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Craig Patrick's Phenomenal Season: 1990-91

AT&T SportsNet will air Game 5 of the 1991 Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night and the Cup-clinching Game 6 on Friday

by Tom McMillan

On June 12, 1990, when he introduced Badger Bob Johnson as his new head coach and Scott Bowman as director of player development and recruitment, Craig Patrick stared into the television cameras and said the Pittsburgh Penguins now had "the best management team in the National Hockey League."

People smirked. No one really took the Penguins seriously back then.

Little did they know the general manager was just getting warmed up.

"It was amazing enough that Craig was able to hire two Hall of Famers in one day, two of the greatest coaches of all time, and I don't think any of us appreciated the impact at the moment," said Paul Steigerwald, one of the team's broadcasters. "We thought the Penguins now maybe had a chance to make the playoffs. But what happened after that was even more amazing."

Coming off a season where his team missed the playoffs - and vowing never to miss again - Patrick conducted a one-year tour de force of management excellence that has never been equaled in the annals of sports. From June 1990 through March 1991, after hiring Johnson and Bowman, he acquired 11 players in a dizzying series of trades and other maneuvers, turning the Penguins from perennial also-rans into Stanley Cup champions and one of the greatest teams in hockey history.

The newcomers included an astounding five future Hall of Famers - Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Bryan Trottier, Larry Murphy and Jaromir Jagr - as well as Ulf Samuelsson, Peter Taglianetti, Jiri Hrdina, Scott Young, Gordie Roberts and Grant Jennings. The cumulative effect was that the franchise would never be the same again.

"When you put it all down on paper, and consider the guys Craig was able to acquire in just that one year - and the guts it took to even make some of those deals - it really is incredible," said Phil Bourque, one of the holdovers from the previous season.

"A lot of GMs would have been intimidated to hire guys like Badger and Scotty, guys with great resumes who, in theory, could one day replace them," Steigerwald said. "But Craig had the confidence and the intelligence to hire really smart people and give them license to put their individual stamps on the organization. Scotty was instrumental in acquiring Gordie Roberts, Larry Murphy and Peter Taglianetti. Badger was influential with Joey Mullen and Jiri Hrdina. Craig wasn't threatened by strong personalities. In fact, he welcomed their input."

The Penguins already had a roster featuring Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Tom Barrasso, Kevin Stevens and a young Mark Recchi when Patrick arrived in December 1989, but he identified areas of weakness and set out to fill them.

Less than a week after hiring Johnson and Bowman, he had another banner day at the 1990 NHL draft when he selected Jagr fifth overall and landed Mullen in a trade for a prospect. He capped off a remarkable summer by signing Trottier, a four-time Stanley Cup champion, as a free agent.

"If that's all he'd done - Badger, Scotty, Jagr, Mullen and Trots - it would have been an incredible year," Steigerwald said.

But Patrick wasn't close to being finished.

His overhaul of the Penguins continued in steady, methodical fashion once play began in October. His first in-season move was a seemingly minor one, plucking Roberts from St. Louis for future considerations, but the veteran defenseman proved to be a steady hand on the blue line all season.

In December he continued to add ingredients, picking up Young from Hartford for Rob Brown and Hrdina from Calgary for Jim Kyte. The Hrdina move was designed as much to help Jagr as to add depth to the center position; the 18-year-old Jagr was homesick for his native Czech Republic, and Patrick thought bringing in a veteran Czech player would ease his off-ice transition. Hrdina was beyond his prime as a player, but Johnson still loved him and bragged that he had "once been the best penalty-killer in Europe." He turned out to be a perfect depth center (and scored two huge goals in a 4-0 victory over New Jersey in Game 7 of the first round).

Also that month, Patrick significantly revamped his defense corps, acquiring Murphy and Taglianetti from Minnesota for Jim Johnson and Chris Dahlquist. The underrated Murphy energized the power play; the rugged Taglianetti added a level of snarl that had been missing.

It easy to forget, looking back, that Lemieux missed more than half the regular season after complications from back surgery and did not return until late January. But even with No. 66 back in the lineup, and the serious infusion of talent from Patrick's moves, the Penguins still found themselves outside of a playoff position in early March, reeling after a west coast road trip.

Patrick had an idea.

John Cullen had been spectacular that year, especially in Lemieux's absence, centering a top line with Stevens and Recchi, and Zarley Zalapski was a talented, up-and-coming defenseman. Together in a trade package, they might allow him to acquire the final pieces to turn his team into champions.

It would be a gamble, because both players still had great potential, but Patrick was nothing if not a gambler. So on March 4, with little time to spare before the NHL trade deadline, he made the most spectacular swap in Penguins history, sending Cullen, Zalapski and journeyman Jeff Parker to Hartford for Francis, Samuelsson and Jennings.

Francis was an elite two-way center and phenomenal leader, giving Johnson an amazing 1-2 punch with Lemieux; Samuelsson was a mean, hulking presence on the blue line, one of the hardest and most controversial hitters in the league; Jennings brought toughness and another layer of depth to the blue line.

It is no surprise that the Penguins went on a 9-3-2 run to finish the regular season, then beat New Jersey, Washington, Boston and Minnesota to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history (with Samuelsson, of all people, scoring the Cup-clinching goal). But with all the focus on the Francis-Samuelsson trade at the deadline, people tend to forget the year-long effort it took from an incredible general manager to put the team in that position.

The Penguins of 1990-91 had eleven future Hall of Famers: Lemieux, Francis, Coffey, Trottier, Murphy, Mullen, Recchi and Jagr, as well as Bowman, Johnson and, well, Patrick.

"Looking back on it after all these years really jars my memory and emotions about that special time in Penguins history," Bourque said. "Craig was not only able to identify the team's weaknesses and identify players he needed, he was somehow able to convince other general managers to make the deals. He designed and built a team that went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and will stand, I believe, as one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The word I keep coming back to is 'architect.' Craig was a true architect."

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