Still not much surrounding Mario

In what is likely Mario Lemieux's final season, the Penguins have little talent to complement him.

Originally Published: September 24, 2001
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

There is a certain unhappy symmetry to this final go-round for Mario Lemieux.

When he broke into the NHL in 1984-85, his Pittsburgh Penguins were the second-worst team in the NHL, gathering only 53 points and missing the playoffs. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs and their 48 points were worse.

Now, Lemieux begins what everyone assumes will be his final season, on a team destined to be just as bad with virtually no chance of making the playoffs.

It is a sorry reflection of the state of the once-proud Penguins and the league as a whole that Lemieux will be surrounded by aging veterans, marginal NHLers with nowhere else to play and raw rookies and prospects who would be plying their trade in the AHL if it weren't for the awful dearth of NHL-caliber talent in Pittsburgh.

Even though the team has over the past couple of years sold off marquee players like Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang and Darius Kasparaitis in a nonstop fire sale, the Penguins have almost nothing to show for the effort. At least not yet.

The common denominator for everyone pulling on the black and gold, including Lemieux who should really be making in the US $8-$10-million range, is they work cheap.

The Penguins are in such disarray, their infrastructure so weakened, they went to the broadcast booth to hire Ed Olczyk, their seventh coach since 1996-97, as opposed to finding a coach with experience or someone from within the organization.

To say Olczyk has his hands with a team that was second-last in the NHL standings, equally bad at home and on the road, is like saying Bill Gates is well off.

But kudos to Olczyk, who played 68 of his 1,031 NHL games in Pittsburgh, for embracing the challenge.

From the beginning of training camp, he has worked diligently at implementing a defensive system for a team that gave up 255 goals, second worst in the conference, third worst in the league, and forging forward units from the spare parts assembled before him.

But imagine the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke and you have a sense of Olczyk's task.

Apart from the sad spectacle of Lemieux soldiering on in the hopes of putting a few more coins in the Penguins' coffer and possibly the tribulations of No. 1 pick Marc-Andre Fleury in net, this promises to be a season to forget in Steeltown.

Offense

That said, if Olczyk operates from a position of relative strength, it's on the offensive side of the ledger.

How else could it be when you start with the second-greatest player to ever play the game (we defer, as always in these matters, to Mr. Gretzky as numero uno).

Since his triumphant return from premature retirement, Lemieux has done the unthinkable, simply picking up where he left off as the game's most dominant player, scoring 198 points in 134 games.

Of course, durability remains a constant concern for the Penguins' owner, but assume Lemieux feels as good as he says he does and that's a bonus to start the season.

Lemieux is expected to play alongside Martin Straka who remains a Penguin only because general manager Craig Patrick couldn't find a buyer for the injury-prone sniper (73 games played in the past two seasons). The early lottery winner to play the other wing is Konstantin Kolstov, Pittsburgh's first choice in the 1999 draft. Sadly, the well pretty much dries up after that.

Olczyk will have to coax some sort of production out of a ragtag forward contingent that includes the perpetually underachieving Aleksey Morozov, Rico Fata, Mike Eastwood, Brian Holzinger, Reid Simpson and Kelly Buchberger.

Young players acquired in the Jagr deal with Washington, Kris Beech and Michal Sivek, were so unimpressive they're expected to start the season in the minors.

One positive carryover from last season is the work of the Penguin power play, which ranked seventh overall and strangely, fourth on the road.

Defense

Things don't get much better for Olczyk on the back end.

He must hope a group of youngsters that includes Josef Melichar and Michal Rozsival, both injured through training camp, Dick Tarnstrom, who led all NHL defensemen with 25 points through 21 games before being injured, Dan Focht and Brooks Orpik, don't just learn his simple defensive system but embrace it.

The ideas Olczyk are trying to impart aren't revolutionary -- in fact, most teams use some form of the system that attempts to keep opponents outnumbered in front of the net, forcing them to shoot from the perimeter where it's easier to block shots and create turnovers.

Teams like Anaheim and Minnesota both showed last year teams can produce consistent, solid defensive efforts without a big-name defensive anchor like a Chris Pronger or Niklas Lidstrom.

Olczyk is preaching the same sermon.

Veteran Drake Berehowsky will provide some stability although he played only seven games a year ago in Phoenix before being sidelines with a knee injury.

Forward Steve McKenna was pressed into service during training camp as a defenseman, a move that looked to carry over into the regular season.

Goaltending

Here's the dilemma for Patrick and Olczyk: Do you plunk 18-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury into your net knowing full well it's going to be feeding time at the zoo?

Or do you save the $3 million or more in salary and bonuses and send him back to junior in Halifax where he doesn't get his head handed to him on a nightly basis?

Fleury made the choice difficult, playing well during training camp, justifying on first blush the Penguins' questionable decision to trade a roster player (Mikael Samuelsson) and the third overall pick for the chance to make him the first overall pick in June's draft.

Certainly, the job is Fleury's for the taking after the Penguins traded former number one netminder Johan Hedberg to Vancouver leaving only Sebastien Caron, 23, who sparkled at times in a relief role last year, and J.S. Aubin, the old man of the group at 26.

Caron started 23 of the Penguins' final 39 games, turning in a 7-14-2 record with 2.64 GAA, .916 save percentage and would presumably be their starter if Fleury is sent back.

A year ago the Penguins were one of only three teams to turn in a team goals against average over 3.00. Fleury or no Fleury, it would appear history is about to repeat itself.

Scott Burnside, a freelance writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.