PITTSBURGH - When the Pittsburgh Penguins dealt off all of their stars except Mario Lemieux in a dizzying series of trades, general manager Craig Patrick didn’t camouflage what he was doing.
There were no ruses about not winning with the current cast or lies to the public about missing team chemistry. This was about economics, nothing else.
“We’re in a survival mode,” Patrick said last March, a forcefully blunt admission the Penguins risked extinction if they kept operating under the NHL’s current labor system.
Nearly a year after the last of those deals was done, the Penguins are surviving — but only barely.
On the ice, the franchise that played in the Eastern Conference finals just three years ago is winning only once every 4½ games — a pace rivaling that of the franchise’s worst season (16-58-6 in 1983-84).
The Penguins long had the NHL’s most entertaining offense with stars such as Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang but, stripped of their goal scorers, are averaging only two goals per game — down by more than half from their 4.5 average in 1992-93.
The Penguins’ leading scorer? It’s not Lemieux or Jagr or Kovalev, but defenseman Dick Tarnstrom.
Not just the names have changed, but the game, too. They’re playing a trapping, defense-first style, the kind owner-player Lemieux never would have imagined he would see one of his teams adopt.
Imagine the Yankees casting off Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi and Alfonso Soriano to field a team that emphasizes bunting and slick infield defense, and you get the idea.
Predictably, attendance in the league’s oldest arena has dropped about 4,400 per game since the 2000-01 season, to slightly more than 12,000. It’s all but certain to be the Penguins’ worst year at the box office since they averaged 10,018 in 1984-85.
It’s been such a miserable season, the Penguins aren’t even the most popular wintertime game in town; Pitt basketball sells out every home game in an amenity-filled new arena.
A franchise-record home losing streak? Nearly twice as many goals allowed as goals scored? A 30 games-plus scoreless streak by Aleksey Morozov, the team’s highest-paid player behind Lemieux? The possible lack of a single 50-points scorer? A projected $5 million in losses?
If this is what survival is like, the Penguins don’t want to see the alternative.
“I got slapped on the wrist for that one, so I’m not going to say that again,” Patrick said of his survival mode remark, which didn’t delight the NHL’s hierarchy. “We’re fine. We’re financially stable. We’ll get through this year fine and we just need a new (labor) deal with the players.”
That, of course, and a new arena to replace decrepit 43-year-old Mellon Arena, the team’s only home since it joined the NHL in 1967. The Penguins have spent several unsuccessful years arm-twisting politicians to secure arena funding, and are now staking their hopes on legislation to legalize slot machines in Pennsylvania.
If a new arena isn’t built, Lemieux’s ownership group has all but said the team will be sold or relocated once its Mellon Arena lease expires in 2007.
But even if an arena agreement suddenly emerges, the more immediate concern is a labor deal to help the Penguins catch up to talent-rich teams such as the Avalanche, Red Wings and Flyers. Just like baseball’s Pirates, the Penguins are struggling to compete against teams with payrolls three times larger than theirs.
With the Penguins already watching every dollar, could they afford to turn out the lights for a full season during a protracted contract impasse and — here’s that word again — survive?
“We need a change for us to be competitive in this league,” Patrick said. “I think we’d do whatever we possibly had to do to get where we want.”
While there’s little hope for any success in the near future, especially with Lemieux out for the rest of the season with a hip injury, the Penguins’ situation isn’t entirely hopeless.
New coach Eddie Olczyk’s hiring surprised many because of his lack of coaching experience, but his strong work ethic, preparation, competitiveness and attention to detail have repeatedly drawn praise from opposing coaches.
Colorado coach Tony Granato said Olczyk works so hard against such long odds, he deserved to have the Penguins go on a 20-game winning streak.
Olczyk’s visible dislike for losing has carried over to his players, resulting in upsets of top-tier teams such as the Red Wings, Devils, Flyers, Thrashers, Senators and Bruins. But there also have been losses of 9-0 (Lightning) and 8-0 (Canadiens).
“We’re not going to win a lot of games,” Olczyk said. “But we certainly can compete and play as hard as anybody in this league.”
There also has been visible improvement by the team’s younger players, something that rarely occurred under previous coaches.
The Penguins won’t be represented in the All-Star game for the first time in a quarter-century, but rookies Ryan Malone and Brooks Orpik will play in the YoungStars game. No. 1 draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury has had as many superlative games in goal as bad ones and remains the team’s top prospect since Lemieux. And a club-record seven Penguins prospects were picked for the world junior championships.
“They’ve responded well to Edzo’s coaching style, and they’re learning and getting better,” Patrick said. “That’s all you can expect from the young guys right now. I like what we’re doing — I just wish we could get to where we’re going faster, that’s all.”
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