Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari
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Q: I love how Georges Laraque is playing these days, and Gary Roberts finally seems healthy and energized, as well. So, can the Pens, who were called "soft" the past decade or so, finally be considered one of the tougher teams in the league?
While they have some scary-tough individuals -- Laraque could drop a statue with one punch and Roberts has pounded out impressive victories in fights against Ben Eager of Philadelphia and New York Islanders defenseman Andy Sutton during the past week -- their overall toughness is average, at best. Brooks Orpik remains their only defenseman capable of throwing a punishing hit and, while their forwards aren't timid, they aren't physically intimidating, either. Nonetheless, the resurgence of Laraque and Roberts has to be one of the most encouraging developments for the Penguins in recent weeks.
Laraque really wasn't much of a force after being acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline last season, or in the early stages of 2007-08. Lately, however, his overall game has picked up and he's an obvious presence -- one opposing players ignore at their peril -- pretty much every time he steps onto the ice.
Roberts, meanwhile, was visible during the first quarter of the season mostly when he was taking an ill-conceived penalty, and there were growing suspicions his age (41) had finally caught up with him. (It didn't help, obviously, that he had a nagging respiratory ailment, compounded by asthma.) In recent games, though, he has been an absolute bull, routinely approaching the level he reached during the stretch drive and playoffs in the spring. His forechecking has been ferocious, he's hitting with great vigor and when opponents -- even rugged ones like Sutton, who had five inches and 30 pounds on Roberts -- opt to drop their gloves with him, they generally get an up-close-and-personal look at the knuckles on his left hand.
Q: General managers are saying that the salary cap makes it harder to trade players because they can't eat part of a salary for the other team. Given that, why are GMs making it harder for themselves by signing players to 12-year contracts? The Flyers' deal with Mike Richards is simply mind-blowing. What are their options if, three years down the road, he blows out his knees? Do they really want to have a nine-year cap hit for a guy who can no longer play? Or what if he becomes a malcontent and wants traded in three years? It just seems that some of the GMs are trying to break the league again.
Ryan Milliron, Erie
MOLINARI: Mike Richards is a terrific two-way player, and the view from the this side of the Commonwealth is that there's absolutely no reason to believe he will morph into a malcontent, or any other sort of negative presence on his team. Frankly, he's a guy 29 other clubs would have to have.
It doesn't seem like there's much danger that getting a guaranteed contract reported to be worth about $69 million will cause Richards to lose of his zest for his work, and even if his career would be cut short by an injury, the league's collective bargaining agreement provides salary relief for a team that loses a player because of a long-term medical problem.
Clearly, locking up Richards, a guy Philadelphia's management views as a key part of that franchise's foundation in coming seasons, has some benefits, but there also are trade-offs and gambles for both sides. The Flyers are betting that his caliber of play will not decline -- their salary-cap hit won't change, even if his productivity does -- and Richards is passing on a chance to possibly earn more money (not that he can't get by on $69 million) by exploring free agency when he would have become eligible, or by signing a series of conventional-length contracts that would allow his market value to rise.
Contracts that run more than a decade, like the Richards deal or the 15-year one goalie Rick DiPietro has with the New York Islanders, will remain the exception, not the rule, in the NHL, but figure to become more common as teams try to lock up players they regard as indispensable pieces of their future.
Consider that a by-product, at least in part, of the contract restricted free agent Dustin Penner, late of Anaheim, got from Edmonton during the summer. With that precedent, general managers are understandably concerned that one of their colleagues will offer a restricted free agent a contract that exceeds his generally accepted value, thus forcing his original team to either lose a player it would like to retain or overpay to keep him.
First Published December 17, 2007 12:00 am