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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Love On the Rocks

January 22, 2003

First, the obvious. Alexei Kovalev won't be a Penguin much longer. Once the rumors and whispers started, it should have tipped you off that the dance was already well underway. Don't forget, this is the organization's ever-so subtle way of breaking it to you gently.

Second, Alexei Kovalev is one of the most talented players in the league and as such, he is basically irreplaceable.

Third, and this might be the most important thing to remember in all of this, trading Alexei Kovalev won't be what hurts the Penguins.

All right, it won't feel good to lose another Penguin who likes to play in Pittsburgh, especially one with talent that runs as deep as it does in Kovalev. Still, the Penguins have proven they can struggle to get to the postseason with or without Kovalev on the ice and besides, when you really think about it, this roster would completely turnover anyway given a long enough timeline.

How's that for rationalizing your fate away?

At any rate, it won't be the actual trading of Kovalev that will hurt the Penguins, what will hurt is if he's traded for another addition to the Penguins' list of empty promises.

The deal particulars are now just down to simply where and what for, but it's the how and the why which should concern everybody involved in this. This is because, for the most part, the Penguins are a first-class organization. However, the longer they play the role of second-class citizen, the harder it will be to prove they're anything else.

That Kovalev will not be replaced with comparable talent basically goes without saying, so what the organization will eventually be left with is the unenviable task of explaining to Pittsburgh (again) why they are trading away one of the most talented players in the game for a handful of potential, a pair of role players, an envelope of operating capital, or some convoluted combination of all three.

The explanation Penguin fans will probably get will likely involve some variation of the 'we'll get 'em next time' mantra Penguin fans have heard so many times before. Versions of it are what the town has tried to swallow as Francises, Boughners, Tugnutts, Kasparaitises, and Langs all rode off into the sunset for little or nothing in return—and fans probably shouldn't expect much of a different story here.

Yet the problem with this type of explanation isn't its intent (it's nice to think that the organization believes in its future and that, as fans, we should too). The problem is the argument's complete lack of veracity.

You can't continue to tell people that getting nothing commensurate—or worse, nothing at all—in return for good players is somehow a positive for Pittsburgh hockey. It's not, the fans know it's not, and to try to tell them anything different only makes the team seem condescending and disingenuous.

You wonder why perhaps the best player in the history of the league has trouble selling out his own building? Just ask the fans if they completely trust this organization after the way things have been handled over the last couple of seasons.

The Penguins have as fantastic and forgiving a fan-base as there is in the league, but as corny as it may sound, fans need to feel as if they're part of the fight. And the Penguins, for as good as they can be, still have this knack for making fans occasionally feel as if they should be seen and not heard.

This is why it would be not only refreshing, but endearing, to hear the Penguins tell the truth this time.

As a fan, you want to believe that the team is not a 'them,' but a 'we.' That we're in this together. That we're going after the Cup, and that when the team wins, we win too.

Sadly, the Penguins cannot afford Alexei Kovalev going into his next contract. Given the market, Kovalev is set to become a nine to ten million dollar a year player in the NHL. Add that to Mario Lemieux's self-imposed $5 million a season and you're looking at somewhere between 35% and 40% of the Penguins' player salaries spent before you get to the other 90% of the roster. Simple math says that the Penguins cannot afford a salary hike like that and owning up to it is something every fan can understand.

In other words, we simple saps get it.

No, we can't afford to keep Kovalev as much as we'd like to. No, it's not right to ask him to stay at far below his market value just so he can play in a city he loves and in a city that loves him. Yes, we know the league is stacked against our success, but the team has fought off bigger odds than that before just to stay in business and if the fans just stick with this team, it can happen again.

See how easy honesty can be?

The quickest way to lose someone's trust is to continually promise something that you can't deliver and the more that people think they're being lied to, the more they're going to stay away. This might be fine if you're the Colorado Avalanche with a large chunk of the Wal-Mart fortune fortifying your coffers, but because the league favors large market teams with unlimited budgets, teams like Pittsburgh need to work harder and be run smarter than other NHL squads at least until the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2004.

Which also means that the Penguins need their fans now more than ever.

No fan really wants to see one of the league's leading scorers leave Pittsburgh any more than any one in the front office really wants to try to replace him. But losing Kovalev is one thing. Asking the fans you desperately need on your side to stick their heads into the sand as to why you're going to lose Kovalev, well, that is something else.

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and he will miss Alexei Kovalev when he's traded. He's also appearing all week in the Coconut Lounge where he's performing Diamond and Manilow melodies well into the night. Don't forget to tip your waitress.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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