If there is one silver lining to the injury-riddled Pittsburgh Penguins' season, it might be the thought that the next few days will see Darius Kasparaitis play his last game in a Pittsburgh Penguins' uniform.
It might hurt to imagine such a prospect, but the reality will be infinitely more painful should Darius Kasparaitis still be a Penguin a week from now. Not because Darius Kasparaitis is a poor player, mind you. On the contrary, Kasparaitis is just about everything a Penguin should be. He plays hurt and he plays hard, consistently. He also knows when to score a timely playoff goal against the Sabres, and has never asked to be the highest paid anything, anywhere. In fact, there are few hockey teams in the league that wouldn't benefit from having a Darius Kasparaitis on their roster.
Unfortunately, the Penguinsfor reasons they themselves may not even know any morehave done everything they can to ruin their relationship with precisely the kind of player they'll want to replace as soon as Kasparaitis plays his last shift in black and gold. Of course, the Penguins will dispute this state of affairs, but that's where the fun starts.
By now it's been discussed on telecasts from Anaheim to Alberta, and it's all about semantics. Was Darius Kasparaitis' current two year, $2.4 million deal an arbitration "award" or not? According to all reports, the team is willing to go to the mat banking that it's not, contending that Kasparaitis is locked into playing one more season for Pittsburgh at a price far below market value. Obviously Darius Kasparaitis' agent, Mark Gandler, will tell you different, but what's truly priceless here is that this all-important point of contention is completely irrelevant.
The Penguin organization, on the whole, is one of class. For every one issue they mangle (i.e. Ron Francis' exit), they tend to handle two with aplomb (think: Kevin Stevens' current absence from the team, or Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Lange's contract shortfall before this season began). Simple history should be enough to remind this team that being cheap and petty isn't the way to score points with either its players or the community on which the organization depends for its survival. Sadly, the ongoing dispute suggests otherwise and it's why this he said/she said needs to end sooner than later.
No matter what the NHL offers, no matter what an eventual mediation might divine in the off-season, when it comes to Darius Kasparaitis, the team was wrong, is wrong, and the time has come to take the high road, accept responsibility for the situation, and move on.
Yes, there may be moves left to make, but the game is over, and the better man always knows how to lose as gracefully as he wins.
The Penguins know it's over, they have to, their own argument is a fallacy wrapped in denial. It's tough to make the claim Kasparaitis is deep on the depth chart when he's often in the team's first defensive paring and it's even harder to explain going to all this trouble for a player who supposedly doesn't contribute much to the team. The Penguins' actions, not to mention other teams' interest, pulled the curtain on this charade long ago. Everybody knows Kasparaitis is valuable, and yes, the team has found a way to call enough attention to it. But the Penguins would gain nothing by forcing Darius Kasparaitis to stay in Pittsburgh another year and there are holes on this squad that need to be filled now, not later.
The Penguins' behavior here has already made a statement to players league-wide, specifically to the kind of players that small market teams must build their foundation on. This statement says that Pittsburgh not only under-values their talent, but that they will do virtually everything within their power to under-pay their players as well. Worse, the longer this goes on, the louder this gets said.
Until the NHL pulls its head from the sand and fixes the inequities in its salary structure, Pittsburgh will never be able to compete dollar for dollar with the likes of the New York or Philadelphia. This means that the Penguins must make Pittsburgh attractive through more creative means. Style of play, rabid fan support, the city itselfall could potentially sway someone toward Pittsburgh. But mistreating Darius Kasparaitis today suggests to the NHL talent of tomorrow that Pittsburgh may be a small market for good reason.
During his tenure in Pittsburgh, Darius Kasparaitis' loyalty, hard work, commitment, and ability have all been questioned by the team, and while what this says to the player or players who will eventually succeed him is undeniable, the whole tale could be seen as an anomaly if the Penguins swallow their pride and end this circus quickly.
Maybe Kasparaitis' agent beat General Manager Craig Patrick, badly, at the game Craig Patrick is famous for winning. But the impact from this payback could still be lessened if only the Penguins would decide that they want to stop playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Obviously this team needs to keep costs low, but Darius Kasparaitis has earned his money, if not the ability to get from whomever he wishes. Thus, just as Mario Lemieux's career on the ice has been one exemplified by grace and class, there is no reason to believe that his team should be defined by anything different.
Historically, the Pittsburgh Penguins have set high standards. Now would be a perfect time for them to live up to some of them.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and, like most fans, will miss Darius Kasparaitis when he's no longer a Penguin—whenever that may be.