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Tuesday, March 19
Updated: March 21, 1:21 AM ET
 
Pens deal Kasparaitis, but Lang stays put

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- The surprise wasn't who the Pittsburgh Penguins traded: Darius Kasparaitis. It was who they didn't trade: Robert Lang.

Although it may seem a bit one sided, it should work for both sides. The Avs get rugged, playoff-ready defenseman Darius Kasparaitis to help ease the pressure on all-stars Rob Blake and Adam Foote.

Kasparaitis is a fearless competitor who should enjoy going into battle with the defending champs. He can play important minutes and make life miserable for opponents along the wall and in front of Patrick Roy.

Kasparaitis will likely be a Group V (10 years pro, making less than the league average salary) unrestricted free agent on July 1. So, Kasparaitis will be looking to impress potential employers with a strong showing in the playoffs. If he does fit in, don't be surprised if savvy Avs GM Pierre Lacroix doesn't make an offer to keep Kasper in Denver.

On the flip side, Pens GM Craig Patrick had little leverage. The Pens weren't going to re-sign Kasparaitis and every one knew it.

In acquiring irritating left wing Ville Nieminen, Patrick gets a strong, young third-line player who just might be more valuable in the clutch-and-grab Eastern Conference. Nieminen does his dirty work with a smile on his face and isn't easily intimidated.

The Penguins, on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, traded Kasparaitis to the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday for forward Ville Nieminen and defenseman Rick Berry.

Pittsburgh also sent forward Stephane Richer (13 goals, 12 assists) to the New Jersey Devils for a draft pick.

However, the Penguins didn't trade Lang, a productive center and soon-to-be free agent. They now risk losing him without compensation, just as they did with Ron Francis, Ron Tugnutt and Bob Boughner.

"We feel we're still going to make the playoffs and, when we do, we'll need Robert to be successful," general manager Craig Patrick said. "We fully intend to re-sign him."

However, Patrick wasn't happy with Lang's $2.9 million arbitration award last summer, and it seems a long shot the cash-conscious Penguins will offer up the money needed to retain him.

Patrick may have decided to keep Lang after learning forward Martin Straka will miss the rest of the season with a cracked right leg bone.

Straka was out for four months after breaking his right leg Oct. 28, then broke a bone above his eye in his first game back Feb. 27. He has been out since March 7 with what was described as a sprained right ankle.

Lang's trade value also may have been damaged by the broken left hand that has sidelined him since March 5, although Patrick said he had offers for him. Lang has 18 goals and 22 assists in 61 games.

By landing Kasparaitis, the Avalanche get a high-profile defenseman late in the season for the third straight year. Last year, they won the Stanley Cup after acquiring All-Star Rob Blake from the Los Angeles Kings, and they got Ray Bourque from Boston in 2000.

"I was ready for it, I was prepared for it," Kasparaitis said. "I've been hearing now for three years I was going to be traded. But I'm surprised it was Colorado."

Kasparaitis is expected to qualify for free agency as a 10-year veteran who earns less ($1.15 million) than the league average of $1.45 million. He was awarded a $2.4 million, two-year contract in arbitration last year.

The Penguins felt the award entitled them to Kasparaitis for another season. But his agent, Mark Gandler, said the wording of the collective bargaining agreement is clear, and Kasparaitis will become a free agent.

The matter is expected to go to arbitration.

Kasparaitis is not an offensive defenseman, despite scoring the winning overtime goal in Game 7 of the Penguins' second-round playoff series with Buffalo last season. However, he is gritty and physical, and was one of the most coveted players at the deadline.

"A lot of teams were interested in him, and some teams made offers as early as two months ago," Patrick said. "His personality will be missed on this team. We'll miss his character."

Nieminen has 10 goals and 14 assists in 53 games, but has fallen out of favor with Avalanche coach Bob Hartley at times. However, he has three goals and five assists in his last five games to surpass his rookie season total of 22 points in 51 games.

"He has the last three game-winning goals for Colorado," Patrick said. "I think he's going to get better with age, and he'll be on one of the top two lines."

Berry was Colorado's sixth defenseman and adds depth to Pittsburgh's very thin defensive corps.

The Penguins went into Tuesday night's games trailing Montreal by six points for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Penguins have not missed the playoffs since 1990, the year before they won the first of their consecutive Stanley Cups.

The Penguins' dilemma no doubt led Patrick to reshape the roster over the last week, adding six players: Nieminen, Berry, forwards Shean Donovan (Thrashers), Kent Manderville (Flyers) and Jeff Toms (Rangers) and defenseman Jamie Pushor (Blue Jackets).




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