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The Penguins Saga
by Bob Davis (NHL)
Posted on April 8, 2006, 6:55 PM

On Friday afternoon, TSN.ca posted an article about the Pittsburgh Penguins. While the article is distressing to fans in Pittsburgh, it should come as no surprise that the team is on the verge of being sold. Not only that, but the Penguins are in negotiations with a developer in Connecticut to move the team to Hartford. Before we get to examining whether or not the team should actually go ahead with both the move and the sale, we need to look at how the team went from a pre-season contender to an off-season pretender.

Before the season.

After the National Hockey League lockout was resolved, the NHL off-season discussion on the Oratory Forums featured banter about teams that were expected to perform very well in the so-called “new” NHL. In fact, fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins saw the moves being made by Mario Lemieux’s club; some called for the Penguins’ off-season acquisitions to lead the team to a better record than the Philadelphia Flyers.

The first development that lead to the optimism of Pittsburgh fans was the August 5th announcement that Lemieux and the Penguins’ ownership group might not sell the team after all. Of course, this was, in no small part, caused by the NHL draft lottery, which saw the Penguins gain the right to draft Rimouski Oceanic star Sidney Crosby first overall in the 2005 Entry Draft. The ownership saw that the team’s stock was rising rapidly with their star centre, so they figured they would build a team that could contend this season for at least a playoff spot.

After drafting “Sid the kid”, the Pens signed Ziggy Palffy to a multi-year deal before trading with the Chicago Blackhawks for goaltender Jocelyn Thibault. Pittsburgh also went out and plucked Sergei Gonchar out of the free-agent pool before left-winger John Leclair signed on to a multi-year contract. Put together with free-agent signing Mark Recchi, who was inked to a deal before the lockout, the new additions looked like a formidable foe to a majority of NHL teams.

The 2005-06 Season.

The Penguins actually proved to be a legitimate contender for a playoff spot... until the puck dropped to open the season. All of that pre-season optimism deflated very quickly after the Penguins dropped 4 of their first 9 in regulation, and the other 5 in overtime. The Pens didn’t exactly light any fires after they picked up their first victory, a 7-5 win over Atlanta. In fact, the team sealed its fate with only 1 win in its final 12 games before Christmas.

To start examining where things went south for the Penguins, we need to start at the goaltending position. When the season began, the Penguins had forecast Jocelyn Thibault as the starting goaltender for most of the season, sharing some ice time with his pupils, Sebastian Caron and Marc-Andre Fleury. However, in 13 starts as the Pens #1 man in net, Thibault posted just 1 win, a shootout victory over Montreal on November 10th. Things got so bad for Thibault that the Pens debated about sending him to the AHL to work on his game. Thibault’s season ended when he suffered a hip injury in practice in Montreal back in January.

The pupils fared better than the teacher for Pittsburgh this season. Sebastian Caron, the Penguins’ starter in the 2003-04 season, has posted 7 wins in 19 starts this season, including a shut-out of the New York Islanders in his last start on March 31st. His last 2 games have been a bright spot in a dismal season for Caron, as the 26-year-old netminder has posted a dismal 3.98 goals against average and a .881 save percentage in 22 games played this season. Marc-Andre Fleury fared somewhat better, posting 11 wins and a 3.43 goals against average in 42 starts, stopping 89.5% of the pucks fired at him this season.

On offence, some of those free-agent signings have not produced as proficiently as they were expected to at the beginning of the season. John Leclair missed 6 of the Penguins’ final 12 games before the Christmas break, and has just 45 points in 66 games this season. Recchi put up better numbers, popping home 24 goals and 57 points before being traded to Carolina at the trade deadline. Even defenceman Sergei Gonchar has had an off-year by his standards, posting just 10 goals and 40 assists after averaging 19 goals and 58 points in each of the previous 6 seasons.

Capping off the bad news for the Pens was the announcement that 2 key players were retiring. Super Mario had a problem with an irregular heartbeat in mid-December, forcing him to miss a month of action before hanging up the skates for good on January 24th. One week earlier, Zigmund Palffy announced that he was putting away the gear for good, after posting 42 points in 42 games with the Pens.

On a team where so much went wrong, Sidney Crosby left nothing to be desired with his phenomenal play. The rookie centre, with 5 games left in the Pittsburgh season, has 36 goals and 91 points for the Penguins. The 18-year-old phenom is second in rookie scoring to Capitals’ sensation Alexander Ovechkin. Crosby will be an important piece of the Penguins’ puzzle for years to come, regardless of where the team plays its home schedule.

Mario Lemieux and the ownership group had thought about unloading the team before the season began, but held off on that decision after winning the lottery and gaining Crosby. A dismal season later, and the team is on the market again. However, will moving the franchise be the magic elixir the Penguins need to make both a profit and the playoffs?

Smart move?

A report from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review suggests that a Hartford real-estate developer is eager to buy the Penguins and move them to the Connecticut city. One of the major barriers to keeping the team in Pittsburgh is the fact that the Mellon Arena is, according to the report, both too small and too old. The oldest arena in the NHL, the 45-year-old Mellon Arena will seat 17,000 people for an average hockey game. What makes Lawrence Gottesdiener’s proposal somewhat questionable is that he proposes to build a 16,000 seat arena to house the Penguins.

