PENGUINS | 2003-04
Clockwise from top left: Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin with Alexander Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux and Eddie Olczyk, and Ryan Malone. (Post-Gazette & Associated Press)
PENGUINS | 2003-04
The darkness before the dawn
Led by a legend as an owner-player, a TV-analyst-turned coach and (at times) an 18-year-old future franchise goalie, this team finished dead last in a season that somehow, some way might have saved hockey in Pittsburgh.
How a team that finished dead last might have saved hockey in Pittsburgh
Clockwise from top left: Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save Jan. 24, 2004; Evgeni Malkin poses with Alexander Ovechkin at the draft June 26, 2004; owner-captain Mario Lemieux and coach Eddie Olczyk leave the ice Oct. 10, 2003; Ryan Malone fights for the puck Dec. 29, 2003. (Photos by Post-Gazette & Associated Press)
By MATT VENSEL
APRIL 8, 2019
In hockey-crazed Pittsburgh, an annual passage of spring looms. This week, the Penguins, making their NHL-best 13th straight postseason appearance, will begin their chase toward a fourth Stanley Cup in a decade. They have a star-studded roster led by a pair of likely Hall-of-Famers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. PPG Paints Arena, their beautiful barn, figures to be rocking once again.
The organization doesn’t believe the sun is setting on this golden era anytime soon.
And to think, 15 years ago, all this seemed unlikely, perhaps even impossible to some.
“I would have thought, ‘Yeah, good one. Concussion protocol. Down the hallway,’ ” said Steve McKenna, one of the players on the Penguins team that finished dead last in the league in 2003-04.
That season, the Penguins hired their TV color guy to be coach. Mario gave it a go. They threw a bunch of youngsters to the wolves, including their 18-year-old future franchise goalie. Their leading scorer was a journeyman defenseman. Ryan Malone was a hometown hero. Rico Fata was a thing.
Those Penguins lost 18 games in a row, managed just 23 wins and got outscored, 303-190. The Penguins, at old Mellon Arena, ranked last in attendance. The bitter 2004-05 lockout loomed. And some of their players wondered if, when it ended, the organization would still call Pittsburgh home.
“During that season, you had no idea that any of this would ever happen, that we would become a marquee NHL franchise and win three Stanley Cups in nine years and have — again — some of the greatest players in the game,” said Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan.
With the help of 10 men who were on or around that team, let’s revisit that forgotten 2003-04 Penguins season — the darkness before the dawn.
Penguins GM Craig Patrick listens to Mario Lemieux at the podium with coach Ed Olczyk on July 31, 2003, in the Igloo Club at Mellon Arena. Lemieux announced he would return for a 16th season with the Penguins. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)
After Mario Lemieux came out of retirement in 2000-01 to lead the Penguins to the conference final, the cash-strapped team was at a crossroads with its popular, highly paid, aging core. That summer, the Penguins traded Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals for three prospects. A year later, they watched Robert Lang walk in free agency. In February 2003, Alexei Kovalev was dealt.
McMILLAN: “The franchise was in danger economically. It was obvious then, and even more obvious now looking back, that the economic system wasn’t going to work for a city like Pittsburgh. The league needed a CBA with a salary cap. Going into the season, you were hoping we could get there someday, but you certainly didn’t know it was going to happen. We were in the oldest arena in the league and at that point it appeared there was no chance to get a new arena. Things were bleak all around in addition to on the ice. You’re trying to be a little bit in survival mode to keep the franchise going.”
ED OLCZYK, THEN THE PENGUINS’ HEAD COACH AND NOW THE TOP COLOR COMMENTATOR FOR NBC SPORTS: “I didn’t even know if the team was going to remain in Pittsburgh after that first year.”
BROOKS ORPIK, A ROOKIE DEFENSEMAN THAT SEASON WHO CURRENTLY PLAYS FOR THE CAPITALS: “We all thought we were moving to Kansas City. I don’t know how real that was or if that was just a negotiating tactic to get a new arena. But that’s where we all thought we were going.”
