17 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS STRAP ON YOUR HELMET: A TASKMASTER TAKES OVER

October 05, 1997

Mario Lemieux retired. Coach Kevin Constantine was hired. If
there were any doubts that changes were afoot for the Penguins,
they evaporated on the first day of training camp when
Constantine stopped practice one minute after it had started.
Winger Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh's top player, was on the ice
without a helmet. The two men had a brief chat, and the
25-year-old Jagr clambered off to the dressing room. When he
returned, he was wearing his headgear. "For seven years I didn't
practice with a helmet," Jagr said. "I guess we've got new rules
now."

In recent seasons Pittsburgh has been derided as a talented but
underachieving team that operated in a country club atmosphere.
Under former coach Eddie Johnston, many practices were optional,
and most sessions were unstructured. The lack of preparation
showed--especially in Pittsburgh's sievelike defense. Last
season the Penguins surrendered 280 goals, the second most in
the NHL.

"In the playoffs, you have to win the 2-1 games, and you have to
play a tight-checking game," Constantine says. "To do that, you
need a good work ethic, and you need to be fundamentally solid."

With Jagr and centers Ron Francis and Petr Nedved (as of Monday
he was still absent because of a contract dispute), Pittsburgh
has the nucleus to be a playoff team. The porous defense could
improve if Kevin Hatcher and Darius Kasparaitis rebound from
last season's second-half fades and the Penguins buy into
Constantine's more conservative style. The goaltending should be
solid too, with veterans Ken Wregget and Tom Barrasso. Wregget
performed capably last year (17-17-6, 3.25 goals-against
average), but Barrasso started only five games before undergoing
season-ending shoulder surgery. For now, Patrick Lalime, the
rookie sensation who went a record-setting 14-0-2 in his first
16 games last season, is the forgotten man. At press time he was
still unsigned.

No factor figures to determine Pittsburgh's season as much as
Jagr's ascension into Lemieux's starring role. When Lemieux sat
out 1994-95 because of Hodgkin's disease, Jagr won the NHL
scoring title. Now Jagr's worth will be measured in more than
points. He'll be asked to lead the Penguins, and he admits, "I
don't know if I'm ready."

If Jagr isn't, he might want to buckle his helmet a little
tighter. Pittsburgh could be in for a bumpy ride.

--J.H.

COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/ALLSPORT [Wayne Gretzky] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [Craig Ludwig]

NHL'S BEST

ON-ICE VISION

1. Wayne Gretzky, Rangers
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