lupaschuk -- will be out for possibly several
Beech is the most promising, and he could be in a Penguins sweater
this season. The seventh overall selection in the 1999 draft, Beech
is a solid two-way player, whom Patrick likens to Ron Francis.
Questions about Beech's strength persist, but he was hindered last
season with several nagging injuries and managed to post 66 points in
40 games with WHL Calgary.
The other two are years away from contributing, although Lupaschuk
already is being groomed as a future power-play quarterback. But
winning now is the key, and the Penguins won't be doing much of that
given their offseason moves.
A team can't lose one of the elite players in league history and
expect to maintain its standings in the conference. Jagr is a five-
time scoring champ. No one on the roster is capable of filling that
Lost in the shuffle amid Jagrmania was the defection of goaltender
Garth Snow, to the division-rival Islanders. The Penguins leaned
heavily on Snow last season until Johan Hedberg arrived in a late-
Now, the most experienced goaltender on last season's roster is gone,
leaving Jean-Sebastien Aubin and Hedberg as the men in goal. That's
not exactly a division-winning tandem, primarily because Hedberg has
yet to prove capable over a full season.
Pretty much the entire defense. Bob Boughner left via free agency,
Janne Laukkanen will be out at least until November following knee
surgery, and everyone in the world knows that if all goes according
to plan Darius Kasparaitis will be annoying someone else's front
office next season.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Penguins featured a pretty
nameless defense last season, which in and of itself is OK -- but it
didn't play well for most of the season.
Then, there's the stunning void at right wing. Although it was
expected that Jagr would be gone, most wags and pundits figured the
Penguins at least would get something useful now (like a bag of
pucks, perhaps) in return. While the three hockey players (their
words) Patrick received could all be good one day, there's a very
real chance that not one will significantly contribute to the
Penguins -- ever.
What's going to happen? Who knows. With the money saved by getting
rid of Jagr and his bulky contract, there is the possibility of
signing someone or making a trade for a scorer. But don't expect too
much, because the team has too many players in need of new deals to
import any more help.
REASONS FOR HOPE
WHO'S THE BOSS? Mario Lemieux should be playing full time. While
everyone was waxing rhapsodic about his return last season, many
failed to realize how incredible he really was.
In 43 games, Lemieux scored 35 goals and added 41 assists. Prorated
over 75 games (he'd need a few days off), those numbers would be 62
goals and 72 assists for 134 points, far surpassing Jagr's league-
leading 121 points.
REASONS TO WORRY
HOW'S THE BOSS? Lemieux is a year older and no longer has someone the
caliber of Jagr playing alongside him. While Lemieux can be penciled
in for some serious numbers, he might struggle without a supporting
player. Remember when Jagr had to do it alone?
"D" FOR DANGER: If opposing teams get past the forwards, look out.
The defense is nothing to get excited about, and with a nearly
complete turnover of blue liners, one has to wonder how the additions
will adapt to the style of play, as well as the demands put on the
team by owner Lemieux.
GOING NETS: Goaltending is shaky, at best. With the youngsters
between the pipes, anything can happen -- but usually some sort of
mental breakdown is in order, as these guys have never had to carry a
team for any stretch of time. Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour and Martin
Brodeur can carry a squad for a few games while offensive stars rest
or recuperate. But the Penguins won't have that luxury.
Alexei Kovalev is coming off far and away the best season of his
career. His 95 points were 29 more than his previous career high, and
only once had he done better than last season's plus-12 rating.
Career-highs in goals (44) and assists (51) placed Kovalev squarely
among the league's best players.
But the pressure will be on Kovalev to repeat -- if not surpass --
his phenomenal season. With Jagr gone, Kovalev probably will move to
the top line, expected to once again be centered by Lemieux. How
Kovalev reacts and responds to this pressure will determine to a
great extent the success -- or failure -- of the Penguins.
Lemieux was last season's feel-good story, at least for those who
like those kinds of things. But will he be able to do the same thing
again? He accomplished last season's objective by reaching the second
round of the playoffs and turning an overall financial loss into a
But with that incentive taken care of, and with no No. 2 man in
sight, what will Lemieux's numbers be? Obviously he'll do well --
he's Mario, after all. Just don't expect the Penguins to be
contenders anytime soon.
It'll take a while to get things settled as the team wrangles with
contract questions and potential trades. There are specific areas of
need, most notably on defense, that must be settled. But this team
has firepower from its forwards, and it obviously can't be
Still, it's hard to imagine the Penguins will contend for the
division title with Jagr out of the mix. Any falloff, and the team
might not even contend for a playoff berth.
Andy Clendennen is an associate editor for The Sporting News.