Where does Lemieux fit in Penguins' future?

Updated: December 20, 2005, 2:42 PM ET
ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Mario Lemieux
Is this it for Super Mario?

With the news Monday that Pittsburgh Penguins' captain and part-owner Mario Lemieux will not practice for 10 days to two weeks while new heart medication aimed at stabilizing his unstable heart takes effect, one wonders if this isn't a natural break point for one of the greatest players the game has known.

Certainly all of the stars seem to point in that direction.

Several weeks ago Lemieux hinted that he wasn't all that interested in playing in the Turin Olympics and later confirmed to Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky that he wouldn't be participating.

With his Penguins in disarray, Lemieux last week signed off on the firing of good buddy Ed Olczyk.

The firing came after Lemieux was admitted to the hospital for several days with an irregular heartbeat. He returned for the first post-Olczyk game, a 4-3 loss in overtime to the Buffalo Sabres Friday evening.

He reported a return of the irregular heartbeat at the end of that game and then missed the rematch the next night, another 4-3 loss.

There's no question there's lots of blame to go around for the stench that envelopes a Pittsburgh team many predicted would be a sure-fire playoff squad with the acquisition of high-profile free agents and the arrival of super-rookie Sidney Crosby.

Netminder Jocelyn Thibault was a mess from Game 1 on and one wonders what the situation might have been like had the Penguins signed Curtis Joseph in whom they expressed interest. It's a pretty good bet they wouldn't have a team GAA of 3.97 tied for dead last in the league.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar has been a colossal waste of money.

John LeClair? What did anyone expect of the 36-year-old former power forward but what he's produced, which is next to nothing?

But the one person who seems to have escaped all blame for the Penguins lost season, and make no mistake the team's 8-18-7 qualifies them as lost, is Lemieux.

Long before Lemieux's heart problems there were questions about his passion for the game. On the ice the 40-year-old icon has been prone to long, lazy turns, errant passes and a strange lack of timing.

In Friday's loss to the Sabres, Lemieux whiffed completely on a nice Crosby feed late in the game although he did recover in time to whip a pass to Ziggy Palffy who scored the tying goal. Although one of the finest playmakers ever, the Lemieux-led Penguins' power play ranks 24th.

In 26 games Lemieux has managed just seven goals, 22 points and is an eye-popping minus-16.

Off the ice, if there was the laissez-faire attitude that many claim permeated the club prior to Olczyk's firing, why didn't Lemieux, who is part-owner of the Penguins, step in to help his friend the coach right the ship? Isn't that what leadership is about?

Olczyk joined the coaching ranks straight from the broadcast booth at the start of the 2003-04 season. He had little to work with during the pre-lockout season as the Penguins had jettisoned anything remotely resembling bona fide NHL talent. Still, by the end of that campaign, Olczyk had instilled in the young Penguins an impressive work ethic illustrated by the fact they managed to close out the season 10-3-2, a better record than the team had with Lemieux in the lineup under Olczyk.

The Penguins have gone old-school by bringing in former Montreal bench-boss Michel Therien who has done wonders for the Penguins' farm team in Wilkes-Barre. Veteran Mark Recchi minced no words saying Therien was a "hard-ass" and there were reports Monday that players were doing push-ups between drills as Therien tries to instill a sense of commitment to the squad.

As important as Lemieux has been to the Penguins' past and as important as he stands to be in the team's future, it's equally difficult to see him as part of this team's new on-ice reality.

-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
EARTH TO MATS UNHAPPY LUC
Is it time to sound the alarm in Toronto yet? The Maple Leafs are barely hanging on to the eighth and last playoff spot in the East, so we ask ... where is Mats Sundin? He has just one goal in his last eight games and he didn't look too aggressive in a 8-2 drubbing from Ottawa over the weekend. This is a time when Toronto needs its captain to step it up. What is going on with Luc Robitaille in Los Angeles? According to the L.A. Times, he will be a healthy scratch yet again on Monday night with the Kings face the Canucks in Vancouver. Robitaille's ice time has consistently dwindled since he returned from a leg injury on Nov. 22. He has only five goals and three assists in 21 games this season with L.A. Like the Maple Leafs, the Colorado Avalanche are in a dangerous spot right now, hanging on to the eighth overall spot in the West. Their win over the Rangers this weekend snapped a three-game skid, but Nashville and Phoenix await over the next week. The win also brought life back to Joe Sakic, who had just one goal in six games heading into the matchup.



