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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Moving up, moving on

August 14, 2001

You can only hear it so many times. It's too expensive. It's too much. She's not interested.

Whatever the expression, the only variable is that there's no set mathematical number which guarantees acceptance or understanding. If you knew the epiphany happened the fifth time, or the fiftieth time, it would be so much easier. But the reason that Mr. Owl will never be able to tell you how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop has nothing to do with a pronounced lack of will power, or even an insufficient amount of empirical research. There is no one answer because, as they say, individual results may vary.

At a point as unique as your own character, you eventually wake up and realize, for yourself, that it's over. A job, a relationship, a time in your life—fact is, from that moment, you've moved on. In some cases, hopefully, you've also moved up.

For Robert Lang, Jan Hrdina, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, that time is now.

Ever since the 'don't-let-the-door-hit-ya' wrap-up pieces hit the streets in the wake of Jaromir Jagr's departure, the well-leaked idea of trading Jan Hrdina to the Washington Capitals has virtually comprised the news cycle as it relates to the Penguins.

The reason seems simple enough, Jan Hrdina has been well-schooled in the art of passing the puck to Jaromir Jagr come hell or high water. For this, and for his assiduous effort to back-check while Jagr waits up-ice, Hrdina has earned Jagr's many affections. But Hrdina has also seemed to draw the short straw from an organization apparently determined to validate their reputation for handling youth worse and worse.

In mere months, Hrdina went from first-line center to fourth-line center—which was certainly bad enough, but this slight was compounded by the fact that his head coach, Ivan Hlinka, rarely uses any fourth line at all. His ice-time reduced to table scraps, Hrdina went on to finish the year with a whimper, generating only seven more shots on goal than defenseman Darius Kasparaitis.

Two things help young players grow into consistent NHL performers more than all else. One is a coach who believes in them. The second is a skilled teammate or two who will elevate their game. Unfortunately, when a Jaromir Jagr bangs his stick on the ice every time his center touches the puck, it's not 'constructive criticism.' Jagr may be the greatest offensive talent in hockey, but Jan Hrdina is living proof that Jagr's game does precious little to assist the growth of young talent (also see: Morozov, Aleksey).

Make no mistake, Jan Hrdina can become an effective center in the NHL, but he'll never do it on a team that refuses to trust him with the puck, something the Penguins have repeatedly shown no sign of doing.

On the other hand, Robert Lang has no such problem. The Penguins have long trusted Lang to carry the puck, some say, to a fault. Yet, it is easy to criticize Lang. Dubbed 'Helmut Lang' for his penchant to be less intimidating than a man who makes his living designing women's couture, or 'Fritz Lang,' partially for his tendency simply be on the fritz, Lang lacks the consistency a top-tier team desperately needs from its second line come playoff time.

However, Robert Lang did finish last season with the team's top plus/minus rating as he racked up more points (80) than the likes of Jeremy Roenick (76), Mats Sundin (74), and Teemu Selanne (72). Lang also has an Olympic gold medal on his mantle, and has played alongside the last three Art Ross Trophy winners in Jagr, Gretzky, and Lemieux over the course of his career.

Thus, while he may be another one of General Manager Craig Patrick's reclamation projects, no one should shed a tear for Robert Lang. His own hard work and resolute effort, particularly in last year's postseason—where he gave everything he had even when it seemed he could barely lift his stick—have finally paid off.

Monday, Lang received word from a Toronto arbiter that he'll be playing for $2.9 million this year. This thereby completes his transformation from NHL castoff to established veteran and should further suggest that he shouldn't start the coming season in a Penguins' sweater either.

Every team can use an accomplished center, but no team should hold back potential, or be held back by the lack thereof.

Jan Hrdina needs space to grow, and the Penguins don't have it. They have also displayed no inclination to groom Hrdina for anything other than an over-paid towel boy. Conversely, Robert Lang can be found all over the ice, but his numbers accurately depict a player whose absence come playoff time is becoming a given. With seven goals and 19 points in a combined 45 playoff games, Lang seems to be far better suited to an arena where the second season is only experienced live via-satellite.

By now, the Penguins and Craig Patrick have assuredly solidified their plan for the off-season, but it's tough to think that they can't see what's right under their collective beak. The organization must know that for Hrdina to improve, he either needs to leave Pittsburgh or be given a chance to play, and for the Penguins to get past the Eastern Conference Finals they need players who aren't out to lunch come the month of May.

What's consistently amazing in all of this, as it tends to be in life, is not how many times someone can hear something said, but rather how long they can go without it ever sinking in.

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season. He also thinks the Penguins have missed the boat on Jan Hrdina and boosted the career of Robert Lang like their name was rehab and his name was Ben Affleck.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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