CRAIG PATRICK, THE GENERAL MANAGER THAT SEASON WHO RETURNED TO THE TEAM THIS SEASON AS A SCOUT: “It was very difficult. It had been coming on for some time. We didn’t have deep pockets. So we were patching lineups for years. We did the best we could. We had to let people go.”
MIKE LANGE, HALL-OF-FAME PLAY-BY-PLAY MAN: “They just didn’t have the cash. There wasn’t a cap, so these teams were loading up and buying players. They just couldn’t compete at that level.”
McMILLAN: “That’s why we did that with the marketing.”
Ah, yes, the “X Generation.” The Penguins promoted the young team with brooding, off-ice glamour shots of Fata, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Bradley, Ramzi Abid, Guillaume Lefebvre and Orpik. Photoshopped together onto billboards and buses, they looked like an alternative rock band.
McMILLAN: “The ‘X Generation’ was subtly saying, ‘We’re a very young team. We’re probably not going to win the Cup this season.’ I say that with a wink. But maybe there’s a reason to come out and watch these kids grow. ... We knew most of those guys would not be around if we ever turned a corner.”
The Penguins stunned the NHL by tabbing Olczyk, one of their TV broadcasters, to coach them.
LANGE: “I think even he was surprised when Craig said, ‘So, do you want to be the coach?’ ”
PHIL BOURQUE, FORMER PENGUINS FORWARD WHO THAT SEASON WAS A ROOKIE IN THE RADIO BOOTH: “To be honest with you — and this is no knock on Edzo — yeah, I was surprised. If he was standing right here, I would say the same thing. He had never been a head coach before. I think he had done it a little bit with his kids, helping out and stuff like that. He had never been a coach before. So you have to admire a guy that dives headfirst into that position and does as good of a job that he did.”
OLCZYK: “The Penguins did not have any head coaches within the organization. Nobody in Wheeling. Nobody in Wilkes-Barre. And nobody with the big club. The initial meeting with Craig was about the opportunity of maybe going down to Wilkes-Barre and maybe being their head coach.”
PATRICK: “He was upbeat. He was very good for a young team. That’s kind of what went in to it. And he was familiar with all the guys and he was a positive, upbeat guy for the situation we were in.”
McMILLAN: “That team was going to be one of the worst in the league no matter who coached it, even if it was Toe Blake or Scottie Bowman.”
OLCZYK: “I think there was some hesitation. But, understanding that we were going to have a very young team, the only pressure that was there was to sell hope to the Penguins fans and to teach and to instruct and to get us through a difficult time. I think the plan was, ‘Look, we’re just going to grow together. Winning is important, but it’s not what the big picture is here,’ knowing there was a pretty good chance we were going to start moving contracts out and it was all about the almighty dollar. Once we got the kid in goal, we knew that we had the cornerstone of our franchise in net.”
An advertisement used by the Penguins for the 2003-04 season. (Courtesy Pittsburgh Penguins)
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stops a shot from Los Angeles Kings forward Ziggy Palffy in the second period Oct. 10, 2003, at Mellon Arena. Fleury, the top pick in the 2003 NHL draft, stopped 46 of the 48 shots he faced in his debut. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
The brightest ray of hope that season was Fleury, whom the Penguins traded up to select with the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft. Less than four months later, he debuted at age 18.
PATRICK: “Our scouting staff knew he was going to be something special. We didn’t know how special. But once he got into our training camp, we could see that he had some real upside here.”
FLEURY: “I was just going out there and trying my best and having some fun. It was just so overwhelming to be at the NHL camp. I just tried to stop all the pucks that I could and I wasn’t thinking about the outcome of it. I showed them what I could do, and I got to stick around.”
LANGE: “The first thing that jumps to mind is the opening night against Los Angeles. They all came to see the Flower play and he was magnificent.”
FLEURY: “That first game, I remember getting scored on on my first shot. That wasn’t too good. But then I remember stopping a breakaway. That was a good feeling. And stopping my first penalty shot with a poke-check, I was pretty happy about that one, too.”
McMILLAN: “He made 46 saves, and many were spectacular. He was flying around. And we had all these Student Rush kids at the game. I remember them behind the net. That’s when the ‘Fleury!’ chants started. People were actually excited after a loss because they could see hope in this one kid.”
