The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By Garrison Smith
That's all that stood between the Pittsburgh Penguins and what would have been a historic win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It wouldn't have been much- it would have given Pittsburgh a .500 record for the first time since 1992- but it still would have been something. After spotting the visitors a 2-0 lead, Pittsburgh peppered the Tampa net for 19 shots and five goals, chasing Lighning starter Carey Price from the game after the second period. For 15 minutes, Pittsburgh held to its 5-2 lead, and even though Tampa's Jonathan Toews brought the game to 5-3 with three minutes left, the way the game had been going, it was Pittsburgh's to lose.
In true Penguin fashion, they found a way to do it.
With 19 seconds to go, Thomas Vanek scooped up a loose puck in a scramble to pull the Bolts to within 5-4. Panic set in, and a Penguin defence that was poised all game lost its discipline at the worst possible moment. The Lightning entered the Penguin zone without much resistance, and it was only a matter of time before Alexander Ovechkin, left unmarked, tied the score with six seconds to go. Tampa, galvanized by the late goal onslaught, kept up the pressure in overtime to grab the game winner by Ovechkin after a two-on-one.
Normally, a 0-2 start is nothing new for the Penguins, and indeed, for most teams, it's not cause for panic. However, in Pittsburgh, the troubles have gone on for so long that every failure, no matter how small, gets magnified, and every success gets met with skeptical glances, because, far too often, it was just "too good to be true."
"I've been a fan of the Penguins since they started in the East Cup way back in 1982," said 45-year-old Jason Moore. "Back then, we saw the move to the East a positive- it would be a step above in terms of competition and talent. For a couple of years, the team seemed to feed off of that, and in the late '80s you really did think this team was special. Then there was 1989 and everything that came with it...and then 'poof'...it was gone."
Ah yes...1989. How could the Pittsburgh faithful forget? That was the only year the Penguins managed to actually finish above .500, parking at a noble 40-10-6 clip for a third-place finish. Led by John Cullen and Kevin Stevens, the Penguins banged their way to the East Cup Final, sweeping the New York Islanders along the way in a memorable run where the Penguins seemed like they could do no wrong. In the first round, two of their wins against the Chicago Blackhawks came in overtime, and both times with the Penguins scoring late to tie it. Against the Islanders, whose formidable early 1980s team showed it still had a lot left, the Penguins won all four games by four goals or more, leading many to think they would romp all over their in-state rival Philadelphia Flyers in the Final.
For the first three games, the Penguins did, winning 6-2, 3-1 and 5-0. They looked like they were going to do it in Game 4 when they went up 6-0 after the first period. However, the Flyers awoke from their slumber and pelted the Penguin net for 12 goals to force a Game 5, and momentum was on Philadelphia's side. The Flyers would need overtime in Games 5 and 6 to force a seventh game- glorious missed opportunities by the Penguins- by which point the deflated Pens had nothing left, falling 9-0 in what is still the most lopsided Game 7 loss in East Cup history.
The team was still competitive for a few years afterward, though the Cup Final loss took some of the wind from their sails. They made the playoffs the following two years, losing in sweeps to the Flyers both times. The real problems began in 1992, when Paul's Door Company (PDC) bought the team. Fans were skeptical then of the move and are still skeptical now, as PDC chairman Allan Stroz has made it no secret that the Pens are merely just a tool for advertising at a company that pinches pennies at every turn. Stroz has made it work for the company- PDC has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership, cornering some 85% of the Pittsburgh door market and gaining several new clients along the East Coast- but the Penguins have been neglected, often the victims of budget cuts.
The first sign of trouble was when Cullen and Stevens were sold after the 1992-93 season. Netting $20 million for the duo, Stroz decided the money was better pocketed than to be reinvested in the team, depriving the Pens of the focal point of their offence. Pittsburgh plunged from a respectable 15-win season in 1992-93 to a paltry five wins in 1993-94. More cuts followed that summer, although most of the released players were ageing veterans. In two summers Pittsburgh's payroll had gone from $35 million to a barely noticeable $5 million. What made it even worse was the fact that Stroz decided not to keep any of the Pens' blue chip prospects, contending that he was worried about their future salary needs, leaving what was already a mediocre youth academy with nothing to offer. The fans started to revolt, but the problems were only beginning.
On February 20, 1996, the Penguins executed what is now hailed as the worst trade in East Cup history, and one of pro sports' worst transactions. Going to the Vancouver Canucks was promising youngster Markus Naslund, in his third year of professional hockey, and going back the other way was Alex Stojanov, who was also a promising youngster but was still waiting to hit his stride. General Manager Craig Patrick claimed at the time the move had nothing to do with Stroz, but Stojanov was earning less than Naslund was making at the time. What followed the deal has been often repeated, but it'll be repeated anyway: Naslund is having a Hall-of-Fame career with the Canucks while Stojanov scored a paltry four points in 45 games with Pittsburgh spread over four seasons. By the end of the month, Stojanov was playing with the Penguin reserve team after scoring just once- in his first game with the Penguins- in his first 15 games with the team. Naslund, who was already a breakout player that year, outpaced not just the East Cup but the entire hockey world in scoring in the same time frame after his move to Vancouver. It's reported that, in embarrassment, Patrick petitioned the league to annul the trade, with the league rejecting the petition on the grounds of "not being in the business to correct a manager's own stupidity."
