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After Mario Lemieux got roughed up, the penguins toughened up
WHEN YOU'RE looking for respect in the NHL, it's not enough to send out the two most dominant offensive players in the game. Having Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr is all well and good, but in the words of Penguins general manager Craig Patrick, "We also needed the element that makes teams know their place around us and know they can't take liberties."
In plain speak that means having a few guys who like to knock opponents around, and over a three-day span last week Patrick got the element he wanted. In a bold series of moves that didn't cost Pittsburgh much, he acquired 6'3", 230-pound checking wing Kevin Stevens from the Flyers, promoted rock-hard 6'2", 215-pound winger Billy Tibbetts from the AHL (185 penalty minutes in 38 games) and traded for a pair of gargantuan goons, the Wild's 6'8", 255-pound Steve McKenna and the Blue Jackets' 6'5", 235-pound Krzysztof Oliwa. (Oliwa will be out until late next month with a broken right arm.)
While Tibbetts and McKenna have been getting limited ice time, Stevens, playing alongside Jagr and Lemieux, has been barreling into people. "It certainly helps me feel safer," says Lemieux of the roster overhaul. "Teams have to know that if they're going to be physical, we'll address it."
For the past several seasons the Penguins had been long on skill and short on strength, but only after seeing opponents rough up Lemieux did Patrick rectify this shortcoming. On Jan. 9, 6'7", 240-pound Bruin Hal Gill tangled with Lemieux away from the puck. Three days later the Islanders' 6'9", 255-pound Zdeno Chara rapped Lemieux on the noggin with his stick. "Some panic set in," says a Penguins executive. "We didn't have anybody to stand up to guys like that."
Before the roster moves Pittsburgh's only gritty operative was feisty Matthew Barnaby, but at 6-feet, 189 pounds he isn't an NHL heavyweight. Now Barnaby skates on the fourth line with McKenna and Tibbetts, and their presence on the bench can sometimes be protection enough. Says Coyotes G.M. Bobby Smith, "Teams know that those guys can come over the boards and make themselves felt pretty quickly."
On Jan. 15, two shifts into his Pittsburgh career, McKenna threw down his sack-sized gloves and punched out Mighty Ducks mouth-smasher Kevin Sawyer. The Penguins on the bench rose and cheered. "I don't necessarily want to hurt anybody," McKenna said. "The idea is just to let them know I'm here, and to make sure they respect us."
Dallas Youth Movement?
The Stars' Ken Hitchcock, coach of a talented but aging club that won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and reached the finals last year, began the season with two goals: "We want to compete on the same high level," he said, "but we also need to develop young players. We don't want to be a team that's good for a couple of years and then crashes and burns."