Is it socially acceptable to say that watching this current Penguins' team is about as exciting as a bag of day-old bread? It's certainly honest, but is anybody really prepared to go on record with it?
Yes, it's still a blessing that Pittsburgh continues to have a hockey team at all, let alone one that is currently awaiting the return of Mario Lemieux to the ice, but as for the product on display at the moment, this team could easily give drying paint a run for the entertainment dollar.
Of course, this is due to injuries, mostly, and that mysterious flu-like virus which has engulfed a good part of the entire organization. However, one would have to hope that the body of any self-respecting professional hockey player would react violently to a style of play that looks as boring to implement as it is to watch. Frankly, any time one of those tough man competitions on ESPN2 can pull a hockey fan away from a Penguins game, it's not a good thing.
But with Martin Straka out of the lineup until 2002, and Mario's return perpetually day to day, what can the organization do about this? Short of getting Edmonton on the phone and trading for Mike Grier and Tom Poti, not much. Although, there are a couple of options out there, and only one of which will cost the Penguins any money.
The first is to sign Darius Kasparaitis to a contract extension.
The only reason this column insists on repeating this point to the precipice of tedium is because it is apparently not sinking in. Darius Kasparaitis not only comes to play every night, paying patrons show up to see Kasparaitis come to play every night. He's been called "an intimidation factor" by his coaches and someone who's "going to do whatever it takes to win" by his teammates.
As Penguins forward/defenseman/lead singer Ian Moran puts it, "He does all the little things, makes all the sacrifices that allow a team to win." Yet this, somehow, is a bad thing?
Kasparaitis has been doing what he does as well as anybody in the league again this season, and in his six year tenure in Pittsburgh he's obviously grown to like both the team and the town. He's also not asking for the world when it comes to his contract. But wait, there's more.
Darius Kasparaitis is one of the few players on the roster who is able to provide the team with some sort of identity. No offense to Alexsey Morozov, but Kasparaitis is a draw; someone worth the price of admission whose attitude and play help define the Penguins on the ice and in the city. As recently as Monday, Kasparaitis said he'd prefer not to go anywhere at all, and if General Manager Craig Patrick were to rehab his relationship with the oft-spurned defenseman, at the very worst he would make Kasparaitis more than a rent-a-player for a team looking to make a Cup run this year. He'd make him a signed commodity before Kasparaitis hits the open market this off-season and his price jumps considerably. Meanwhile, at best Patrick would lock up a fan-favorite who gives this team an easily identifiable characternot to mention someone who isn't afraid to give a fellow defenseman a brotherly peck on the bench.
The next bit of firming up the team will need to be more subtle, and it will need to be done by Mario Lemieux.
The biggest hurdle the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise will face in the coming seasons won't be how to get talent on the ice, it will be how to get money in the bank. The solution to that must come, in part, from a new arena. For that, Mario will need money, which is why he will almost certainly also need Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker.
During his bid to deliver the Penguins from the second bankruptcy in the history of the franchise, Mario Lemieux was given off the record assurances from then-Governor Tom Ridge who intimated that public money would be available to help the Penguins build a new home. But soon after September 11, President Bush manufactured a new position for Ridge within the federal government, his Harrisburg office fell to Schweiker, and Schweiker has since promised to return to private life once his term is up in January 2003.
Thus it is essential that Mario look to secure some kind of assurance from the governor of the moment and, perhaps more importantly, make some in-roads with Schweiker's potential replacements as well.
September 11th has already been called "The Perfect Storm" by some U.S. leaders, a human and economic cataclysm which ran head-long into a recession. The economic shockwaves from that day will surely be felt nationwide for years to come as states attempt to stay safe and in the black with increasingly fewer funds to do it. Post September 11th, money for anything less than the essential is going to be one tough ticket to get, but without state funding, the Penguins will be fighting an uphill battle to stay competitive and, quite possibly, stay financially afloat.
Can Craig Patrick find a way to put aside the past and get a deal done with Darius Kasparaitis? Will Mario be able to wave his wand and find financing for a new arena?
Did somebody actually say this team was hard to watch?
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes that Darius Kasparaitis basically symbolizes the Penguins right now, and that this may not be such a bad thing. He's also willing to run for governor of Pennsylvania, just in case Mario and the Pens need someone on the inside.