LANGE: “The thing that stands out more than anything else — I had never seen it before and have not seen it since — is the visiting team at Mellon Arena had to go to the opposite end of the arena, where the Penguins goaltender would be, to get to the locker room. The Kings came off the bench, and all of them to a man skated over to Fleury and tapped him on the pads. It was an unbelievable moment.”
FLEURY: “I kind of vaguely remember that. … That’s bad. I should remember that.”
The Penguins were out-shot, 49-11, in that 3-0 loss, and as the Post-Gazette’s Dave Molinari wrote, the Kings “left the Penguins' zone only when the ice was being resurfaced.” A week later, Fleury out-dueled Dominik Hasek in his next start as the Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings to earn Olczyk his first win as coach. That October, he was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month.
LANGE: “He was the fastest goaltender I had ever seen. I used to compare him to a pinball machine, the way that he could use his pads and just go bang, bang, bang back and forth and stop the puck.”
BOURQUE: “He was all over the place. There were times he was trying to make the same save on a shot 15 different ways. It was like he was trying out for Cirque du Soleil. … It was entertaining, but it was almost exhausting to watch sometimes.”
Playing behind the leakiest team in hockey eventually took its toll on the young goalie’s stat line and his confidence. Then, in December, he left to play for Canada at the World Junior Championships.
In the gold-medal game, Canada led the U.S., 3-1, after two periods. But in the third, the U.S. scored three goals to win the gold. The winner came when Fleury attempted to shoot the puck out of the zone, but it hit teammate Braydon Coburn and skipped into the net with 5:12 left.
McMILLAN: “[Fleury winning gold] could have been a really uplifting moment in the middle of this challenging season and just a fluky play happens and he ends up putting the puck in his own net.”
FLEURY: “I don’t laugh about it now. Well, maybe sometimes. Good lesson. But it was a good time, a great tournament. I got to play with Sid for the first time. It was devastating to lose in the finals. I thought since I was coming from the NHL, I should do so well and help the team to win.”
Fleury returned to Pittsburgh and played in four more losses, allowing 20 total goals. The Penguins then sent him back to his junior team, Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
OLCZYK: “He was our best goalie by a long-shot. You knew the kid had the ‘it’ factor. I think the plan was to give him some experience, show our fans what we have coming down the pipe. At that time, too, you had bonuses and incentives that certainly played into the decision of how much he played.”
Fleury would have qualified for a $3 million bonus had he made at least 25 appearances of 20 minutes or more and met at least two other performance-based thresholds. Fleury finished his turbulent rookie season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That was because Cape Breton, a powerhouse when Fleury returned to juniors, ended up getting knocked off in the QMJHL quarterfinals.
PATRICK: “With the contract we had, we couldn’t keep him all year. We knew he could play right away. We couldn’t afford keeping him on the roster any longer than the number of games before that bonus kicked in. It was unfortunate at the time, but it turned out that he developed quite well.”
FLEURY: “Everything you go through in life helps you grow as a person and a player. That was a little bit of a crazy year. I had to learn things, sometimes the hard way. That helped me succeed and show character and keep working. I put my head down, worked hard and tried to get better. I think that’s something I’ve been able to do throughout my career. You know, because I’ve had some lows.”
BOURQUE: “With a lot of other guys, it would have been, ‘Yeah, that kid could have been good. It’s a shame his first year was so bad. He was never the same after that.’ No, he was able to persevere.”
After his debut, Marc-Andre Fleury received taps on his pads from the visiting Kings, including Trent Klatt, as seen above. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
Penguins forward Ryan Malone battles for the puck with Washington Capitals defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski in the second period in Washington, Tuesday, March 30, 2004. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)
Fleury was one of a handful of young players who flashed potential that season. Orpik, a first-round pick in 2000, spent his first full season on the blue line. Fata and fellow speedster Konstantin Koltsov saw plenty of action. Ryan Malone came out of nowhere to make a Rookie of the Year push.
But, man, did their inexperience show. And their youth was evident both on and off the ice.
