Penguins not bringing back GM Patrick

Updated: April 20, 2006, 5:34 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Craig Patrick made some of the best trades in NHL history. He oversaw some of the best drafts, built some of the best teams and signed some of the best players and coaches.

Barry Melrose's take
Thursday's personnel decisions aren't much of a surprise in the hockey world, given the respective circumstances.

To read more of Barry Melrose's analysis, click here.

Consider this Hall of Fame resume: Drafted Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr. Traded for Ron Francis, Joe Mullen and Larry Murphy. Re-signed Mario Lemieux so one of hockey's greatest players could play his entire career in Pittsburgh. Hired coaches Scotty Bowman and Bob Johnson.

But it was obvious, after the Penguins sank into bankruptcy for a second time in franchise history and were forced to tear apart a longtime contending team, their general manager lost his drive. Patrick's creative touch also disappeared, and many of the player and coaching decisions he made were bad ones.

Just as significantly, Patrick confided in few and hired fewer still -- to the point the Penguins had a smaller front office staff than most low-level minor league teams. Patrick did all the hiring, firing and decision-making and, as a result, player personnel decisions seemed to be based more on hunches than reasoned thinking.

So, after four consecutive last-place finishes, the Penguins did what once would have seemed unthinkable: They let Craig Patrick go, failing to renew a contract that expires on July 1. That Lemieux, the team's primary owner and a close friend of Patrick, would agree to such a move illustrates how far the Penguins have fallen since making the Eastern Conference final in 2001.

"It was a very difficult decision," team president Ken Sawyer said Thursday, about an hour after calling Patrick to deliver the news. "But we both stood back and did what's best for the team."

Despite averaging only 25 victories over the last four seasons, and the uncertainty over whether the team will get a new arena, the Penguins don't expect to have trouble finding a qualified replacement. Sawyer will conduct the search and make the hire, but has no timetable for making his decision.

The new general manager will be allowed to bring the Penguins up to NHL standards in the scouting and player personnel departments. But he won't hire a new coach -- Michel Therrien, the former Montreal Canadiens coach hired by Patrick at midseason, will be brought back.

"This is a young team that is only going to get better," Sawyer said, pointing to the expected addition of former No. 2 draft pick Evgeni Malkin to a Crosby-led team next season. "We're very happy with the job Michel Therrien has done. He will be the coach next year."

After starting this season with a veteran team, the Penguins made a dramatic midseason switch to mostly youth and, despite finishing 22-46-14, appeared to improve markedly over the final two months of the season. The 18-year-old Crosby became the youngest player in NHL history to reach the 100-point mark by scoring 102.

But it was another former No. 1 pick, Lemieux, who led the Penguins to their greatest successes under Patrick.

Patrick was hired to succeed Tony Esposito as the Penguins GM in December 1989 and, within 18 months, had built a team around Lemieux that would win the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992 and have the NHL's best record in 1993. His 1991 trade for Francis and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson is widely regarded as being the final piece needed to transform what had long been one of NHL's worst teams into a Stanley Cup winner.

But after former ownership led by Howard Baldwin drove the team into bankruptcy, Patrick was forced to dismantle as stars such as Jagr, Alex Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang went elsewhere.

Still, Patrick's ultimate downfall may have been his inability to bring in a quality coach after his initial two hirings couldn't have been much better: Johnson in 1990 and, less than two years later, Bowman. Bowman moved from the front office to behind the bench after Johnson died of brain cancer only six months after winning the Stanley Cup in 1991.

Of his final five coaches, not counting interim coach Herb Brooks in 2000, Patrick fired four: Kevin Constantine, Ivan Hlinka, Rick Kehoe and Eddie Olczyk. Hlinka, Kehoe and Olczyk had no prior NHL head-coaching experience, yet were hired without Patrick considering other candidates.

Despite making a long series of excellent trades, Patrick also made some bad ones, including what is often called the worst in NHL history -- dealing future scoring star Markus Naslund for journeyman Alex Stojanov in 1996.

Patrick, who turns 60 on May 20, is a member of one of hockey's most famous families. His grandfather, Lester, was the head coach and general manager of the New York Rangers, winning three Stanley Cups, and father Lynn was a former NHL player and Rangers coach.

Craig Patrick played in the NHL for eight seasons before becoming the assistant coach of the 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. hockey team coached by Brooks. Patrick, after serving as the Rangers' general manager, later brought Brooks to the Penguins as a front office executive and interim coach.

Patrick's 16½-year reign in Pittsburgh was believed to be the second longest of any current general manager in any of the four major pro team sports. Carl Peterson has directed the Kansas City Chiefs since December 1988.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press