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Penguins' plight not as bad as it seems

Judging just from some of their national press clippings, you would think the Pittsburgh Penguins, currently contending for last overall in the National Hockey League were: A) one very bad hockey team, B) completely devoid of talent and, perhaps more important, hope, and C) largely mismanaged financially and on the cusp of bankruptcy again.

At the moment, A is reasonably accurate, B is largely a misconception and C is flat-out wrong.

"We are committed to fiscal discipline because that is the best way to ensure the long-term future of hockey in Pittsburgh," said Ken Sawyer, the Penguins' president. "We fully expect to be operating in the near future in an economic structure in our league that will allow us to put a strong team on the ice and be profitable at the same time."

That may sound like a cop-out, but for Sawyer, team owner Mario Lemieux, and general manger Craig Patrick it's a plan.

The Penguins appear to be in horrid financial shape largely because of reports about the burden of highly-touted rookie goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's contract, how they had to move yet another high-profile veteran (Martin Straka) for a young player and a prospect, and because Lemieux opted not to take a salary increase (upwards of $5 million) for his management role.

The three stories unfolded in succession last month, but that doesn't make them related.

Fleury's contract: Because the Penguins ultimately decided to loan Fleury to the Canadian junior team for the World Junior Championship (currently under way in Finland), and still have the option of returning him to his major junior team, it's assumed that they can't afford his bonuses. Patrick was clearly aware that the contract's bonus levels are easily attainable and the payouts lucrative when Fleury signed. However, Patrick has insisted from the outset that Fleury's fate would be a hockey decision as well as a financial one and that the team is prepared to keep him and pay the bonuses if it makes sense.

The Penguins are primarily focusing on three hockey-related areas when considering Fleury's fate. The first is his development at the NHL level, a difficult road for a 25-year-old, let alone a just-turned-19-year-old without any previous experience, even in the minors. The second is the Penguins' status on the scoreboard and in the standings (are they close to making the playoffs and need him to qualify, or are they jeopardizing his psyche by getting shelled night after night?). The third is Fleury's maturity level and his ability to handle the pressures of being a No. 1 goalie and a No. 1 pick in the NHL.

Clouding the perception of the situation has been Fleury's reported declaration that he would give up his bonus payment to stay in the NHL. As it turns out, Fleury is fully aware that the current CBA prohibits players from declining bonus payments and meant only that he would be content with playing in 24 games this season so as not to activate his bonus clauses, which kick in with the 25th game in which he plays at least one period.

Given the team's place in the standings, it's likely Fleury will play for the Penguins again this season, but likely he will finish the season with his major junior team.

The Straka deal: When the Penguins shipped the skilled winger to Los Angeles for defenseman Martin Strbak and Russian prospect Sergei Anshakov, there was little question that it fell in the same category as the Jaromir Jagr trade, Robert Lang being allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent, and the Alexei Kovalev trade -- dumping salary for prospects and draft picks. That said, Straka is an older player (31) on the verge of unrestricted free agency and who has a history of injuries. In return, Patrick got a bona fide prospect in Anshakov (currently having a strong outing for Russia at the WJC) and a reasonably talented contributor in Strbak who, if his plus-minus and ice-time numbers are any indication, is helping the team right now.

Not all of Patrick's sell-off moves have been successful. However, with Fleury, Strbak, the quality of their under-25 players like defenseman Brooks Orpik and winger Konstantin Koltsov, and an excellent chance to draft Alexander Ovechkin, a player widely reported to be Lemieux-like in his potential impact on a franchise, this spring, the Penguins are not wasting their time at the bottom of the standings.

Lemieux's pay raise: Because he wasn't earning a salary for his management role, other members of the Penguins' board of directors offered Lemieux a $5 million salary. Lemieux, who's making $5 million as a player this season, declined the gesture in order to keep losses from escalating.

The Penguins current losing ways are almost as timely as they were during the 1983-84 season, when they finished last overall and selected Lemieux first overall in the draft. Timing is, shall we say, timely. Although draft order is now determined by a weighted lottery system, should they finish last this year and select Ovechkin, they could still be struggling (but improving) enough to earn the first overall pick in the following draft, when Sidney Crosby will be the top-prospect available. Crosby is so heralded that Wayne Gretzky himself has tabbed the 16-year-old as Gretzky-like in terms of overall potential.

While there certainly are no guarantees that the next collective bargaining agreement will include the same draft rules as the current one, acquiring Ovechkin and Crosby would let the franchise emerge every bit as talented as say the current editions of the Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Atlanta Thrashers -- young teams that are strong in goal, talented up front and building depth with quality two-way performers.

None of this is automatic, mind you. The Penguins still don't have a new building, and the prospects for getting one built, at least one with some help from the public sector, appear iffy at best. They also have no guarantee that their primary hope and savior, Gary Bettman, will succeed in crafting a CBA that puts small and mid-market teams on the same financial footing as those from larger markets. Plus, they could win Ovechkin in the draft lottery only to lose him should the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation fail to renew their agreement that allows the transfer of European players for a fee, and the draft might not exist as we know it when it comes time for Crosby to turn pro.