ORPIK: “We had a young team and our young guys were just happy to be in the league and get an opportunity. We had so many rookies that we had to have two rookie parties, which is unheard of. Down the stretch, we basically had half of an American [Hockey] League team playing for us.”
TOM KOSTOPOULOS, A FORWARD THAT SEASON WHO IS NOW A PLAYER DEVELOPMENT COACH FOR THE PENGUINS: “We used to do a bunch of dumb things, the young guys. We used to pull pranks on each other. Mario Lemieux [was injured for most of the season] but he had a stall in the practice rink and he had a bunch of clothes in there. After practice, you’d go to get dressed and someone would have taken your pants or your shirt or whatever, and you knew it was in the back of Mario’s clothing locker. So you had to wait until no one was around and then you had to dig through his clothes to find your pants and get them on before anyone saw and said, ‘What the hell are you doing in there?’ ”
Another time, somebody put all the furniture from their floor of a hotel inside Fata’s room.
KOSTOPOULOS: “He went back to his room and could barely open his door. He was pissed.”
LANGE: “Rico Fata kind of became a folk hero that year. Everybody kind of gravitated to him because of his speed. Fans absolutely loved him. He was a minus-46 on the year, but it didn’t matter.”
BOURQUE: “Rico had crazy speed but wasn’t really sure how to handle it. It was like giving a 12-year-old a 600-horsepower Ferrari and saying, ‘Go nuts on the highway.’ Koltsov was another guy with ridiculous, insane speed. It was absolutely amazing. But he just could not put the puck in the ocean.”
Malone, a 1999 fourth-round pick and the son of former Penguins player and head scout Greg Malone, took advantage of the barren depth chart, coming out of nowhere to lead the team in goals.
BOURQUE: “He was from Pittsburgh. His dad played for the Penguins. So in training camp you pulled for him. He had size and skill. Well, I’ve seen lots of guys with size and skill that don’t make it. But he kept surprising you with the goals he scored, his toughness and his ability to play with skilled players.”
LANGE: “When [Malone] came in, I was like, ‘Is this the same Ryan I knew as a kid?’ I knew Ryan and his brother. Ryan just kind of grew up and, whoa, became a big, big guy. He fit right in. It was a great tie-in that he was from Pittsburgh. But he played some great hockey. Yeah, that was a good story.”
Tom Kostopoulos fights for the puck with New Jersey defenseman David Hale at Mellon Arena on Jan. 20, 2004. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
MALONE: “Personally, a dream was coming true. It was just something that I don’t even know how to describe now. As a kid, I was lucky to be around the locker room there with my dad being the head scout and knowing Craig Patrick and his family and Steve Latin, the same trainer that sharpened my skates when I was 10. And I end up making the team and pulling the Penguins sweater over my head.”
Rob Scuderi joined Orpik, his former Boston College teammate, late in the season, playing 13 games.
KOSTOPOULOS: “Honestly, I played with both of them for a couple of years in Wilkes-Barre. If you told me those two were going to have the careers they had, I wouldn’t have believed it. They just took off. They weren’t guys that just stood out in games, but they were so steady. Scuderi was the most annoying guy to play against in practice. He had this long stick and he looked awkward and you could just never get around him. He got his stick on everything and blocked everything. After practice, you would be like, ‘I hate going against that guy. He’s so friggin’ annoying.’ He made a career out of it.”
The Penguins had several established veterans, including McKenna, Marty Straka (who was traded early in the season), Marc Bergevin, Kelly Buchberger, Mike Eastwood and Dick Tarnstrom.
McKENNA: “You have young guys that are just going out there gangbusters, trying to show what they got and get a foothold in the league. And then on the other side of the coin are the older guys just trying to enjoy the ride into the sunset and trying to make the most out of whatever they have left.”
They all brought something to the table. Buchberger, who won two Cups with Edmonton, showed the young guys how to navigate the pros. McKenna, a 6-foot-8 enforcer, threw fists and one-liners. Tarnstrom was the only defenseman in Penguins history to lead a team in scoring.
And then there was Bergevin, the legendary prankster whom McKenna called “a walking circus.”
