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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Bells and Whistles

July 20, 2001

In early February, when congressional Republicans put on a dog and pony show in Washington for their so-dubbed "tax relief package," they mugged for the cameras and promised to send more money to taxpayers across the nation. What they were selling (as displayed in grandiose fashion by a few Senate Democrats, a car dealership, and a Midas muffler shop down the block) was a fantasy. In reality, this tax cut would possibly net a select group of Americans enough money for a new luxury car and the rest of the country the ability to bring home that shiny new muffler they'd been pining over for so long. God bless America.

That anyone eligible to receive a refund of an extra $50,000 probably wouldn't be the same someone who sweats the cost of a fully-loaded Lexus wasn't discussed at the time, conceivably because such logic leads to a far murkier debate. One which centers around the disparity between luxury and necessity.

Within the precarious economic structure of the National Hockey League, Pittsburgh Penguins' defenseman Darius Kasparaitis is a luxury. In and of himself, Darius Kasparaitis does not punch a team's ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals, nor does he mean any extra tallies in the win column—the seventh game of Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series notwithstanding.

However, Kasparaitis—like any luxury item—does a few things better than almost all competition. His presence alone makes offensive talent keep their heads up better than anyone in the league save perhaps Scott Stevens. He also makes opposing players pay for their transgressions like almost no other, and fans do come out specifically to see him play.

Unfortunately, Darius Kasparaitis is merely a complement to a great defense, someone who can make a good defense frighteningly brilliant, but not fundamentally sound. Put Kasparaitis alongside a Scott Stevens or a Rob Blake and a team becomes downright scary along the blueline. Put Darius Kasparaitis on the ice with a lesser complement of talent, and a team becomes scary one shift and vulnerable the next.

Even so, were Darius Kasparaitis a member of the Colorado Avalanche, his unsigned status and contract price tag would be a non-issue. The Avalanche, among others, could sign Kasparaitis three times over and not think twice about it. Because such teams have the money to compensate for Kasparaitis' weaknesses, they can literally afford the luxury.

Mario, on the other hand, never married into the Walton family. If he had, perhaps the name of Darius Kasparaitis wouldn't now be affixed with a question mark around the town of Pittsburgh.

If loyalty counts for anything, Kasparaitis should be a lock to remain a Penguin. Remember, it was Kasparaitis who went against the advice of his own agent two years ago and re-signed with the Penguins for roughly $500,000 less than he was asking for. Kasparaitis put his money where his mouth was and demonstrated that he not only wanted to play, but that he wanted to play for the Penguins. Now he's asking for a little reciprocity.

It's true that Darius Kasparaitis doesn't play perfect positional defense, or consistently stand up the league's premiere offensive talent at the blueline. It's also accepted that he will occasionally get beaten to the puck, or beaten in the corners, and give up his fair share of goals; his fans know it, and he knows it. Still, the Penguins would be remiss if they didn't consider a couple of intangibles when they debate Kasparaitis' value this summer; namely, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

When the heavily favored Penguins fell victim to the New York Islanders in the 1993 playoffs, it was Darius Kasparaitis who played a starring role in ending the Penguin dynasty before it really began. The then-rookie Kasparaitis stole the show in more ways than one, doing everything short of jumping on the back of Mario Lemieux and riding him into the dressing room.

Kasparaitis so frustrated Lemieux that many say Lemieux decided then and there that he had to have Kasparaitis alongside him in black and gold rather than struggle against him in the playoffs ever again.

Thus, should Darius Kasparaitis be traded back to the Islanders, the team that has publicly expressed a sincere desire to reacquire the fan favorite, Lemieux would once more have to deal with the biggest pest in the Eastern Conference on a consistent basis. However, this time there will be neither Ron Francis nor Jaromir Jagr to absorb part of Kasparaitis' punishment, there will only be Mario.

Then there is Jaromir Jagr, perhaps the unlikely key to Kasparaitis' continued value in Pittsburgh.

Without Jagr on the roster, and without the reserves to realistically make play for a number one defenseman, the Penguins are suddenly vulnerable to a handful of Eastern Conference teams they haven't needed to fear in years. Someone is going to have to get a hand, a hip, or an entire being into the face of Jeremy Roenick, Alexei Yashin, John LeClair, and Michael Peca; not to mention the five-time scoring champion who will now be skating on Washington's first line.

As the team stands today, Kasparaitis is by far the best option the Penguins have to shoulder such a weight.

A restricted free agent, Darius Kasparaitis is currently asking for around $2 million a season. This is approximately the same amount he was asking for two years ago, only now this happens to be $3 million less than what Boston recently threw at the relatively unproven Martin Lapointe, and $7 million less than what Rob Blake is getting in Denver.

If he can just neutralize one of the goal scorers who've recently immigrated to the Atlantic Division, considering salaries league-wide, isn't Kasparaitis still a bargain, even at twice the price he's asking?

The Penguins defensive corps is young, which is a very good thing, but Mario Lemieux intends to contend immediately and build on the Penguins' appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. To do that, the Penguins will need to recognize that Darius Kasparaitis is a luxury, however they may also want to consider that, in Pittsburgh, Darius Kasparaitis may be one luxury the Penguins simply cannot afford to live without.

Brother Karsh believes Darius Kasparaitis has earned some loyalty from the Penguins, and he believes that in the ridiculous financial climate found in today's NHL, Darius Kasparaitis is worth probably $3 million per season on the open market.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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