The city revolted. Riots engulfed the city for days, with the police doing very little to stop it because, they too, were rioting. At a couple of points, The Igloo was the target of several homemade bombs, and the Penguin players and staff genuinely feared for their lives. Across the County of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where the Flyers had become similarly inept, rioting that mirrored Pittsburgh began there too. When Paul’s Doors was the target of another bomb plot, Count Mick Swardson decided to call in the Behavioural Analysis Unit, whose work in arresting the rioting ringleaders helped restore order to the country, but did little to stem the tide of the hockey team.
“You would think that the riot would be a signal to turn things around,” notes Jennifer Jareau, a native of nearby Plum, PA, who now works for the BAU. “It was crazy. Not unexpected since the team seemed to *want* to be horrible, but crazy. You don’t see an entire state get riot gear going because of two declining hockey teams, but there they were. It was that case that started making my now colleague David Rossi think about retiring the first time from the BAU, but it was also the case that made me want to study criminology. Rossi’s retirement allowed me to meet him on a book tour in my senior year which led to my career in the FBI.”
While it worked out for Jareau and the BAU, the Penguins’ tailspin only got worse. Stroz’s response to the riots was to change the team’s name to the Doors, but the threat of a lawsuit by the band of the same name stopped the plan. By 1999, the team was bleeding money, the result of years of declining attendance and television and radio ratings. The East Cup even at one point considered dropping the Penguins and the Flyers from their league, but a pledge by both teams to restructure their finances and develop a return to competitiveness made them reconsider.
After several managerial changes- all of which were General Manager/Head Coach hybrids- came Jack Crenshaw’s hiring in 2007. Crenshaw, a local Pittsburgh product, set about revolutionizing the Penguin coaching system, noting it had become neglected with the previous regimes of GM-coaches. The players bought into Crenshaw’s methods, glad there was actually a coach there to *really* coach them and the team responded. 2007-08 appeared to be somewhat of a return to competiveness, with Pittsburgh winning 10 games- its highest total since 1993.
Predictably the winning would be short-lived, again at the hands of Stroz. Worried that the players’ new found success would make them want more money, Stroz had some of the emerging players from 2008- including Anze Kopitar and current Quebec Nordique star Jesse Lindsay- traded if not outright released. Crenshaw complained about management’s undermining tactics but to no avail. Pittsburgh bottomed out to two wins in 2008-09, although one of those wins came against the Flyers who were similarly in distress.
“It seems like every time we get a good player, he’s gone,” opined Crenshaw. “Stroz is so afraid to pay any money that even if he thinks a player is going to want more money he will let them go. I keep telling him, if we just had a winning team we’d have a lot more profits but he doesn’t want to listen to me. After a while I just said, ‘what can I do?’ This is a guy who also has an aversion to paying his own suppliers for the door business, so what makes me think he’ll break the pocketbook for me?”
Stroz refused to be interviewed for this story, par for the course given how unavailable he tends to be even at his own company. He’s also rarely at owners’ meetings at the East Cup, often sending another representative for him. The enigmatic president has stayed silent towards his critics over the years, and when he does break his silence, it’s only to point out how well his company is doing, which has grown in profit every year since he took over.
Crenshaw just wished he wouldn’t neglect his hockey team.
“I get that he doesn’t want to lose money,” said Crenshaw. “However, he doesn’t seem to understand that I need help here. I can’t win if I’m not given the players to work with. The list of players I could have had is astounding. Kopitar…Lindsay…(Andrew) Ladd…(Jeff) Skinner…(Steve) Mason…(Alex) Pietrangelo…I could make an All-Star team out of them. When I see them succeed with other teams, it irritates me because they could have done it with us. We’d be the talk of the town…instead, we’re a laughingstock. It’s a joke.”
The real kicker, Crenshaw says, is how they dealt with Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury broke out last season, posting an almost imperceptible 1.04 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage to easily win the Veznia Trophy. Despite his prowess, the Penguins somehow found ways to lose even with goaltending that great, losing every game he started by just scoring 20 times in his 40 games. The entire year, Pittsburgh registered a paltry 36 goals in its 50 games, with 15 of them by Ryan Malone. Despite the disappointment, Fleury re-signed in Pittsburgh and displayed faith in the management, which was laughed at when he said it but was proven correct, when Mikko Koivu was added to the team to give the Pens some more offence.
Then, without warning, last week Fleury got traded to the Islanders. For Cole Jarrett.
If you’re still scratching your head about that one, you’re not alone. Crenshaw still hasn’t stopped.
“Now they’re not even trying to hide it,” said Crenshaw. “Nothing against Jarrett- okay, f--- it, everything against Jarrett- but he’s nobody. Fleury is a superstar now and all they wanted was some flash in the pan? Seriously?”
Penguin brass has so far not commented on the trade, but reports indicate it was- surprise, surprise- a cost-cutting move. The team contended that it could not support Fleury long term, even though the goaltender said he’d sacrifice pay to help the team. Blogs have already gone alight about the trade, and there are some rumblings that protests might again be in the works.
“The fans aren’t asking for much,” said Crenshaw. “All they want is a winner. Because if the team continues like this they won’t have any fans left- and that would be the real shame.”