McKENNA: “Everything was a joke. We’d go to a restaurant. If there was no host or hostess at the desk, he’d get up and seat people. He’d get the menus and say, ‘Follow me.’ He’d seat them then come sit back down. I don’t know what goes on in his head. And now he’s a general manager in Montreal.”
MALONE: “It was disco all the time. I think we were playing in Buffalo one time and the locker room was freezing cold. And he goes and gets two sticks and he had just his jockstrap on and then a sock on top of his head like a winter hat. And then he ends up putting his shin guards on his feet for skis and is doing cross-country skiing across the locker room in his jockstrap to disco. That was pretty funny.”
McKENNA: “I was sitting on the bench in practice and Ed Olczyk was shooting the puck in for a drill. I don’t know what happened. The puck kicked up and hit me right in the eye. It was closed. I couldn’t see. Had to go right to the hospital. So I’m getting dressed and Bergevin comes off the ice and says, ‘Hey, Steve! Don’t worry, it could have been worse!’ I said, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, it could have hit me.’ ”
“Rico Fata kind of became a folk hero that year. … He was a minus-46 on the year, but it didn’t matter.
Alexei Morozov, left, and Steve Webb celebrate with teammates as Mario Lemieux skates to the bench after recording his 1,700th assist on Oct. 29, 2003, against the New York Islanders at Mellon Arena. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
Given the makeup of the roster, with all those kids and a seemingly random cast of veterans, Lemieux surely knew that this Penguins team had no shot of winning the Stanley Cup. But the franchise icon, who turned 38 a few days before the start of the regular season, wanted to lace up his skates anyway.
McMILLAN: “He was giving it a shot. It was a chance to lead that young team and obviously having been the owner for four or five years he understood the economics and understood what [him playing] would mean. And he still wanted to play. He came back because he wanted to play. But his body started to betray him at that point.”
Lemieux played just 10 games, tallying a goal and eight assists, before a hip injury ended the owner’s season. In that first month, though, he made an impact on his teammates, both young and old.
FLEURY: “The guy’s a legend, right? He had such a big presence. When he’s in the room, you know. He was such a talented player, so it was an honor to be with him on the ice. I remember the first shot he took on me in practice. He scored. … The first stop I made on him, though, I caught the puck in my glove and put it on top of my net and took it home after practice. I still have it now.”
MALONE: “In the 1-on-1 drills, he would cross the blue line and take a slapper from the outside. But if the defenseman made one crossover towards him, he would put the puck through his legs and pop around him every time. It was fun to watch him in practice and see first-hand how talented he was.”
McKENNA: “I remember one time, he went around four people and then passed the puck and changed. He just looked at me and smiled. Here’s a guy who obviously has tons of pressure with everything off the ice and then can still go on the ice and create as only he can. He did it with a great attitude. He never let his frustration show with all the ownership pressures. I remember standing in the tunnel before one of the home games when Mario was playing. He’s looking around at the crowd and shaking his head because there weren’t a lot of fans. He joked, ‘I’ve got to get players with more friends.’ ”
BOURQUE: “It was refreshing actually to see him out there. He didn’t need to be. You always thought, ‘This could be the last game I ever get to see Mario play.’ He did the best he could, given his health and conditioning. He didn’t have the A-plus game, but you still saw moments of brilliance.”
Canadiens center Joe Juneau tries to fight off Penguins center Mario Lemieux in Montreal on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003. (Andre Pichette/Associated Press)
Steve McKenna mixes it up with Blackhawks forward Ryan VandenBussche Dec. 29, 2003, at Mellon Arena. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)
The Penguins won just five of their first 20 games. Lemieux went down and Straka was shipped to Los Angeles. They were 9-23-5 when the calendar turned to 2004. And then things got worse. Pittsburgh lost to Tampa Bay at Mellon Arena on Jan. 13. It was the first of 18 consecutive losses.
McMILLAN: “It was just a blizzard of losses, and it wasn’t unexpected. You weren’t dejected in the sense in that you thought you were going to be good and you were not. No, this was pretty much what you expected was going to happen. You’re sitting there in December and April is a long time away.”
