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Mario ponders 3 more seasons



Published: Sat, July 30, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Sidney Crosby could help put Pittsburgh back in the Stanley Cup picture.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Just as Sidney Crosby was pulling on his No. 87 Pittsburgh Penguins jersey for the first time, his new boss -- and, likely, his new linemate -- dared Saturday to speak the two magic words the team's fans once thought they might not say again.

Did Mario Lemieux, the owner-player whose team went through an 18-game losing streak when the NHL last played a season, really say the words "Stanley Cup"?

Even as the Penguins moved quickly after drafting Crosby to temper the enormous and ever-growing expectations for the No. 1 pick, Lemieux couldn't restrain the joy he felt at adding hockey's most promising prospect since -- well, Lemieux himself in 1984.

"We know it's going to be an adjustment for a young kid -- it's a huge step for him, and the speed of the game is much faster and the players are bigger and faster," said Lemieux, who said that adding Crosby might extend his own career another three years. "We have to be patient ... but he has all the tools to be great. We also expect to be very active in free agency and put a great team on the ice and make a run at the Stanley Cup."

This coming season

Lemieux didn't mean in 2007 or 2008 or 2009, either. He meant this season, an entirely unimaginable scenario for a league-worst team that just 18 months ago looked like it might never win a game again.

And it's not just Crosby that has Lemieux excited. With an NHL salary cap in place, a new owner on the way, a larger payroll and plenty of salary cap room, the Penguins plan to add several name free agents beginning Monday.

It's a remarkable and sudden turnaround for a franchise that spent most of four years shedding players it could no longer afford.

But Saturday was Crosby's day, and the Penguins were in a celebratory mood after adding their first rookie forward since Jaromir Jagr in 1990 with the potential to be an impact player from the start of his career.

"I don't expect him to come in and score 200 points, or 100 points," general manager Craig Patrick said, a reference to Lemieux's 100-point rookie season. "But he will complement our players and make all of our players better. He has the ability to make the tape-to-tape pass like Mario does and, when you have a couple of players like that in your lineup, it makes everybody better."

Hopes to extend career

And, perhaps, makes some of them feel younger. Lemieux turns 40 on Oct. 5, the day Crosby expects to make his NHL debut. But after sitting out the NHL's shutdown 2004-05 season and missing most of two of the previous three seasons with injuries, Lemieux is healthy, relaxed and confident that he can play a lot longer.

"At least two, maybe three," Lemieux said. "As long as I stay healthy and can still play at a top level."

Crosby certainly hopes Lemieux plays that long. Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, said it was evident when Crosby and Lemieux first met a summer ago while training together in Los Angeles that there was a "karma" between them, despite the age difference. Crosby doesn't turn 18 until Aug. 7.

"Mario's been through this and Mark Recchi, too, to a degree, and they can mentor him and walk him through the next stage of his life," Patrick said. "The timing couldn't be better, with the new collective bargaining agreement and the new rules, for Sidney to be coming to us. It's just fantastic. It's a great time to be coming into the league."

No contract yet

The Penguins and Crosby have yet to work out as contract but, with the new NHL labor agreement setting most of the standards for a first-year player, Patrick is hopeful a deal can be reached quickly.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but I don't see problems," Patrick said.

That's in contrast to 1984, when Lemieux, intent on being hockey's first $1 million rookie and not yet signed, declined to put on a Penguins sweater on draft day. Crosby gladly wore his black-and-gold No. 87, a jersey that soon figures to outsell even Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's No. 7 in Pittsburgh.

"It's unbelievable, but I'm not thinking about it," Crosby said.

"I just want to play in the NHL next year."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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