If you find it difficult to marshal an appreciable amount of sympathy for someone who enjoys so much prosperity and prestige, you're not alone. But think about this.
When Mario Lemieux took over the Penguins three seasons ago, the best offensive forward in the game, Jaromir Jagr, was going strong. He was surrounded by the likes of Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, and Robert Lang, and most importantly, he was still a Penguin. Moreover, Kovalev, Straka, and Lang were all looking forward to healthy, productive seasons of their own, and Pittsburgh's future was almost blindingly bright. Sadly, barely half of this can still be said today.
Heading into the fourth year of the Lemieux era, Jagr and Lang have both flown south to D.C. for the long green and Straka, though still a Penguin, is recuperating from his second major injury in less than a season. The good news is that Kovalev remains healthy and is ready to play. The bad news is that if the Penguins want to keep Kovalev from stealing away in the dead of night for more money, Pittsburgh might have ask Worldcom how they can 'find' the funds to do so.
Yet, if the problems were solely found at the top of the depth chart it might be understandable. All professional organizations lose talent, not just in every sport, but in every industry. It's merely the cycle of business. However, it's not that the Penguins are simply losing talent, it's that they're not replacing it. Nor do they seem to be developing it.
General Manager Craig Patrick can wax poetically about his brother in Wilkes-Barre all he likes, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore what washes ashore near Point State Park.
Draped on the faces of each new youngster to arrive in Pittsburgh there lies the same quizzical gaze, disoriented demeanor, and general uncertainty of what to do and where to be once they hit the Igloo ice. The reason? If the quotes in the local press are to be believed, the reason is communication. Prospect after prospect says that they didn't know what the minor league coaching staff wanted from them, that the staff didn't communicatein essence, that they weren't being coached much at all. Now, if the players were advanced enough not to need extensive preparation for the majors this might not be all that bad, but that just isn't the case. Take Milan Kraft for example.
Kraft dominated the junior ranks with his raw skill and was touted as the Penguins' next superstar. However, once the talent level of Kraft's opponents equaled or exceeded his own, Kraft could mostly be found circling the ice as if someone had just taken his lunch money. But it's hardly just Kraft, almost none of the players who come from the Baby Penguins appear adequately prepared for the NHL.
But, again, were this situation confined to only the minor league system, or to only the scouting system, it would be one thing. Unfortunately, this lack of quality coaching seems to continue unabated in Pittsburgh proper asat least to this point in his head coaching careerRick Kehoe has barely demonstrated the ability to coach a 99-cent burrito into a microwave, let alone a talented hockey prospect into a productive member the Penguins' every-day lineup.
But, wait, it gets better. We haven't even talked about the Penguins' off-ice issues yet. Namely, and probably most importantly, that the Penguins still play in the oldest building in the league and that the city of Pittsburgh, remarkably, has yet to see the value in helping the Penguins build a new arena.
Nevermind that that a multi-purpose arena would generate more yearly revenue than either a dedicated baseball or football stadium. Nevermind that other cites have shown how much new money such an arena can bring to town, not just in its construction or in hosting sporting events such as the NCAA Final or Frozen Four, but by providing a new venue for tradeshows, conventions, and more.
The fact that the city of Pittsburgh still considers it acceptable, even expected, that the Penguins should stand at the back of the line, again, is pathetic. Over the past decade, the Penguins have been more successful than the Steelers and Pirates combined. On top of which, a new arena for the Penguins could be used to attract more than just sports-related tourism to the town, yet this is hardly even being discussed.
Even worse, the arena debate is currently being shaped by everybody but the Penguins. Having to listen to the director of the Warhol Museum talk about the Penguins' arena situation is about as edifying as listening to Anna Nicole Smith explain the Electoral College. It's terrific that someone so completely tangential has an opinion, but just because you can formulate an opinion doesn't mean your opinion will have any relevance.
Build the Penguins a new home and it will bring money and jobs to Pittsburgh, it will keep professional hockey in Pittsburgh, and it will potentially help revitalize the Hill District. Is that too complicated an argument to make?
There are, of course, other problems for the team as well; problems with the NHL salary structure, with the budget, but the short version of the story is that the whole thing has degenerated into one big mess.
When this grand spectacle began to manifest itself in Mario's mind years ago, it must have seemed like such a brilliant idea. Take a team that's not too far removed from greatness, put it back on solid ground, and move on. Solidify your hero status by letting the team itself be your legacy and get back all the money you are rightfully owed in the processwelcome to the best of all worlds.
Only now, questions surround everything in this soap opera and the more this black comedy plays out, the more it looks like even Mario might not be able to save the Penguins from extinction.
Thankfully, there is still one hope to cling to.
It's the same hope the organization clung to years ago when Mario originally came to Pittsburgh in the first place and it's the same hope that keeps bringing people back to the Igloo today.
It's that Mario wouldn't have come to Pittsburgh if he didn't know what he was doing. That Mario wouldn't have taken over the team if he didn't have a plan.
Mario Lemieux was once, and arguably still is, the most imaginative offensive player in the game. Who better than Mario to attract the best, most inventive financial minds to this team in an effort to fund the Penguins a new Igloo? Who better than Mario to attract the best hockey minds around to coach the Penguins' youth, corral their veterans, and remind Craig Patrick that the name Francois Leroux is not synonymous with the term "forward-thinking."
Is there honestly anyone other than Mario, in the game or in the city, that you would want to take charge of this situation, find a way to shake the Penguins from their downward spiral, and put the team on solid ground in the town for decades to come?
Who else could pull it off?
Who else could find a way to be arguably the single best player the sport has ever seen and still have to work a miracle to keep Penguins hockey financially feasible in the city of Pittsburgh.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and when he's not fighting the NHL's institutionalized system of injustice during the off-season.