OLCZYK: “At that point, we had very little talent. We were very young. We didn’t have a lot of experience. Our goalies didn’t have the ability to [steal] a game. But our guys competed hard. They played as hard as they could and as well as they could. But, look, we just weren’t as good as other teams.”
KOSTOPOULOS: “I remember it being a stressful time for Ed Olczyk. We were a bunch of young punks. After every game, he was pulling his hair out, trying to figure out how best to coach us. It was stressful, but we were young, dumb and probably went out a little too much and had a little too much fun.”
ORPIK: “Our effort was always there. We were just overmatched. As happy as you were to be here, everyone is competitive. So everybody was frustrated with not winning. It was a long year, but I think everybody kind of knew what was going on and what they were trying to accomplish.”
No, the losing streak wasn’t the worst thing for an organization taking the long view. At that point, the Penguins looked like locks to finish with the NHL’s worst record. If so, they would have a 48.2 percent chance of landing the top pick in a draft headlined by Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin, who was being billed as a generational talent. As the season went on, another stud emerged.
BOURQUE: “There was a lot more hype with Ovechkin with him being from Moscow. And then you had this farm boy from Magnitogorsk that a lot of people thought was the second fiddle.”
OLCZYK: “Ovi had the accolades and all of the attention and Malkin was kind of sitting there in the weeds. Our scouting staff was split. Some guys liked Ovechkin. Some guys liked Malkin.”
LANGE: “The funny part of it is, when you look at Malkin’s stats in Russia, it was like, are you kidding me? You’re drafting a guy that had three goals? I mean, seriously? Let’s put it this way — I was hoping Malkin wasn’t Konstantin Koltsov. But Craig obviously knew that he was a good player.”
Malkin scored three goals with nine assists as a 17-year-old rookie in the Russian Superleague.
MALKIN: “It’s like I’m youngest guy on team, you know? Fourth line, third line, they tried to give me a little bit of experience. But we were a great team. I’m sitting in [the] locker room with amazing players, superstars in Russia, and I’m just excited to get in the game. I remember I can’t score [for a] couple months. I had so many moments, so many scoring chances. I just had bad luck a little bit.”
PATRICK: “The scouting staff kept coming back and saying, ‘This guy’s coming. This guy’s coming. He’s definitely going to be a player.’ Greg Malone and his amateur group kept raising their value on him. Malkin, in our minds, became quite comparable to Ovechkin in terms of it being 1A and 1B.”
Had the Penguins finished last, they would have been guaranteed a top-two pick. Their odd-ball collection of players, taking a page out of “Major League,” almost put that in jeopardy.
On Feb. 25, the miserable losing streak finally ended. The Penguins, after trailing to the Phoenix Coyotes by two goals, rallied to tie the game. In overtime, Ric Jackman, acquired in a deadline deal for fellow defenseman Drake Berehowsky, beat Brian Boucher for the winner. Bedlam.
MALONE: “I remember celebrating in Phoenix and jumping up in the pile like, ‘We actually won!’ And somehow my right skate got up high enough where it cut Konstantin Koltsov across the neck. He needed to get stitches. It wasn’t deep. I remember cutting his neck and now I tell my kids, ‘Don’t jump on the pile! Don’t jump on your goalie.’ It’s all because [of] that 18-game losing streak in Pittsburgh.”
LANGE: “That kind of catapulted us. It was just such a big win for us at that time. We were just so bad and things weren’t going well. And then they got into March and they won some games. The future got brighter. Everyone had just been beating them up. And that was a really positive thing for them. People became excited for the team and the players and what was hopefully coming down the road.”
MALONE: “Sometimes you just get out of your own way and the less thinking is better sometimes.”
KOSTOPOULOS: “Two defensemen got really hot — Jackman and Dick Tarnstrom. Everything they were touching was either a goal or an assist. One of our goalies got hot.”
ORPIK: “They brought up Andy Chiodo at the end of the year and I think they were kind of hoping that [we would struggle with an inexperienced goalie]. He actually went on a pretty good run. They were giving us so many days off and just hoping we would lose games. There were some games when we were getting outshot like 50-15 and winning 2-1. I don’t think [management] was too happy.”
