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PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby understands the Coyotes’ pain. He has lived it.
When the Penguins made Crosby the first overall pick in the 2005 NHL Draft, they were in the midst of the same sort of turmoil that is dogging the Coyotes right now.
Less than five years earlier, owners Howard Baldwin and Roger Marino had placed the Penguins in bankruptcy. Among their debts was more than $32 million in salary owed to former star Mario Lemieux, who led Pittsburgh to two Stanley Cups and sits eighth all-time in NHL points with 1,723.
Lemieux solved the issue in September of 1999 when he exchanged that deferred salary for equity/ownership of the team, but the Penguins’ problems weren’t over. They still needed a new arena to replace decrepit Mellon Arena, and when those promises from civic leaders stalled for several years, there was talk that Lemieux would uproot the team and take it to Kansas City.
When Crosby arrived on the scene for the 2005-06 season, the Penguins had high hopes of moving past the 2003-04 season in which they finished dead last in the NHL, and a season-canceling lockout the next season. They had also drafted defenseman Kris Letang in 2005, they had signed defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a five-year, $25 million deal, they had signed free-agent right wing Zigmund Palffy to a three-year, $13.5 million contract and they had signed forward John LeClair to a two-year deal.
They still went 22-46-12 to finish second to last in the league standings.
“The first nine games stick out because we lost the first nine games,” said Crosby of a start that saw five of those losses go to OT or a shootout. “I remember the expectations were pretty high. We had a lot of free-agent signings and a good mix of younger players and players that had won and been around for a while so to lose the first nine games was a pretty big eye opener.”
The losing only fueled talk of relocation.
“It was difficult,” Crosby said. “You knew that it was out there, that it was being talked about, that it was a possibility, but as a player, it’s out of your control so I think you just try to play and hope for the best. I think we understood the kind of support that was here for the team. We hoped and trusted that would prove to be something that allowed them to stay.”
One year later, the future looked much brighter for Pittsburgh. Their 2004 first-round pick (No. 2 overall), Evgeni Malkin arrived from Magnitogorsk Metallurg in Russia, 2003 first overall pick Marc-André Fleury found his groove in his second season, and late in the 2006-07 season, the Penguins reached financial terms with government officials on a new $290-million arena.
The Penguins went 47-24-11 that season to make the playoffs.
“We had a tough year but a really good finish to my first year,” Crosby said. “I think there was a lot of momentum and just a lot of optimism around the team at the end of that year so I think that carried over into the next year. Everyone was excited and getting Geno was huge. I mean, we’d heard a lot about him, but until we saw him up close and seeing him dominate like that early on was great. He gave us a huge lift, a huge boost and I think we all felt like we could be competitive at that point.”
The following year, the Penguins went all the way to the Cup Final, and the year after that they won it.
Comparisons are never perfect and they are never complete so it would be overplaying the narrative to suggest that the Coyotes need only follow the Penguins’ blueprint. The Coyotes don’t have the track record of past success that the Penguins had when Lemieux took over. And then there was Pittsburgh’s draft luck.
“The Penguins got Fleury, Malkin and Crosby in back-to-back-to-back drafts,” said Ed Olczyk, who coached those two miserable Penguins seasons in 2003-04 and 2005-06. “Until the Coyotes get a star or two, it will be the same old, same old.”
At the same time, Olczyk believes in the long-term plan that the Coyotes are following. Pittsburgh took the same approach, with one exception.
“The plan was in place and the only time we deviated from the plan was when we won the lottery and Sid came,” Olczyk said. “Then we tried to make the playoffs by signing Palffy and Gonchar and Leclair. We tried a quick fix. It did not work so then we took a step back and then they took off.”
Despite his experiences, Crosby hesitates to offer much advice for the Coyotes players other than the part that they likely already know.
“It’s hard to say because I don’t really know a lot about the current situation there,” he said. “Anytime there’s uncertainty around team or ownership and that sort of thing, there’s always going to be a feel amongst the players or they’re going to sense that, but it’s something that I think we all understand is part of it.
“If you have gone through it like we have here, then I think you understand that part of it’s out of your control and all you can do is go out there and play and hope that it resolves itself.”
When the Coyotes face the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday in their season opener, they will be staring at the best resolution imaginable.
Top photo of Sidney Crosby via Getty Images
Special thanks to Evan Schall with the Pittsburgh Penguins for facilitating this interview.
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