Despite the fact that the Penguins’ have horribly underachieved in the 2005-06 campaign, the team is actually drawing more fans to the Mellon Arena than in 2003-04. An average of 15,788 fans are passing through the gates for every home game, which is a 4000-seat gain over the 2003-04 numbers of just 11,877 fans per game. Part of that gain has to be attributed to Crosby; but if the team does not continue to win, will the fans continue to show up?

The team needs to undergo changes that are more dramatic than just a change of venue to encourage their fans to spend hard-earned money to support them. Taking a look at other franchises that moved, a change of scenery did almost nothing in and of itself to improve sagging attendance:

1. In the 4 years prior to the Hartford Whalers’ move to Carolina, the Whalers drew an average attendance of 11,990 fans per game. Once the Whalers had changed their name to the Hurricanes and changed their mailing address to Raleigh, the attendance in the first 2 seasons plummeted to just 8,637 fans per game. In fact, since 1990, the combined Hartford/Carolina franchise has yet to surpass the league’s average attendance per game.

2. The Quebec Nordiques averaged a respectable 14,000 seats filled per game during the franchise’s last 6 seasons in la belle province. After moving to Colorado, the team gained 2000 fans per game, thanks in large part to a mid-season trade with Montreal that brought all-star goaltender Patrick Roy to Denver. The Avalanche finished the process started in Quebec, becoming perennial favourites to win the Stanley Cup in subsequent seasons. In this case, the argument that a change of venue precipitated a change of fortune for the club is invalid, considering the team finished first in their division with a 49 win season in their final year in Canada.

3. In the final 4 years in Manitoba, the Jets drew an average of nearly 13,000 fans to every home game. Following a move to Arizona, the Phoenix Coyotes improved on those numbers, averaging over 15,600 fans in the first season. However, without a winning franchise, the numbers have dwindled since that initial surge, and the Coyotes averaged just 13,100 fans per game in both the 2001-02 and 02-03 seasons.

4. As the Kansas City Scouts in the mid 1970s, the franchise now known as the New Jersey Devils endured 2 very painful last-place seasons. The ownership of the Scouts changed hands in 1976, and the team was relocated to Denver and renamed the Colorado Rockies. The team didn’t fare much better, as the Rockies made the playoffs just once in 6 attempts in Denver, and never had a winning season in that time. After moving to Meadowlands, the franchise took 6 more seasons to make it back into the postseason. It took a general manager who had success in college hockey and some good draft picks before the Devils tasted any form of success. The 1987-88 season finally brought the first decent playoff run for the organization, and brought renewed ticket sales and interest in the franchise.

5 things that the Penguins need to turn things around.

1. For all of the teams listed above, the common denominator is stability. None of the 4 franchises highlighted are leaving, and none of them have rumours flying around them about their future. The most important thing that the Penguins need, whether they stay in Pittsburgh or move to Hartford or Kansas City (which has been rumoured as well), is to stop these rumours. The team needs to know that they have a stable environment, a good place to play and a solid fan base. If the team is hoping to succeed reasonably soon, a decision about their future needs to be made now.

2. Either Mario Lemieux’s group or a new ownership group needs to demonstrate a commitment to winning. Bring in a coach and general manager that have proven that they know how to win games. A suggestion would be to look towards the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and encourage Ted Nolan or Patrick Roy to step in and lead the team up the standings.

3. The Penguins will have a very high first round draft pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. They would be very well advised to take a strong 2-way forward to provide some secondary scoring behind Sidney Crosby. Bryan Little, of the OHL’s Barrie Colts, is one player that the Penguins could pick to provide both some defensive support (+26 rating this season) and another offensive threat (42 goals and 109 points).

4. It is not likely that a top draft pick will benefit the club this season, regardless of who the choice is. The Penguins need to step into the free-agency pool during the off-season and sign some players who will fit into specific roles for the club. Players like Jeff Friesen, Brian Savage, Jan Bulis and Georges Laracque would add leadership, toughness and skill to the line-up without taking a giant chunk out of the salary cap. A quality goaltender, the likes of a Manny Legace or a Curtis Joseph, would be able to keep the team in a lot of games while aiding in the development of Marc-Andre Fleury and Sebastian Caron.

5. Any new coach and general manager will need to install an exciting brand of hockey. To a majority of fans, as long as the team works hard, plays well and keeps the game close, a 3-2 loss in a shootout is just as rewarding as a 5-1 victory. When a team can show their fans that they will compete and they will provide 60-65 minutes of entertaining hockey, the fans will support the franchise with the hopes that a winning season is not far behind. A season with 82-consecutive shootout losses will be infinitely more rewarding than losing 50 games and not having a chance to win 30 of those.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, in 2006, remind me a lot of the Quebec Nordiques of 1993-94. The Penguins, just like the Nordiques, have a lot of the pieces of the puzzle, in place right now, that are necessary to take the giant step forward into the elite level. The Penguins, like Quebec, have been distracted for the last 3 years by constant rumours of an impending departure. With just one or 2 smart moves in the coming months, the Penguins will be a legitimate playoff threat... if they can get out from under the constant rumours.

Information for the preceding column was taken from the following sites:
Sports Encyclopedia
Hockey Movement Central
Andrew’s Dallas Stars Page

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