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"They even had depth at superstar"

by Kevin Allen @ByKevinAllen / Pittsburgh Penguins

Kevin spent 34 seasons covering the NHL for USA Today and is one of the most respected hockey journalists in the world. He covered all five of the Penguins' Stanley Cups, from Mario Lemieux to Sidney Crosby, and offers this perspective on the organization's resilience.

Former New York Rangers goalkeeper John Vanbiesbrouck recalls that when he faced Mario Lemieux for the first time in the 1980s, he felt like the character in the movie "Jaws" when they finally laid eyes on the great white shark.

"My thought was: we are going to need a bigger boat," Vanbiesbrouck said. 

The Rangers needed seven goals to win that game because Lemieux scored three and could have easily netted more. Vanbiesbrouck said he sat in the back of the bus that night fretting about how monstrous Lemieux could become.

"I was very deeply concerned," he said.  

Vanbiesbrouck's fears were well-founded because Lemeiux would lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships as a player in 1991 and 1992 and then win three more as an owner in 2009, 2016 and 2017.

It's easy to build a case that the Penguins have been the NHL's most successful franchise over the past three decades.

"Special team, special players, special franchise for a long, long time," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said.

Since 1990, only 16 of the NHL's 31 teams have won the Stanley Cup and no team has won more Cups than the Penguins. The Detroit Red Wings won four times, and collected back-to-back title in 1997 and 1998. But they haven't been able to win since 2008. 

The New Jersey Devils have won three times, but own no championships since 2003. The Blackhawks have won three times, all in the past decade, while the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche have won twice. Ten other teams have won once.

Lemieux's arrival triggered a line of success that neither Vanbiesbrouck nor anyone else could have imagined. It started with a unique, dominating presence on the ice. The NHL had never seen a player of Lemieux's size with such an elite skill level.

"With Mario there and the way Bob Johnson coached, it felt like the team could score at will," said former Penguins coach Scotty Bowman. "Mario was an awesome player. Amazing. Look at his back-to-back playoff runs (in 1991 and 1992) when he had 44 and 34. How does anyone do that."

Undermined by injury, Lemieux had 16 goals and 18 assists in only 15 games during the 1991-92 playoffs. 

When gritty Tom Laidlaw played defense for the Rangers in the 1980s he didn't fear a single forward until the first time he lined up against Mario Lemieux.

"My job my whole career was being a defensive defenseman and I felt confident I could stop anybody one on one," Laidlaw said. "Occasionally, you'd get a bad bounce or get lazy momentarily and you got beat, but I felt if was on the top of my game and the forward was at the top of his game I was never going to get beat. But with Mario it was suddenly a whole different ball game."

Laidlaw believes Lemieux was the "scariest one-on-one player" he ever played against.

"With most skilled guys I could get in on them and control them physically, but with Mario he was so big I couldn't do that," Laidlaw said.

Lemieux has been the Penguins' greatest player, but he hasn't been the whole show. Far from it. The Penguins' Mount Rushmore would be Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"They even had depth at superstar," Vanbiesbrouck said.  

Since 1987-88, Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby and Malkin have won a combined 15 Art Ross scoring championships. To show how impressive that is, consider that twenty of today's teams won no scoring championships during that period.

Lemieux won six Ross trophies (1988, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997) in that span, while Jagr added five (1995 and 1998-2001) and Crosby (2007 and 2014) and Malkin (2009 and 2012) won two apiece. Those four players also got their name engraved on the Hart Trophy as well during that period.

If you are a Penguins fan over 40, you can make a case that you have seen three of the top 10 players in NHL history play in your city. Lemieux. Jagr. Crosby. It is difficult for any fan from any other NHL city to say his or her franchise can match the combination of post-season success and star power, although the Red Wings can try with four titles and a player list that includes warrior Steve Yzerman, generational defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, Hall of Famers Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan and goalie Dominik Hasek among others. 

But the Penguins also have the NHL's longest streak of 13 consecutive trips to the postseason and the Red Wings are in the midst of a pronounced rebuild. They have the NHL's worst record.

