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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Going Gently

July 1, 2002

You knew this was coming. You should have known it as early as a year ago, when Robert Lang was awarded a one year deal in arbitration and the Penguins didn't offer him a contract extension despite Lang openly suggesting that he was willing to listen to an offer.

But when that hint went unnoticed, you certainly should have caught the nod when the Penguins' season went down the drain and the team still wasn't entertaining the idea of providing their second line center with a long term deal. Sure, General Manager Craig Patrick has a hard and fast rule about never negotiating during the season, but usually that's because the Penguins are fighting for a good spot in the playoffs, not in the draft.

By the final month of this past season, with Lang injured and Pittsburgh long since finished in every sense of the word, there was nothing stopping Patrick from talking contract with Robert Lang. Even if such talks netted little, the gesture would have spoken volumes about the Penguins and their appreciation for Lang's contribution to the team. Yet, assuming the story has been accurately reported, Patrick never did anything of the sort and now, as Robert Lang officially becomes an unrestricted free agent, fans look forward to seeing another productive Penguin walk from Pittsburgh for nothing.

If any of this shocks you, please come out of your cave. But for the name involved, the above could just as easily be talking about Bob Boughner. Or Ron Francis.

The Penguins have developed the habit of letting go not just solid players, but solid players who like (and who are liked by) the city itself, Robert Lang is merely next in line.

Maybe Ron Francis was never going to stay in Pittsburgh simply based on money. Maybe the same can be said for Boughner, but the truth of the matter is that we will never know for sure because the Penguins never even bothered to find out.

One could argue that the team did try behind the scenes, but in a situation like this, what could possibly be said in private that couldn't be said in public? You mean, the world might finally find out that the Penguins are poor?

Yeah, God help us all once that cat is out of the bag.

There are precious few excuses for not disclosing any attempt to sign players like these and there's a shopping-bag full of reasons why any dialogue should instead damn-near be web-cast to the world. The most notable is that of perception.

Every time the Penguins make what appears to be no attempt to sign one of their free agents-to-be, it is an organizational failure. Every time one of these players walks without the Penguins having the guts to try to keep them it is another, subtle, acquiescence to the idea that the Penguins will never be an elite team in the NHL again.

Why? Because top-tier teams don't lose the players they can't replace. Top-tier teams are a destination location, not a springboard and—like him or not—Robert Lang's performance over these last few seasons in Pittsburgh has made him just the type of player who should love to play in Allegheny County.

Fine, so the Steelers will always be the number one game going, but Pittsburgh has some of the best, most knowledgeable hockey fans in North America, bar none, and the rest of the league knows it. Moreover, the town itself is affectionate and affordable. Pittsburgh isn't New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles and everyone who loves this city will tell you how glad they are of precisely that.

In a town where your money can go a little further, and your fans can be a little friendlier, it's quality of life that compensates for the disparity in pay. But when General Manager Craig Patrick and the Penguin organization do not try to leverage anything that Pittsburgh has to offer, be it on the ice or off, it is a slap in the face to not just players and fans, but to the city itself.

Pittsburgh used to be a town hockey players wanted to come to. Fast ice, exceptional talent, and fans who didn't see hockey as just another entertainment option. But the more Pittsburgh becomes a place that doesn't even exert the effort to keep its own players, the more Pittsburgh drives away both the players and fans who have a real passion for the game.

Even if Penguin free agents do end up moving on, the mere effort of extending them a genuine offer says something to the league and to the fans. It's a statement of purpose, of desire, that Pittsburgh is sincerely trying to do all it can despite the lack of a level financial playing field.

Doing nothing, on the other hand, gives the impression that the organization itself isn't trying. And if the organization doesn't care to try, why should the players? Why should the fans?

In the grand scheme of things the specific loss of Robert Lang (and the Penguins will lose Robert Lang soon enough) isn't the issue. The issue involves the organization itself and whether or not they really want to win. Not because this team is unable to afford a Robert Lang, but because this team is unwilling to even ask its own free agent what his price tag is.

The Penguins used to look like a first class organization. There was a swagger and an assumed excellence. But slowly this has been replaced by what appears to be apprehension and a tacit acceptance of the Penguins' current caste. The notion that the Penguins were a great team—once—only now they've resigned themselves to using the excuse of poverty to justify their status as an also-ran. Hopefully this isn't the case but rather purely perception.

Unfortunately, in our society, too often perception is reality.

The Penguins are already stocked with many of the pieces necessary for greatness, yet how can they continually ask players for their all when the organization itself seems content to lie down before the season even begins? How many times must the team fail to make an effort before their players and fans begin to take the hint?

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and though he has trouble believing it, it's true. He will actually miss Fritz/Helmut/Robert Lang when he's gone.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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