The familiar, Nasal voice sang the praises of the Pittsburgh Penguins last June. While congratulating the team in the Rose Garden for having won the Stanley Cup, George Bush made a point of singling out center Mario Lemieux. Moments later, when Lemieux presented Bush with the obligatory personalized Penguin jersey, the President asked, good-naturedly, "And you are?"
For Lemieux & Co., it was a portent of humblings to come. The Penguins, like their White House host, are having a rough time defending their title. As of Sunday, Pittsburgh had gone 5-12-4 since Dec. 31 and was clinging to fourth place in the Patrick Division, just three points ahead of the charging New York Islanders for the division's final playoff spot.
To rouse the team from its torpor, Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick last week unloaded two of his best—and priciest—players in a three-way deal involving the Los Angeles Kings and the Philadelphia Flyers. Paul Coffey, 30, the highest scoring defenseman in NHL history, went to L.A.; right wing and nascent star scorer Mark Recchi, 24, was shipped to Philly. Although both players have fat contracts, Penguin officials insist that Coffey and Recchi were moved not to save money but to repeat history. It was Patrick's canny six-player trade last March that sent Pittsburgh on a 9-3-2 tear and catapulted the team into its triumphant postseason.
In exchange for Coffey and Recchi, the Penguins, a team loaded with offense, received four players: tough and talented forward Rick Tocchet, 27, who, despite an injury-plagued season, is hoping for a return to his All-Star form of '90-91; huge, roughhousing defensive defense-men Kjell Samuelsson (6'6", 235 pounds) and Jeff Chychrun (6'4", 215); and Ken Wregget, a dependable backup goalie. In other words the Penguins got bigger, stronger, meaner and better defensively.
Considering all that has gone wrong for Pittsburgh since last season, the trade can only help. "We don't like to make excuses," says right wing Joe Mullen. "But they're there if we need them."
Indeed, the Penguins had less than a week to relish the franchise's first Stanley Cup before the first of a series of dates with disaster struck. To wit:
•May 30. Forward Randy Gilhen, a penalty-killer extraordinaire, face-off specialist and dressing-room cutup, is lost in the expansion draft.
•Aug. 29. Coach Bob Johnson, complaining of dizziness and slurred speech, is hospitalized. Hours later doctors discover he has a brain tumor. As training camp begins, no one knows who the coach will be, so assistant coaches run the team until Scotty Bowman, the director of player development, moves behind the bench three days before the season opener.
•Oct. 2. The day after Bowman's appointment, Lemieux's chronically ailing back flares up. It has caused him to miss 13 games and countless practices this season. "I can still get a couple points a game," says Lemieux, 26, "but I'm not dominating the way I used to."
•Nov. 4. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette publishes excerpts of a letter from Howard Baldwin, a former NHL owner, to Penguin vice-president Paul Martha. At the time, the two are negotiating to buy the Penguins from Ed DeBartolo. The letter details how Baldwin hopes to sell "certain assets"—everybody takes that to mean Coffey—for $7 million to help defray the cost of purchasing the team. "It [the letter] didn't help morale," says forward Kevin Stevens. Later in the day Coffey shows up for practice with a sticker on his forehead that reads FOR SALE.
•Nov. 18. Baldwin, with a consortium of other businessmen that does not include Martha, buys the team from DeBartolo for $41 million, and rumors are rife that several highly paid players, including Lemieux, will be sold, despite repeated statements to the contrary by Baldwin.
•Nov. 26. Johnson dies.
Bowman's best efforts notwithstanding, Johnson has so far proved irreplaceable. Badger Bob had a special ability to keep everyone on the team—even players who were frequently scratched from the lineup—feeling involved and important. When their time came, these players produced. Pressed into service last spring, backup goaltender Frank Pietrangelo won four postseason games. Seldom-used forward Jiri Hrdina scored two goals against the New Jersey Devils to help win the series-clinching game in the first round of the playoffs.
"Bob made so much of the time he was given," says left wing Troy Loney. " 'Every day's a bonus!' he'd tell us. If a guy was tense the morning of a game, he'd say, 'Go see a movie—see a Western!' or 'Try walking your dog!' He was a teacher; he loved hearing different ideas, talking, being around people."
Bowman is "much more traditional," says Loney. "With Scotty, it's "Your line's up, get out there and do your job.' "
Instead, the Penguins have done half a job, reluctant to defend against goals while eager to score them. Lemieux, Stevens and Jaromir Jagr were the starting forwards for the Wales Conference in January's All-Star Game. Stevens emerged in last season's playoffs as one of the league's power forwards, and at week's end he was second in the NHL in scoring with 92 points. Jagr, who's averaging more than a point a game, is a prodigiously skilled 20-year-old Czech. Mullen, who turned 35 last week, had 36 goals.
Trouble is, to produce all that firepower the forwards have been playing run-and-gun at the expense of their out-manned defensemen and their vulnerable goalie. Consequently, as of Sunday, Pittsburgh had the fourth-worst goals-against average (3.82) in the NHL. More worrisome for the Pengiuns, the better teams in their division had them solved. Pittsburgh was 1-4 against the Washington Capitals, 2-4 against the New York Rangers and 2-4 against the Devils.
Unbalanced and stale, Pittsburgh needed a kick start. So for the second straight year, Patrick pulled the trigger on a late-season blockbuster deal. Will the trade, which makes sense for the Penguins on paper, ignite them again?
Having learned of the trade, Coffey laced up his skates and went out on Pittsburgh's empty Civic Arena ice. He skated alone for 30 minutes, until 2 a.m., thinking, he later told reporters, "about the good times" he'd had in Pittsburgh.
Come playoff time, we will be able to tell whether more good times await the Penguins, or if they will have to make do with memories.