It's easy to want to be Mario Lemieux. A pricey place in a posh part of town, money, talent, that whole Prince of the City thing he's got going on. Then there are those Stanley Cup ringsand has anybody already mentioned all that money?
Sure, you'd have to put up with the nagging injuries, and the even more annoying nags knocking on the door every day with their hat in their hand, but all of that is a comparatively small price to pay to be Mario Lemieux, right?
Perhaps, but consider for the moment the conversation Mario may need to have sooner than later with one of his better friends in the league.
A few questions shouldn't ever need to be asked, especially to a friend; especially without cracking a smile. "Are you hitting on my wife?" jumps to mind. So does, "Do you think it's time you let it go?"
Kevin Stevens has now spent over a dozen seasons in the NHL, ten of them with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is one of the few players who's been with Mario since nearly the beginning. He was there the last time the Penguins missed the playoffs over a decade ago, he and Mario share an agent, and speculation has it that it was Mario who orchestrated Stevens' return to Pittsburgh. Howeverhis time on the bench in New York and Philadelphia notwithstandingStevens didn't get three years off to rest his body, and if the preliminary indications are correct, Kevin Stevens may need to turn his attention to life after hockey sooner than he originally thought.
It is still incredibly early in the season, and it could very well be that at his age, 36, Stevens will need more than just camp to get up to speed and into the flow of an offense admittedly still looking for its identity. There's certainly more than enough time remaining for Stevens to make a significant contribution to the Penguins, just as he did last season. However, time is precisely what is working against him.
Over the summer, the Penguins did their very best to overhaul the team with a single phone call. That they didn't completely reconstruct the team is understandable, it was arguably unnecessary. Moreover, such a dramatic revamping of personnel would have been contrary to the Penguins' very nature.
Historically, the Pittsburgh Penguins like to remake the roster during the season, not before. Maybe team General Manger Craig Patrick likes to run his season by the Chinese calendar, thus beginning most of the Penguins' earnest efforts around February; or maybe he just hates shopping in the summer, whatever the rationale, if you're not entrenched in the Penguins' lineup early in the year, you're usually asking for a window seat on bus out of town.
Also, if one is to glean anything from the Penguins' first two games this season, it should be that this team is stuck somewhere between Penguins past and Penguins future. The good news is, this fight will be short. The better news is, youth will carry the day.
As evidenced in the late stages of Saturday's game against Anaheim, the kids not only want to play, they can play. But they're going to do it fast, and those who can't keep up aren't going to be much help. Worse, those who can't keep the pace will probably hurt this team, especially with its current, makeshift defense.
The rest of the Atlantic Division isn't going to be known for its speed this year, a contrast which will only help the Penguins, not to mention give them an effective counter-punch to the physical size of conference favorites New Jersey and Philadelphia. But, at this point in his career, speed is not what Kevin Stevens brings to the table.
Last season, Stevens proved a number of people wrong, including the pen behind this column. He did more than fill a roster spot, he brought heart, exuberance, and some much-needed grit to a Penguins team that lacked the better part of all three for far too long. He was a leader in the room, and he was someone who'd been to the top, crashed horribly, and was now on the rebound. Mario and the Penguins gave Stevens the chance to rehabilitate his career and his life in the town where he'd enjoyed perhaps his fondest hockey memories, and Stevens took full advantage of it.
Unfortunately, if Stevens is no longer going to be able to get back on the play, or provide the kind of gritty, hard-nosed, lunch-pail effort in front of the net and in the corners that he did last season, he's going to quickly be pushed out of the way by the Penguins' youth who have already started to claw their way up the roster. A few seasons ago, a Robbie Brown could be kept on the squad because the Penguins needed his experience and couldn't afford to let him go, the depth simply didn't exist. Not any more, and now, with a team so heavily populated on the front lines, the competition for a finite number of forward spots is getting tighter by the day.
Unless Kevin Stevens can turn it around, soon, it will likely be time for Mario to sit him down for a talk. More than being an owner, this will be about Mario being a friend. It's what any friend should do. But it will also probably be one moment where you wouldn't want to be Mario Lemieux for all the money in the world.
Brother Karsh appears at LGP.com weekly and believes that Kevin Stevens has beenand will beremembered as a great Penguin. Stevens will also now assuredly go on a goal scoring binge over the next few games just to prove Brother Karsh wrong once again.