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Patrick: Pens can't compete



Published: Thu, March 13, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame executive says the team can't win anytime soon.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Despite constant upheaval -- two ownership changes, bankruptcy, Mario Lemieux's retirement and his startling comeback, Jaromir Jagr's departure -- one word never appeared in Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Craig Patrick's vocabulary.

Can't.

Can't win with a European-style, offense-is-everything system? Patrick said they could.

Can't win when his best player also is his boss? Patrick said they could.

Can't win when Hall of Fame-caliber player after Hall of Fame-caliber player leaves because of money? Patrick said they could.

Now, Patrick says they can't -- a revealing, troubling, candid admission about the state of the Pittsburgh Penguins and, at the same time, the very league in which they compete. Or, make that, can't compete.

For the first time since the Hall of Fame executive took over the Penguins' front office in December 1989, he is admitting they essentially have no chance to win big in the short term.

Deceptive no longer

Most GMs would rather spend a night in goal without a face mask than to make such a woe-is-us statement, one that gives fans an excuse to stay away, but Patrick understands he can be deceptive no longer.

When the Penguins dumped All-Star Alexei Kovalev and his $4.6 million salary last month to keep their financial ledgers from looking like Enron's, Patrick sugarcoated the deal by saying it made his team better.

Nobody in Pittsburgh bought it, and his remarks resulted mostly in disdainful criticism.

Some fans suggested they made Patrick look so detached from reality that they wondered if Lemieux shouldn't start looking for a new general manager.

Fire sale

So when Patrick made another huge salary dump at Tuesday's trading deadline, casting off five veterans and their combined $1.3 million in 2003-04 salary commitments, he understood he couldn't paint it as anything but what it was.

Namely, a fire sale that trims the Penguins' steep financial losses and allows them to put a low-priced team on the ice next season, with or without Lemieux, who has yet to say if he will play.

Compete for the Stanley Cup, as Lemieux suggested the Penguins could do before this season?

Get real.

Now, the Penguins have a far more modest goal: limp through the rest of this season and next without taking bankruptcy for the second time in five years, then hope the NHL's new labor agreement lessens the talent gap between them and the more prosperous Red Wings, Avalanche, Maple Leafs and Rangers.

"This is unique for this organization in the 13 years I've been here," Patrick said. "We haven't had to rebuild. But now we're there. Now, we're rebuilding."

High rollers

For years, the Penguins always had enough talent, enough scorers to not just stay competitive, but to beat up on teams with much bigger payrolls.

Only two years ago, they were three victories away from playing for the Stanley Cup. Those days are long gone now, just as Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Darius Kasparaitis, Alexei Kovalev, Glen Murray and Markus Naslund are gone.

So are many others. Of the 23 players on their season-opening roster, 12 have been traded or are no longer with the club.

"We're in a survival mode," Patrick said.

Wednesday night, newly acquired forwards Guillaume Lefebvre and Brian Holzinger scored third-period goals to lift the Penguins to a 2-2 tie with the Nashville Predators.

The deadlock snapped Pittsburgh's nine-game losing streak.

Holzinger scored his first goal of the season by firing a wrist shot from between the circles past goaltender Tomas Vokoun with 2:32 remaining to salvage the tie.

Nashville's Greg Johnson scored his sixth goal of the season -- and third in two games against his former team -- early in the first period, allowing the Predators to take a 1-0 lead into the third.

But Lefebvre, part of a five-player deal with Phoenix Tuesday, scored his first NHL goal at 6:45 of the third period when he converted the rebound of a shot by Mattias Johansson. That also ended Vokoun's shutout streak against the Penguins at 166:44.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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