With the Pittsburgh Penguins, patience traditionally is stretched as thin as the team's defense. Take last week, which coach Gene Ubriaco spent waiting for his star players to stick out their necks to save his own. "It's not really the player's place to say something about la coach's job security]," said the embattled Ubriaco, his voice trailing off much as his team had done through a 2-8-1 stretch, "unless he wants to."
It was painfully clear, however, that Mario Lemieux, for one, didn't want to. The great center rose to his accustomed business of scoring points but not to the defense of Ubriaco. "Do you have the power to get the coach fired?" he was asked at one point. "I could do that," he replied, "but that is not my job." Asked whether he thought it unfair to be asked such questions, Lemieux said, "It's delicate. Like I said before, it's not only been Gene's fault. It's been everybody around the room not doing their jobs."
As endorsements go, this wasn't exactly ringing. The Penguins, who climbed to second place in the Patrick Division last season—their first under Ubriaco—were expected to continue up the ladder. But when they returned to begin a home stand last week with a dreary season record of 5-10-2, there were indications that if there ever had been any love between the coach and his players, it was now lost. And despite consecutive home wins over the division-leading New York Rangers and two last-place teams, the Quebec Nordiques and the New York Islanders, during which Lemieux scored seven points, the bell may yet toll for Ubriaco.
Ubriaco, who coached for 11 years in the minors until Pittsburgh general manager Tony Esposito gave him his first NHL job, alternated between defiance and resignation as rumors swirled. "What disappoints me is that in most businesses, if you encourage and support and then have some success, familiarity breeds progress, not contempt." Ubriaco said. "But I'm probably an idealist."
The players agree. They think Ubriaco is a much better idealist than he is a coach. Privately, they grumble about the lack of a better defensive system, a shortage of game preparation and—that old complaint of unhappy hockey players everywhere—not having set lines. Their feeling is that in last spring's play-offs they swept the Rangers and took a deeper, more experienced Philadelphia team to seven games in spite of Ubriaco, not because of him.
Lemieux has scored 37 points in 20 games this season, but he has not dominated games the way he can. So often had he been asked what was wrong that even Lemieux began to wonder whether the problem was physical. He put his mind at ease by passing a battery of tests and then started to come on. And he and his teammates answered obligatory questions with rote answers about putting aside distractions and bearing down.
They did, too, beating the Rangers 6-0 on Nov. 14, although the Penguins were greatly aided by a momentum-turning major penalty for high-sticking against John Ogrodnick. "We're not out of the woods yet." said defenseman Jim Johnson after Pittsburgh routed the bad-beyond-belief Nordiques 8-2 two days later and almost dozed away an early 3-0 lead before defeating the Islanders 5-3 last Saturday. Few players were expressing relief that Ubriaco was still around. And only injured goalie Tom Barrasso seemed to believe deeply that the mirror, not the coach, held the answers. "My only point in respect to any criticism of Gene is that he treated us all very well, very fairly last year," said Barrasso. "We should give him the same benefit, regardless of what our personal opinion might be."
If the Penguins did look in the mirror, they wouldn't find the sight very appealing. The team has some serious flaws—particularly in its defensive game—that no coaching system is going to mask. The Penguins could use two beefy, defensive-minded defensemen and some strong-willed banging forwards. Until they get them, they figure to blow hot and cold no matter who is in charge.
With the spectacular Lemieux, defenseman Paul Coffey, who is brilliant on offense, and right wing Rob Brown and center Dan Quinn—two fine goal scorers—the Penguins have the nucleus of a powerhouse. But they have yet to acquire the backbone of one. Their league-leading 33.4 penalty minutes per game last season indicated a lack of discipline, not that they were a physical team. Left wing Kevin Stevens, in his first full season, is emerging as a top-notch power forward, but most of the Penguins' hardest workers are average-to-marginal talents.
Coffey was put on this earth to score goals, not stop them, but now he plays even less defense than he did in his Norris Trophy-winning Edmonton days. Meanwhile, the Penguins try to maintain order in their end of the ice with a bunch of guys who could play for a lot of teams only as fifth or sixth defensemen. Therefore the goalie has to be brilliant, which Barrasso has often been, for the Penguins to win games, say, 6-4.
Barrasso, however, has been out since late October with a broken bone in his right hand and won't return until mid-December, and Wendell Young and Frank Pietrangelo have done only a so-so job in goal. Zarley Zalapski, a defenseman expected to blossom this year as an impact player, will miss another three weeks because of a broken collarbone.
As speculation grew that Ubriaco would be replaced, Esposito said stability remained the team's goal. (A new coach would be the Penguins' fourth in four seasons.) Though he insisted at midweek that he had never said Ubriaco's job was in jeopardy, neither did Esposito declare it safe. He then refused to discuss the subject the rest of the week.
For a franchise that after 23 years seemed finally ready to make some noise, there was nothing soothing about the silence.