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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

In the Eye of the Beholder

February 4, 2003

Over the course of the last few weeks, the experts in the hockey press have shipped Alexei Kovalev off to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, and for a brief moment there, the Russian National team via a three-way deal with the Dubai Mighty Camels. All right, that last one was proposed in a pitch meeting by this column so it probably doesn't qualify as an 'expert' opinion per se. Still, any time you have the chance to get the terms 'three-way' and 'Mighty Camel' in the same sentence, you have to take it.

However, almost all of these theories, be they well-rounded or half-baked, have basically looked at the Kovalev situation and tried only to figure out what he's worth. That's a natural tendency, but while we're exploring Kovalev's market value there's no reason to ignore the fundamental question of what the Penguins most need right now, Kovalev or no Kovalev.

Maybe it's because the Penguins have so many holes that it doesn't matter what they get, or maybe it's because it's naturally assumed what the Penguins will want in any deal. An experienced blueliner, another scorer, and more cash to cover payroll just in case this squad can't claw its way into the playoffs—sound familiar?

But is that really what the Penguins need most of all? Will one quality defenseman or one solid scorer really make this team a contender? Of course not.

Even if both of these players were somehow netted in the same deal, the Penguins would still be looking toward the Detroits and Colorados of the world with their hands out, hoping for the kind of meaningful revenue sharing that would give Pittsburgh access to the kind of talent only the moneyed can truly afford.

What the Penguins need more than anything right now is perhaps the last thing anyone wants to admit. The Penguins need the leader who will take this hockey team into a new era of Pittsburgh hockey.

In 1998, when the Carolina Hurricanes made amends for being bamboozled by Penguins' General Manager Craig Patrick almost a decade earlier, Carolina G.M. Jim Rutherford lamented, "When you trade a franchise player like Ron Francis, and end up with nothing for him, it takes a long time to recover."

True indeed, things were bad enough in Hartford that by the time the team could get Francis back the organization had stolen away to the hockey hot-bed of Raleigh-Durham. And that was only after losing one franchise player.

Over the better part of the last seven years, the Penguins haven't only lost one such player, they've lost three: Lemieux, Francis, and Jagr. Even worse, the Penguins only received compensation for losing one of them—consideration which has yet to start replacing the point production the team gave up.

Yes, you can say Mario's back, but is he really?

Mario is one of the great hockey leaders in the history of the game, but Mario can't lead much of anything when he's iced up in the training room for months on end. And why should Mario be leading this team on the ice anyway? Mario should be this team's Ray Bourque, every player on the roster should be sweating and bleeding on every shift, every night, to get the Cup back in Lemieux's hands for what Mario's done for the game and the franchise.

Mario has already carried this team once. He did it for over a decade. He bore so much of the brunt that his back still hurts. His stated reason for coming back was to be one of the guys on the bench, not to be forced into active duty as this team's pack mule once more, why should it fall to Mario to lead this team again?

This team doesn't need Mario to lead players on the ice, it needs Mario to lead councilmen in the City-County Building and voting blocks in Harrisburg. Other Penguins can score (or so we're led to believe), but no other Penguin can successfully lobby the state for a new Igloo.

On the ice the Penguins need someone who can wrangle the wills of men, someone who can do what the Penguins' minor league system seems unable to do. Someone who can take these young prospects the organization is so fond of acquiring and turn them into a cohesive group of men ready to contend for the Stanley Cup.

There are veterans currently on this team, guys who should be looked up to, but Martin Straka, for as good as he is (and he is that good) is still not going to pull you aside for a quick meeting with the back of his hand if you slack off and refuse to play to your potential.

No, it's time for this team to bite the bullet and bring in the player who will take the torch from Mario and be the one who leads the Jagr Three and the rest of the Penguins back to preeminence.

That's what the Penguins need most of all and Kovalev is perhaps the only player left with enough value to make such a deal a possibility.

Will the coming Kovalev trade be a failure if a team leader can't be brought in? No, it will simply mean that the Penguins will probably just continue to look like the same, generally directionless bunch that's been featured off and on since Ron Francis left in 1998.

If the team can live with that, that's their choice. Let's just hope they don't ask the city of Pittsburgh to tune in when Penguin home games start being played via satellite from the next Raleigh-Durham.

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and will still miss Alexei Kovalev once he's traded, but he also thinks the Penguins have gone without real leadership for long enough.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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