We've got Coffey and Creamer and now we want the cup, the banner said. The Cup? The Stanley Cup? In Pittsburgh? The city it took NHL president John Ziegler 10 years to find? Carried around by Penguins? Ha-ha-ha! Jay Leno doesn't get any funnier.
O.K., O.K. Serious discussion of The Trade to follow. It's only a banner, after all, a single expression in Pittsburgh's Civic Arena of the hopes—nay, dreams—of thousands. None of the Penguin brass is talking Cup yet: not Eddie Johnston, the general manager who swung the blockbuster seven-player deal with the Edmonton Oilers that landed Paul Coffey in Pittsburgh on Nov. 24; not Pierre Creamer, the first-year coach who, now that Coffey has joined Mario Lemieux, suddenly has two of the most potent offensive weapons in the game. Johnston and Creamer would be satisfied if Pittsburgh makes the playoffs for the first time since 1982. And that is precisely the problem.
At first glance the Lemieux-Coffey tandem has a magical ring to it. Coffey, 26, a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenseman, has averaged 29.8 goals a season in his seven-year career; he scored an NHL-record 48 two seasons ago. One of the NHL's fastest skaters, Coffey shoots off the pass and quarterbacks the power play better than any other point man, and his 90 assists in 1985-86 rank No. 2 in NHL history to Bobby Orr's 102 in '70-71.
Of course, Coffey had quite a supporting cast in Edmonton, which won three Stanley Cups during his time there. In Pittsburgh he has only Lemieux, the Michael Jordan of the NHL, a lone-star center who has been waiting three years for Johnston to build a team around him. The question now is whether the acquisition of Coffey is a step forward—or a step back. Pittsburgh, with little depth, gave up four regulars in the deal—forward Craig Simpson, 20, and defenseman Chris Joseph, 18, the second and fifth players taken overall in the 1985 and '87 drafts, respectively, and defenseman Moe Mantha and forward Dave Hannan, both 26. In addition to Coffey, the Penguins acquired 29-year-old forward Dave Hunter, a fine checker, and 6'5" minor leaguer Wayne Van Dorp, a forward whose career in the NHL will depend on his fists. The goalie-poor Penguins also obtained the right of first refusal to goaltender Andy Moog, age 27, who recently left the Oilers to play for the Canadian Olympic team. If Moog does come to terms with Pittsburgh after the Olympics, Edmonton reportedly will receive at least a first-round draft choice in return.
December 14, 1987
Clearly it was the biggest deal since the original six-team NHL expanded to 12 clubs in 1967. Former St. Louis, Montreal and Buffalo coach Scotty Bowman, now a TV color commentator for Hockey Night in Canada, thinks Johnston got the better of Edmonton general manager-coach Glen Sather, comparing Coffey-Lemieux to the Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito tandem that led the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cups in the early '70s. Calgary general manager Cliff Fletcher, obviously delighted to see Coffey out of his division, says, "There are three impact players in this league, and now Pittsburgh has two of them." Washington G.M. David Poile, obviously not delighted to see Coffey in his division, watched the Penguins beat and tie his Caps in the week following the trade. "Every time they had a power play," Poile said, "the puck seemed to be with either Coffey or Lemieux. They're two of the most exciting players in the league. It'll solidify the franchise in Pittsburgh."
It will certainly solidify the Penguins' power play, which was sputtering along at a woeful 14.7% until Coffey's arrival, an event that was hailed in the Steel City as the second coming of, well, Lemieux. Coffey's Thanksgiving-eve Pittsburgh debut was also his first game of the season—he sat out Edmonton's first 21 games in a contract dispute. Before a sellout crowd of 16,168, the Penguins fell behind the Quebec Nordiques 4-0 before Coffey ignited a comeback with three power-play assists and Pittsburgh came on to win 6-4. "You couldn't have scripted it any better," gushed Johnston. "Our fans were on their feet every time Coffey touched the puck. He brings a dimension to our team like Orr did to the Bruins. He skates so well that it opens up ice for everyone else."
In Coffey's second game, the Penguins beat the Capitals 4-2 in Washington. When the teams met the next night, the Penguins fell behind the Caps 3-0 before again storming back, this time for a 5-5 tie. In those three games the power play was 7 for 17—41.2%—and Coffey had five assists.
When the first-place New York Islanders came to town last Wednesday, however, the Penguins were brought back down to the ice. The Isles, a franchise that does not take shortcuts to success, drubbed them 7-1. Coffey, who has been paired with Finnish defenseman Ville Siren, was minus-5 on the night and looked lost. Not terrible, mind you, lost. He tried to the point of trying too hard. Time after time he passed to a teammate, broke into the open—and received no pass in return. "The give-and-gos were always there in Edmonton," he lamented afterward. Time after time Coffey was caught upice, out of position, with no one covering his rear.
"He's going to have to learn our personnel," said Johnston. "Which of our players will make that play to him and which won't. And our guys are going to have to learn to look for him more in the neutral zone. We're not used to him yet."
A few days to practice together seemed to help as the Penguins beat Vancouver 6-3 Saturday night, with Lemieux scoring twice, Hunter once, and Coffey assisting on three goals—two of them Lemieux's. But there's still work to be done before Coffey-Lemieux becomes the type of force that Coffey and Wayne Gretzky were in Edmonton.
"It's hard for me to visualize how they'll play together," assessed Islander general manager Bill Torrey, who sees less magic in the Lemieux-Coffey pairing than the Gretzky-Coffey tandem that was the cornerstone of the Oilers' success. "Gretzky is a mover of the puck. Lemieux is a holder of the puck."
True, Coffey and Lemieux both like to carry the puck, and as a result do not naturally complement each other. Neither is apt to see the puck as much as he has been used to. But great players adapt. The problem, from Pittsburgh's perspective, is that the supporting cast is not in place to take advantage of two such extraordinary talents. Lemieux gained a playmaking rear guard in Coffey, but, just as important, he lost a line mate of tremendous potential in the 20-year-old Simpson, who already has 18 goals this season, including three in one game for the Oilers last week.
For his part, Coffey isn't harboring any delusions about the Cup. He knows from experience just how good a team has to be to win it. "I'm not looking for any miracles out there," he says. "I'm just trying to help the Penguins make the playoffs. That's what everyone in this organization is shooting for."
You can't shoot any lower than that.