Where Have You Gone, Ron Francis?
November 22, 2001
This holiday season, when the country will most likely show its thanks for everything it has by rushing out to score a big-ticket item or two on the busiest shopping day of the year, the Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot to be thankful for. Though they find themselves residing in the Atlantic Division cellar at present, the Penguins are still only ten points removed from the Eastern Conference leading New Jersey Devils, and only four points behind the Philadelphia Flyersone of the reigning favorites to win it all.
In fact, eight wins don't look too shabby when they're tallied up against the games lost to injury by the likes of Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev, and Martin Straka, just to name a few. However, for all the warm and fuzzy holiday feelings one can glean from these Penguins right now, there is still something that is just impossible to ignore.
Like someone stumbling around their home after the power has suddenly gone out, the Penguins often flail wildly around the Igloo, bruising their shins and haphazardly knocking over end tables. It's their home, yet so often they look anything but comfortable in it and this is something that has gone one for seasons. Why?
One potential reason is that this team is absolutely leaderless.
Ah, and the cries of "Heresy!" rain down from the heavens. However, before dusting off the old pitchfork and ringing up the lynch-mob, remember this.
While it is true that names like Straka, Kovalev, and Lemieux have all shown the ability to be an indispensable part of a championship roster, not one of them has shown the capacity to consistently and cohesively mold the Pittsburgh Penguins into a single band of brothers, one where each player has one well-defined role that, when then added together with the rest of the squad, creates a combatant worthy of the Stanley Cup.
Even Lemieux, as great as he isas much as he repeatedly tries to strap the team to his backeven he is unable to rally every one of these troops into position. Maybe it's the injuries, maybe it's his desire to be "just one of the boys," but whatever it is, this team hasn't had a quality field general since Ron Francis left town and anybody who's sat through one of the many half-hearted efforts at the Igloo knows this all too well.
Perhaps spending seasons with talents like Jagr and Lemieux, the rest of the team eventually became accustomed to just staying in the game so it could later be won in dramatic fashion by one of Pittsburgh's superstars as some fictional movie script might suggest. Or maybe it's because Lemieux and Jagr have always been more Herculean than Odyssean; characters better suited to single-handedly overcoming individual labors as opposed to someone able to lead a crew of men through troubled waters to an ultimate end. Yet, the more the Penguins continue, game after game, season after season, to return home and subject the paying public to and effort hardly worthy of any team that can call itself a Stanley Cup contender with a straight face, the more it's no surprise that the Igloo is half empty by the third period and the phone hardly rings in the ticket office the next morning.
These games matter, these two points matter, and most importantly, the effort that is put forth matters.
Worse, the solution is painfully simple. Perhaps this is what makes it one of the most complex things General Manager Craig Patrick has to deal with.
Mario Lemieux is a superstar. He can win games all by himself, but he's not twenty-three any more and the more Penguins that jump on his back expecting a free ride, the more games Mario will lose to injury. Meanwhile, Alexei Kovalev is cut from the same swatch of cloth that brought Pittsburgh Jaromir Jagr, getting incrementally better the less you ask him to leadand Martin Straka, he's on the shelf until March.
Thus it seems apparent that if the Penguins have any designs on teaching their blessed influx of talented youth that in hockey (as in life) you have to work for what you get, someone else must be brought in. Someone who will not take Mario's command, but complement it. Someone who can point to a spot on the ice, put a Penguin in it, and get positive results.
Pittsburgh used to have such a player in Ron Francis. Unfortunately, he moved on when the organization could no longer afford his services, but since that time, when the Penguins fail to show up, they often look like a ship with no rudder and one can't help but remember the type of player that could curtail such behavior at least some of the time. Such a recollection can't be helped, because just such a player was here, in Pittsburgh, not long ago.
The player these Penguins need may be a household name, he may not. He may be on Craig Patrick's radar screen at the moment, he may not. But one thing seems certain, with each passing game Penguin patrons are coming to realize that this player is certainly not on the Penguins' current roster. So while Penguin fans do have a lot to be thankful for this November, the smart money says that the Penguin players of the future would probably be a little more thankful if they could have someone out there every night who was in command of this team on the ice.
Should the Penguins choose not to acquire such a player, or should he not be able to step forth from deep within the depth chart, this squad will eventually end up at the mercy of the of the prevailing hockey winds. At which point, one could argue that the day the Penguins stop controlling their own destiny is the day that city of Pittsburgh may very well turn its attention back toward the football season.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes Mario Lemieux becomes unstoppable when he has someone to play off of. Brother Karsh is also thankful that he has the Penguins to complain about at all, and that this season's a long way from cooked.