Imagine making the transition from player to coach and in your rookie season of coaching, you were “gifted” the return of the one of the greatest players ever to lace up a pair of skates.
Such was the case in 2003 for Ed Olczyk.
Rick Kehoe had been relieved of his duties 2 seasons into his coaching tenure after finishing 5th place twice and missing the playoffs both years.
Olczyk who appeared in over 1000 NHL games and played 2 seasons for Penguins (1996-1998) had accepted the head coaching job with Pittsburgh. Not a bad place to start, given he had little coaching experience (let's keep in focus that this was 2003 Pittsburgh, not 2016 Pittsburgh) and had spent the time since his retirement in the press box.
Some would say given the mediocre appearance of the team the expectations on Olczyk were low. The Penguins had cleared millions in payroll off the books and were going into the season without a clear number 1 goalie, a blue line anchored by NHL journeymen, a few star players and a plethora of rookies that had yet to “arrive” (Malone, Fleury, and Scuderi).
Olczyk on expectations, “The expectations of people outside the organization don’t mean a lot to me.” Adding, “If people think I’m living on easy street because what we’ve done in the last six or seven months, well, that’s not right."
So, on September 30, 2003 when Mario Lemieux announced he would be returning for the 2003-2004 season, Olczyk’s prospects for a fruitful season took a huge leap in the right direction.
Olczyk on Mario’s announcement, “I am a better coach now, than I was 30 minutes ago.”
Hard to argue with that.
From a pure pressure standpoint, the prospect of having your boss on ice level with you, potentially critiquing every move you made, had to be enough to send a chill to the marrow of Olczyk’s bones.
For what it is worth, Lemieux would only appear in 10 games before going down with a hip injury (again) sustained on November 1, 2003 while playing the Boston Bruins. (Lemieux would only appear in 26 more games before retiring for the second time in January of 2006.)
How did Eddie “O” fair in his first season behind the bench?
For the third season in a row the Penguins finished last in the Atlantic Division and failed to make the playoffs. The team finished 30th Overall in the goals allowed (303), allowed the most powerplay goals (84), allowed the most shorthanded goals (15) and finished 30th overall in penalty kill 77.24%. There was also an hideous 18 game losing streak (0-17-1).
Attendance was also an area of concern, the Penguins averaged 11,877 attendees per game which placed them 30th in the league.
Were there any bright spots in the otherwise abysmal season?
I think so.
In the first 62 games of the season the Penguins went 11-42-5-4 good for 31 points. However, during the final 20 games they went 12-5-3-0 a small improvement, but an improvement none the less.
Dick Tarnstrom led the team in assists and points and became the first defenseman in Penguins history to lead the team in scoring for an entire season. At the trade deadline Pittsburgh acquired Ric Jackman from the Blues. The duo were brilliant together on the powerplay and were dubbed the “Ric and Dick show”.
Rookie Ryan Malone led the way in goal scoring for the Penguins with 22 and added 21 assists (43 points) he was also named to the 2003-2004 All-Rookie team.
Defenseman Rob Scuderi also made his Penguins debut that season leading the team with a plus 2 rating.
18 year old Marc-Andre Fleury, the 1st overall pick in the 2003 entry draft, made 21 appearances that season putting together a record of 4-14-2 with a GAA of 3.64 and a save percentage of 0.896. He also recorded the first shutout of his career against the Chicago Blackhawks on October 30th (1-0).
They say it is always darkest before the dawn and the 2003-2004 season could be considered some very dark times indeed for the black and vegas gold.
Although the Penguins would “lose” the draft lottery that year and have to settle for the 2nd pick overall (Malkin). The elements were beginning to come to together to usher a in new era of Penguins hockey and the rebirth of the franchise was only a couple of years away.
So what happened to Olczyk?
His second season of coaching was to be one filled with pomp and circumstance as the "new era" of the NHL had begun. Pittsburgh loaded up on veteran talent to complement the arrival of Sidney Crosby and Co. and the team was forecasted to have a favourable season.
Sadly, the Penguins started the season 8-17-6, losing the first 9 games and posted one of the worst starts in franchise history.
On December 15, 2005 the Penguins made a change. Firing Olczyk and hiring Michel Therrien.
After losing 8 of 9, management knew the players had “checked out” and lost respect for Olczyk. Whatever the message Olczyk was sending, clearly was getting lost in translation.
Craig Patrick on the change, " The Minnesota loss was very disturbing", Pittsburgh was mauled 5-0, “the team had shown its face and for whatever reason they weren't listening." Adding "I can't say why, the players didn't respond to Olczyk. But we're going to find a solution."
Olczyk became the first coaching casualty of the season. His cumulative record in 113 games was 31-64-14-4.
His term with the Penguins would prove to be his only taste of coaching (so far) in the NHL and he has since returned to broadcasting booth where he continues to electrify audiences world wide.
He did return to Pittsburgh on April 8, 2010 when he joined 49 other Penguin alumni on the ice in a pre-game ceremony during the final home game at Mellon Arena.
I feel he did the best he could, with the pieces he had. It was a very complex situation he was thrust into and he handled it with dignity and class.
I hope you enjoyed this retrospective piece of Penguins history and invite you to visit thepensreport.com every wednesday for some new content. Also, be on the lookout for some special articles from the once.a.penguin archives that will be making their way onto the site very soon.
As the saying goes “Once a Penguin, Always a Penguin”
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