KOSTOPOULOS: “It came down to two games between us and Washington to see who was going to finish last with that Ovechkin lottery. The Capitals called up a goalie from the AHL and a few players that had never played NHL games. It just seemed like some weird stuff was going around those two games. Neither team was really dying to win it, except for the players and the coaches. It was fun.”
The Penguins lost in Washington on March 30, securing the NHL’s worst record, then won their final two games. Starting with that win in the desert, they went 12-5-3 to close out the season.
KOSTOPOULOS: “It was a good group of guys. We just weren’t a great team.”
Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk yells at a referee on Thursday, March 4, 2004, at Mellon Arena. In foreground is Mike Eastwood. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
Evgeni Malkin celebrates with his parents after being picked second overall by the Penguins at the NHL draft Saturday, June 26, 2004, at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. (Karl DeBlaker/Associated Press)
The Penguins did not win that draft lottery. In hindsight, that might have been a good thing, and not just because there is a good chance Malkin — with his three Cups, a couple of scoring titles, a Conn Smythe Trophy and one league MVP award — will join Ovechkin in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday.
Missing out on the top pick gave them slightly better odds for a miracle. More on that in a minute.
Three months after the Penguins drafted Malkin with the second pick, the lockout began. That meant Fleury would join Scuderi, Colby Armstrong, Max Talbot and other peers in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, away from the spotlight. In February 2005, with no resolution reached, the NHL season was canceled.
The lockout officially ended on July 22, 2005. The new collective bargaining agreement included a hard salary cap and revenue sharing, in addition to NHL rule changes meant to increase scoring. Getting on equal financial footing helped keep the team in town long enough to open a new arena in 2010.
“For the whole league, it was necessary. But certainly an organization like ours at that time, it was really necessary,” Patrick said. “I’m not sure how much longer hockey could have stayed here if that CBA didn’t change. And we weren’t the only team in that situation. There were others as well.”
That same day, July 22, the NHL held its annual draft lottery. At stake was Sidney Crosby, the can’t-miss kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, whom at age 14 “The Hockey News” dubbed “The Next One.”
Due to the lockout, the NHL used a weighted lottery system. Every team had a shot at Crosby. Teams that had missed the previous three postseasons and — here’s where the Ovechkin-Malkin lottery comes into play — didn’t win any of the previous four lotteries received the best odds for the top pick.
Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Columbus and the New York Rangers each got three of the 48 lottery balls. The Penguins had a 6.3 percent chance at Crosby. Had they won Ovechkin, it would have been 4.2.
“I was just hoping for any kind of miracle,” Patrick said. “That one was unbelievable.”
The Penguins, emboldened by the new CBA and landing Crosby, splurged on free agents Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy and John LeClair. Lemieux returned to skate with Crosby, playing 26 games before retiring. They were bad again, Olczyk got fired then Malkin, who had to flee to break his contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and finally come over to play in the NHL, joined the team in 2006-07, as did another top-two pick in Jordan Staal.
In 2007-08, the young Penguins made it all the way to the Cup final. A year later, they won it. Fleury, Orpik and Scuderi were the only members of the 2003-04 squad to hoist the Cup five years later.
“You didn’t think it would fast-track that quick. Yeah, I don’t think anybody thought after what we witnessed that [2003-04] season that this team would [win a Cup in five years]. It’s pretty incredible,” Bourque said. “I would have thought you were smoking something crazy.”
Now, a decade after Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang first got their names engraved on the Cup, that core trio is looking to do it for a fourth time. Even if the Penguins fall short this spring, the twilight of this golden era may still be a few more years down the horizon.
“We have a number of employees who were here during the bankruptcy and the years before the lockout. But a lot of these young folks in the office have only been here during the good times,” McMillan said. “We kind of have to remind them that it wasn’t always like this.”
Matt Vensel: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mattvensel.
Mario Lemieux greets Sidney Crosby after the Penguins selected him with the first pick of the 2005 NHL draft in Ottawa on July 30, 2005. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)