CAUGHT IN THE NETS
THRASHERS?
This week loomed as a make or break week for the Atlanta Thrashers. Goaltending phenom Kari Lehtonen (left), who went down in the first game of the season, was expected to return for his first full practice with the team Monday. Given the Thrashers' goaltending situation, one could rightfully extrapolate that the team's season hangs in the balance. Not so fast.

The subject of much derision when he was named the team's "starter" several weeks ago, rookie netminder Michael Garnett has quietly helped the Thrashers jump back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture, where they entered play Sunday just three points out of eighth. With the Thrashers' 2-1 win over Florida on Saturday, Garnett has evened his record at 7-7-2 and has been mostly solid during the team's recent 4-0-1 streak. Surprisingly, one of Garnett's most important wins was a 7-6 victory over Detroit last week, when the undisciplined Thrashers blew a 6-2 lead and allowed the Wings to tie the game before Patrik Stefan's deciding goal. "When they tied it up I just thought, 'Wow, we've really got to pick it up now.' It was a little bit overwhelming there for a couple of minutes," Garnett said.

The 23-year-old native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, looked every bit the AHL goalie when he was first called up. But after a brief stint back in the minors, Garnett's comfort-level has dramatically improved in his second go-round at the NHL level. No one is suggesting that Lehtonen, considered one of the finest prospects in years, will have to fight Garnett for his job, but if the Thrashers do make the playoffs, they will look back fondly at Garnett as a crucial factor in turning around their season.



WHAT ABOUT MOM?
The Red Wings invited the fathers and/or mentors of players and staff on their recent trip through the Southeast Conference. It was an eye-opener for coach Mike Babcock, who can attest to the old adage about the apple not falling far from the tree. "You get to know a lot about your players just by seeing their parents," Babcock said.

There were 29 visitors on the trip who got to see the whole spectrum of NHL life, from late-night flights after a game to middle-of-the-night check-ins at luxury hotels to the Wings' power play and penalty-killing meetings to the morning skate. One night the players presented their guests with a video tribute with each player explaining the importance of their father/mentor. Of course a trip like this is bound to make some people feel left out.

"My mom is bitter," acknowledged netminder Manny Legace whose dad, Manny Sr., was in attendance. When Legace was playing junior hockey in Niagara Falls and his father was working at the trucking company for whom he still works, it was Legace's mother who regularly made the trip from the family home north of Toronto to see Legace play. Said Manny Sr.: "I told Mr. Holland [GM Ken Holland], if you see my wife, run."

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
I'll be watching to see if goaltender Marty Turco and the Dallas Stars keep up their blistering pace this week. Dallas is 12-2 in its last 14 games and a big reason for that is Turco. After a slow start, Turco is showing what we expected to see from him with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. He is also giving his team confidence.
E.J. Hradek
The NHL schedule has plenty of treats for hockey fans this week and I'll be focusing on two games. On Thursday, we get a possible Eastern Conference final preview when the Senators travel south to face the Flyers in Philly. Both clubs, especially the Flyers, are dealing with some injuries. I expect the Flyers' forwards will want to hand deliver their Christmas cards to Dominik Hasek in his crease. On Friday, as part of a 14-game slate, we get a potential Western Conference finals matchup when the Flames battle the Canucks in Vancouver. It's the first of two games, both at the GM Place, between the Northwest Division rivals. They meet again on Dec. 26.
Scott Burnside
Toronto at Boston, Dec. 22: Two Original Six teams in disarray will try to right their respective ships in a pre-Christmas tilt. The Bruins enter the week in 12th place in the East amid speculation that coach Mike Sullivan's job hangs by a thread. GM Mike O'Connell is no doubt feeling a tad nervous as former captain Joe Thornton continues to tear it up in San Jose. The Leafs, meanwhile, have lost four of five, including an 8-2 drubbing from the Senators on Saturday. They enter play this week with a tenuous grip on the eighth and final playoff berth.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: After dropping off the radar, Anson Carter seems to have found new life in Vancouver. The Canucks winger has three goals and an assist in his last two games, finding his way on a new line with the Sedin brothers. This might be a sign of things to come for the speedy Northwest leaders, and your fantasy team!
Who to drop: With Alexander Steen listed as day-to-day with a thumb injury, you are likely not going to get many points with him over the next week. It will be a good move to put the Maple Leafs center on the reserves.
IN THE BOX
We've dusted off some vinyls this weekend and stumbled upon some Paul Westerberg goodies from his days with The Replacements -- the album "Let It Be" in particular. We say, meet us "anyplace or anywhere or anytime" for some pucks!
THEY SAID IT
"I'm going to try to lead by example."
-- Sidney Crosby, 18, after being named alternate captain for the Penguins

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