Crosby was lone bright spot in pitiful Pens' season
PITTSBURGH -- There's never been a Pittsburgh Penguins season like this, not even close.
They've had bad seasons in their 39-year existence, for sure -- just check their early 1980s record before Mario Lemieux arrived. And this is not the first time they have gone four consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.
But as long as the Penguins take the ice, this question is certain to be asked about what might be the most disillusioning season in club history: How could Sidney Crosby play so well at age 18, and a team seemingly loaded with so much talent be so bad?
A Penguins season that began with so much optimism, hope and promise in October ended this week with a franchise-worst 60 losses in 82 games following six months filled with misfortune and miscalculation, another Mario Lemieux retirement and one misadventure after another.
"I really didn't expect anything from this season, I came in open-minded and went with the flow," said Crosby, the No. 1 draft pick who played far better than expected by finishing with 102 points. "A lot of things happened during the season, good and bad."
Except for Crosby, the youngest player in NHL history to reach the 100-point mark, it was almost all bad. Unpredictably, unbelievably bad.
The Penguins emerged from the labor dispute that shut down the 2004-05 NHL season with what looked to be one of the NHL's most-improved clubs. They drafted Crosby, seen as the best prospect in a generation, and a small market-friendly labor agreement allowed them to sign or trade for John LeClair, Jocelyn Thibault, Sergei Gonchar and Ziggy Palffy. They had already added proven scorer Mark Recchi.
With the much-respected Lemieux around to add a winner's presence and guidance, the Penguins appeared to have built a potential Stanley Cup contender in a matter of weeks. And Lemieux said so.
Maybe because they added so much so quickly, it was easy for general manager Craig Patrick to overlook what they didn't have: Team chemistry. Role players to do the grunt work. And team-driven players who could meld the proven old hands with the fast-arriving group of new players eager to contribute (Crosby, defenseman Ryan Whitney, forward Colby Armstrong).
At least it didn't take very long -- a nine-game losing streak to start the season -- for the Penguins to realize this mishmash simply wasn't a good fit.
With nearly all of the veterans underachieving, inexperienced coach Eddie Olczyk was fired in mid-December with an 8-17-6 record. Former Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien was hired to install the same disciplined, team-first system that had been so successful at the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre AHL farm club, but it was a slow go.
By then, many of the veterans were packing.
Thibault was injured while going 1-9-3 and never returned. Palffy lost his drive to play and retired. Gonchar, signed to a $25 million contract, looked lost from the start and didn't begin producing until after the Olympics. Recchi seemed to dislike how Crosby quickly ascended to a leadership role and, after previously saying he wouldn't waive his no-trade clause, willingly accepted a deal to Carolina.
The whole mess proved wearying to Lemieux, the 40-year-old owner-player who, unbeknownst to all but a few close friends, had developed an irregular heartbeat during the summer. The Hall of Famer produced early in the season, getting 12 points in a six-game stretch, but a heart flare-up sent him to the hospital in early December. He returned to play one more game, then retired for the second and last time after one of the greatest careers by any player in any sport.
By then, the Penguins clearly were Crosby's team. And, as they kept bringing up younger players under Therrien, there were some encouraging signs -- including an 8-12-3 post-Olympics record against difficult competition.
"There were some good games," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the former No. 1 draft pick who had several long stretches of excellent play. "But the losing, we did not expect this."
More changes are expected following this 22-46-14 season.
Patrick's contract is up and, after nearly 17 years on the job, the Hall of Fame executive is not expected to return. Lemieux has put the club up for sale and, if a new arena deal is secured and the franchise is sold, he could find himself separated from the Penguins by this time next year.
Therrien has two years left on his contract and is expected to be back, even though the Penguins' record with him (14-29-8) was nearly identical percentage-wise to that under Olczyk.
Asked to sum up his season, Crosby said: "I wanted to have the best possible finish -- and have no regrets."
Not many others with the Penguins could say that.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press