Two of Penguins' Stanley Cups have come before the salary cap was introduced in 2005 and three have come after. For 30 years, the Penguins have figured out how to be successful regardless of the game's economics.

"This is Pittsburgh, man," said Ty Ballou, a Pittsburgh businessman and long-time fan. "This isn't New York, Chicago or LA. It's Pittsburgh...This isn't a big market."

You can draw a comparison between the Penguins and the NFL's Green Bay Packers, two franchises that have stayed at, or near the top, of their respective leagues in an era when major markets grab much of the spotlight.

Ballou, CEO PLB Sports and Entertainment said he grew up in Chicago were the Blackhawks "had some really dark days".

"I moved here in 1991 and have been fortunate to have seen the incredible run the Penguins have been on for 29 years," Ballou said. "It has been remarkable...to go right from Lemieux and then get Crosby is unbelievable."

The list of Penguins over the past three decades measures up well against any other NHL team. Malkin didn't make the NHL's top 100 list, but many argue he should have been on it. Ron Francis and Paul Coffey were both on the list.

"When you go down the list of Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens and many others you had guys who could go to any other team and be the No. 1 center or the No. 1 wing," Vanbiesbrouck said. "And we haven't even talked about Joey Mullen, and then some unheralded guys like Robbie Brown who had close to a 50-goal season. Everyone seemed to be able to score on that team. When Phil Bourque went to that team he scored. When Bob Errey went to that team, he scored. Troy Loney scored. Warren Young scored."

The 1991-92 Penguins who led the NHL with 343 goals in 80 games. Those two teams clearly established a Penguins winning culture and also set a tone of Pittsburgh being the place to go to see entertaining hockey. Still today, you say "Penguins", you think "offense."

With Lemieux on the team, general manager Craig Patrick (1989-2006) wanted to surround himself with people who knew how to work with talented players. Patrick opted for American Bob Johnson to be his head coach, and hired legendary Scotty Bowman to be a member of the braintrust. Bowman had already won five Stanley Cup championships as coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

"Bob was the perfect coach for the Penguins," Bowman said. "He was an offensive coach. He always had a good power play. He worked on his power play continuously. He was an innovator. He worked on offense all of time, and that's what you want when you had Mario and the team we had."

The Penguins boast so much talent that it is easy to forget that Hall of Famers Larry Murphy and Bryan Trottier also played on the early championship teams or that goaltenders Tom Barrasso or Marc-Andre Fleury contributed as much as anyone. 

Don't forget that prickly, colorful defenseman Ulf Samuelsson played for the Penguins.

"It was all pretty magical," Vanbiesbrouck recalled, "but daunting for an opponent to go into the Igloo to play."

Patrick's impact on those early championship teams and Pittsburgh's legacy is profound because he was an aggressive trader. He brought in players, such as Francis and Tocchet with major trades. Coincidentally, today's Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is also known as the NHL's most aggressive trader. 

"When he got Francis and Samuelsson (March 4, 1991) it was a bit of a controversial trade because we gave up John Cullen who was our leading scorer," Bowman recalled. "Those trades that Craig made in the first (championship) year and then the second year meant so much to the team. After we got Francis, we were so strong down the middle. We were doing pretty good in the second year, but we needed a little bit of toughness. Picking up Tocchet and Kjell Samuelsson made a big difference in the playoffs."

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, a Pittsburgh assistant in that season, said the "1991 and 1992 teams set the agenda for the next 25 years."

"I think fans take the Penguins' success for granted," said Pittsburgh businesswoman Jackee Ging who owns the Style Truck. "You know every year that your team is going to have a chance."

Ging has been a fan since Lemieux started his NHL career. To her, it feels as if "the Penguins have always had the top player in the league" since she started watching the team.

No matter who becomes injured - even in a year like this, when Crosby has missed extended time - the Pittsburgh fan base expects this team to remain a contender. The reason: Since the 1990-91 season, the Penguins have only missed the playoffs four times. 

 

"I don't know if there is a true appreciation of how good we've had it," Ballou said.

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