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Saturday, July 13, 2002
Updated: July 15, 12:47 PM ET
A lot of uncertainty in Pittsburgh

By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine

After a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals in the spring of 2001, the Pittsburgh Penguins suffered through their worst season in more than a decade. The club finished 13 games under .500 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1989-90.

2001-02 by the numbers
28-41-8-5, 69 points
(T24th overall, T12th East, 5th Atlantic)
Goals for:
198/2.41 (23rd overall)
Goals against:
249/3.04 (26th overall)
-51 (27th overall)
20-goal scorers:
Alexei Kovalev (32), Jan Hrdina (24), Aleksey Morozov (20)
50-point scorers:
Kovalev (76), Hrdina (57), Robert Lang (50)

From beginning to end (and even before), the Pens' 2001-02 season was an unmitigated disaster. The lowlights included:

  • The July 11, 2001 salary-dumping trade of star right wing Jaromir Jagr to the Capitals for three "prospects" and no proven NHL talent.

  • The firing of coach Ivan Hlinka, just four games into the regular season.

  • The public statement by club owner and Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux, that his presence on Team Canada's 2002 Olympic squad was more important to him than suiting up for his own team.

  • The serious injury woes that limited Lemieux to just 24 games and high-scoring left wing Martin Straka to only 13.

  • The untimely injuries to top forwards Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang, which forced the dynamic duo to miss 15 and 20 games, respectively.

  • The inability of veteran GM Craig Patrick to consummate a trade deadline deal for Lang, who was going to be too expensive to re-sign as an unrestricted free agent.

  • And, the loss of Lang, who signed with the Caps on July 1 without ever receiving a competitive offer from the Pens. (This marked the fourth time in five seasons that the financially challenged club lost an experienced player to unrestricted free agency.)

    Of course, pretty soon, none of this will matter in Pittsburgh if the Penguins don't get a new arena. Because, quite simply, without a new building (and the revenue such a facility can generate), these winter birds will be long gone.

    Pittsburgh's Sports and Exhibition Authority was supposed to present a financial plan for a new arena on July 1. However, the government agency wasn't ready and requested a 30-day extension. At some point, the plan will be presented. And, it will almost certainly include tax dollars, which could be a hard sell in a town that has already built new stadiums for MLB's Pirates and the NFL's Steelers.

    And, you thought things couldn't get any worse?

    Looking at next season
    Clearly, remaining stars Lemieux, Straka and Kovalev (as well as goalie Johan Hedberg) must remain healthy and productive if the Penguins are to have any chance at getting back into the playoff picture.

    Lemieux, who turns 37 just five days before the club's Oct. 10 season opener against the Leafs, isn't anywhere near the dominant player that lifted the franchise to a back-to-back Stanley Cups in the early '90s. But, judging by his 31 points in 24 games, Lemieux can still make things happen.

    The owner says he would like to play between 65-70 games this season. That might be an optimistic hope for Lemieux, who has suffered with chronic back and hip problems since returning to active duty in December 2000. Fortunately, Super Mario received a little help from the league's schedule-makers, who assigned the Pens just 15 back-to-back games -- two below the league average of 17 back-to-backs.

    Coach Rick Kehoe, who replaced Hlinka last October, will have to find someone to replace Lang as the club's second line center. And, he knows it won't be easy filling the void.

    "Robert was obviously a good player for us," Kehoe said. "He was a guy with size who could do a lot of things. No question, we're gonna miss him."

    Kehoe might try to slide Straka -- a natural center who has enjoyed his most productive years on left wing with Lang and Kovalev -- behind Lemieux on the club's depth chart. The other candidates for the job are versatile Jan Hrdina and AHL star Randy Robitaille, who scored 25 points in 24 games for the Pens after being picked up on waivers (from LA) in January.

    As for the talented Kovalev, 29, he's heading into some murky contract waters for Pens' management. He has just one year remaining on his current contract ($4.6 million). Next summer, he'll be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. And, the following year, he can be an unrestricted free agent.

    Patrick has talked about trying to sign Kovalev to a long-term deal. Of course, Patrick also said he thought the club could re-sign Lang. Without a new building in the immediate future and the possibility of a work stoppage (a lockout) in '04, it might not make sense to rush into a deal with Kovalev, who has stated his desire to stay in Pittsburgh.

    Right now, though, like a lot of things surrounding the Penguins, Kovalev's long-term future with the club is uncertain. At this point, Lemieux & Co. have little choice but to put their best skate forward and hope for the best.