Penguins, league hit jackpot with lottery
NEW YORK -- The National Hockey League can thank Craig Patrick's lucky four-leaf clover for helping to launch its renaissance in a dramatic and just fashion.
The Pittsburgh Penguins general manager visited St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York beforehand and then clutched a four-leaf clover in his palm during the NHL's unprecedented draft lottery yielding an unprecedented prospect in Sidney Crosby.
"I've had it for quite a while," Patrick said of the lucky charm. "I don't pull it out that often."
The Penguins earned the first pick in next Saturday's entry draft and will take Crosby, a franchise savior in the mold of owner/player Mario Lemieux.
"I think if there's any doubt in Pittsburgh about the Penguins and their future, it's been resolved on two accounts today with the new labor deal and now with Sidney Crosby," said team president Ken Sawyer.
Asked if he'd entertain offers for the first pick, Sawyer didn't hesitate.
As for the NHL, it got it right with its televised coverage of the lottery, which provided a dramatic air to a day commissioner Gary Bettman described as being a seminal moment in the league's history. One can only hope the league will make televising its normal draft lottery for teams that don't make the playoffs an annual event.
The league also got lucky that a struggling team like the Penguins, which has missed the playoffs for three straight years and has flirted with financial ruin, earned the first overall pick.
Calgary, the other finalist from the 2004 playoffs, will draft 26th and traditional powers (and big spenders) Dallas, Colorado, St. Louis, New Jersey and Philadelphia will all draft in the bottom third of the first round.
"If Crosby goes to Tampa Bay it would totally defeat the purpose," one GM said before the lottery.
Florida GM Mike Keenan should have borrowed Patrick's lucky charm as the struggling Panthers were one of the only teams that didn't find an appropriate place in the draft order, drawing the 29th pick.
"I guess bad luck's better than no luck," said Keenan, who takes over a team that has failed to make the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons.
As the draft lottery built to its conclusion it came down to the Penguins and another needy team, the Mighty Ducks.
"Coming in with a 4½ percent chance and you end up there with a 50 percent chance, it's a good day," Ducks GM Brian Burke said graciously. "It would have been nice but we're very happy to pick second."
Washington owner Ted Leonsis looked on the bright side after the Caps fell out of the Crosby sweepstakes with the 14th pick, imagining Eastern Conference showdowns between Crosby and the first pick in the 2004 draft, Alexander Ovechkin.
"My dream scenario would be that they're Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. The NBA had some hard times and came back, and they were two great players and they helped drive interest in the league and they had a great rivalry. These are two very, very gifted players," Leonsis said. "I thought this year's draft had a lot of drama around it. I'm happy that Pittsburgh won. He'll help us sell a lot of tickets in our building. I just hope we don't play them in the playoffs all the time again."
For his part, Crosby was sitting in his Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, home crossing off teams from his list. He admitted he was excited at the prospect that the Canadiens, his favorite team as a boy, might draw the first pick, but they fell out of the process with the fifth pick. Crosby, hooked up to the draft show via satellite, said there was lots of cheering and a bevy of phone calls when the Penguins emerged the winner.
Although Crosby has never been to Pittsburgh, there is more than a little symmetry at play with his imminent arrival.
When Lemieux first came to Pittsburgh as the first pick in the 1984 draft, he revived interest in a moribund franchise, leading it to twin championships in 1991 and '92. He saved the Pens a second time by assuming ownership of the financially listing team and returning to action after battling cancer and a chronic back injury. Now Lemieux will mentor a player expected to revive not just the Penguins but an entire league.
"He's a very nice guy," Crosby said of Lemieux.
The two worked out together last summer in California and occasionally played on the same line during on-ice sessions. Occasionally they joked about Crosby coming to Pittsburgh to play.
In an interview with TSN on Friday, Lemieux joked that there was plenty of room at his house if Crosby wanted to move in -- just as netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, did for a time.
Although Crosby downplayed his potential role with the Penguins, saying he just hoped to make the team out of training camp, the lottery win opens up a series of options for Patrick in the coming weeks.
The Penguins added veteran scorer Mark Recchi before the lockout and have made it known they will add more veteran talent given their room under the $39 million salary cap. Now Patrick can focus on adding defensive help and perhaps a veteran goaltender to a promising young team.
"Certainly he fills one of the roles that we probably were looking for," said Patrick, referring to the team's need for another scoring/playmaking forward. "It takes away one question mark that I might have in my mind going into the free-agent market."
One issue that remains unclear is the status of Evgeni Malkin, the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. He has signed a contract to play in Russia, but it's not known whether the Penguins will be able to extricate the talented forward from that deal. Bettman announced Friday the NHL has reached a tentative deal with the International Ice Hockey Federation regarding transfers form European leagues, including Russia.
Should Malkin, considered by many to be an even better prospect than Ovechkin, be part of the mix the Penguins can expect to find themselves among the most improved teams in the NHL.
"My mind just goes round and round and round with the possibilities of the lineups," Patrick said.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.