Selling Pens makes sense

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

For a last-place team, the Pittsburgh Penguins certainly manage to get a lot of ink.

In the space of 24 hours, they saw their best two-way player retire, traded for an enforcer, decided to keep their brilliant young goalie where he belongs, and then, to cap it all off, put the team up for sale.

Despite being of varied nature, all these moves fit together well. In fact, they fit together so well that they almost beg for some sort of examination by a higher authority.

The sparkplug is the surprise retirement of Ziggy Palffy -- in the midst of a season that would have paid him $3.5 million US and in the first year of a three-year deal that was scheduled to have paid him a further $10 million.

We are being asked to believe that Palffy, the only Penguin who is not a minus player -- and is averaging a point a game -- suddenly decided that a chronic shoulder ailment was forcing him out of the game.

In the dressing room, Palffy showed no signs of a shoulder problem. And the announcement that he was considering retirement came from a newspaper in Slovakia.

General manager Craig Patrick said he had no inkling of Palffy's intentions.

Still, by being freed of the encumbrance of Palffy's salary, the Penguins subsequently were able to announce that they'll keep goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on the roster, rather than send him to the minors to prevent him cashing his games-played bonuses.

Then Patrick, who could have picked Colton Orr off waivers in December, conceded a sixth-round draft pick to get Eric Cairns, who isn't as tough as Orr.

And yesterday, with all eyes on his team, Mario Lemieux announced that it was for sale.

It was an ideal time to do so. The Penguins are at the centre of a proposed $1-billion downtown development that would include a casino, a 28-acre housing-and-restaurant development and a new 18,000-seat arena.

The primary backer is Isle of Capri Casinos, a firm that operates 15 casinos in the United States, Great Britain and the Bahamas, and owns a Florida harness-racing track. If the concept is approved, Isle of Capri would designate $290 million for the arena, thereby precluding the need for any public money.

Lemieux is working hard to get himself back in shape to make a return to the ice -- which he fully intends to do. He's taking medication to control an irregular heartbeat and once his doctors can get the balance right -- a delicate procedure -- he'll come back to the team.

But his heart problems can't be helped by the stress of the team's financial woes, and with Isle of Capri having provided such a potentially lucrative economic opportunity, it makes sense to put the team on the market now -- before Patrick damages it any further.

INVESTORS

Fortunately for hockey, the people National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman lines up as investors know little about the sport.

They won't ask why Sergei Gonchar can get $21.5 million from the team over the next four years. Or why a run-of-the-mill marginal enforcer like Andre Roy has two more years on a contract at $1 million a year. Or what John LeClair will do to earn $1.5 million next year.

They'll just consider the fact that by virtue of a series of abysmal finishes, the Penguins have managed to stockpile a bunch of good young players.

But the league owes it to its fans to ask some questions about what's going on in Pittsburgh.

It may be that there's nothing wrong at all. There may be reasons for some of these developments that provide such a happy coincidence.

If so, let the fans know. In this cynical age, it can do no harm to announce your virtues.


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