That's a lot of uncertainty, yet what the Penguins have done to this point is follow a plan that could result in a strong development system, a potential franchise goalie and a shot at the two most acclaimed young players to enter the league since Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk or even Gretzky and Lemieux.

The Penguins have limited financial resources (a reported $71 million this season, an amount allocated by the board) and have made decisions with that figure in mind. As a result, they likely will lose a lot of hockey games but only a little money -- a projected $5 million being little relative to other teams that project losses to be five and six times that amount.

That's a tough sell to their fans, but it's not likely to get any worse and is somewhat reassuring, especially when looking at the state of a team like the Washington Capitals. The Capitals project to be one of those teams that could claim $30 million in loses this season. They have aging players, a payroll in excess of $50 million and a comparable amount of points and loses as the Penguins.

When comparing the losses the two teams have in the standings and the losses they will have on paper, the Penguins don't seem to have nearly as many problems.

Reversible Jackets
Columbus Blue Jackets president and GM Doug MacLean wasn't the only one involved in the conversation to have himself removed as coach. Owner John H. McConnell communicated to MacLean that losing (only two wins in December), even if it almost always was by a goal, was unacceptable and that perhaps the team might be better served if MacLean removed himself from the bench and concentrated on his other duties.

To MacLean's credit, he concurred. If he was a reason the Blue Jackets have been losing, the players now have an opportunity to prove they aren't the problem. Even if they don't, MacLean isn't completely off the hook. He built this team and could easily be criticized for being a tad impatient by bringing in fading veterans instead of suffering through the development of talented youngsters. It's not that MacLean isn't committed to youth, but with Minnesota and Central Division-rival Nashville starting to progress in the standings, MacLean felt some pressure to accelerate his team's development.

MacLean has the Jackets on the right path, but his time would be better served perhaps finding one or more scorers for a group of players who generally works hard but isn't quite mature enough to win the close ones on its own. With players who perhaps aren't secure enough in their abilities to respond to his in-your-face approach, he can better accomplish that from the front office than from behind the bench.

Quinn still a

Team Canada candidate
Might we see Pat Quinn back at the helm of Team Canada in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey after all?

There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Team Canada's gold-medal winning management team from the 2002 Winter Olympics reunited for the World Cup but didn't include their gold-medal winning head coach.

Given that Quinn hadn't ruled himself out -- at least not publicly -- and the struggles Quinn was having at the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the thinking was that Wayne Gretzky, Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini had someone else in mind.

Today, Quinn is back in Team Canada's World Cup picture. He has the Leafs at the top of the NHL standings and the fact that he turned around a team that had a struggling start weighs in his favor. It would have been easy for Team Canada to pass on Quinn when the management team was reformed; now it's still an option, but it will be difficult to exercise it.

Stay tuned. Lowe has said Team Canada wants a coach in place before the All-Star game Feb. 8 in Minnesota and would like him to be a part of the organization that will begin talent evaluations there. It's quite possible that Quinn will be coaching the Eastern Conference All-Stars. If he is and Canada selects someone else, the management team likely will have some explaining to do.

Capital confessions
Capitals owner Ted Leonis offers a refreshingly frank assessment of his team, its needs and shortcomings on the team's Web site. Leonsis makes no apologies for having a $50 million payroll and a team that is grossly underachieving in relation to salary structure.

He maintains his team has been strong on the power play (true), but that it needs to dramatically improve its 5-on-5 play (also true). Leonis says little of a woeful defense and some spotty goaltending but seems to be asking Capitals fans to be patient regarding the development of young prospects and points out that Jaromir Jagr is playing better now and appears happier than at any time since he arrived in Washington.

Though the statute of limitations on the word imminent must surely have expired by now -- a Jagr-to-Rangers trade has been imminent since June -- don't rule out a Jagr salary dump. Still it must mean something after Jagr told ESPN.com that he didn't ask for or anticipate a trade and Leonsis notes how much better his star player is playing.

The Capitals are a long way from being the best team on ice in the NHL, but they certainly have a forward thinking owner who realizes the importance of keeping an open line of communication with his team's fan base. Leonsis ends each letter to Capitals fans with a link through which they can e-mail him. Take it from first-hand experience, he often replies to the mailings he gets.

Defenseman before doughnuts
Feb. 21 will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of legendary NHL defenseman Tim Horton. Horton died in a single-car accident en route from Toronto to Buffalo after a game.

Horton, who is sometimes credited with inventing the slap shot, played on four Stanley Cup teams and six All-Star squads. Some people who saw him play (myself included) maintain Horton was the strongest man to ever play the game, and no less an icon than Gordie Howe once noted that he was "the strongest man in hockey." He also was among the kindest and most modest the game has ever known.

Many of today's hockey fans know Horton only as a founder of a string of doughnut shops rather than as one of the greatest defensemen of all time, similar to Joe DiMaggio being known to a generation as pitchman for Mr. Coffee rather than one of baseball's greats. There are plans by the chain to commemorate Horton. The hope is he'll eventually be remembered for his incredible play on the ice as he is for the very successful business that bears his name.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.