On March 4, 1997 The Penguins made a mid-season Coaching change.
Two time coach Eddie Johnston was out and General Manager Craig Patrick was in.
There were only 20 games left in the season and Pittsburgh was in the midst of a significant losing streak dropping 8 of 9 contests. Their cumulative record to that point was 31-26-5. Good enough for second place in the Northeast Division.
Aside from the losing streak, were things in Pittsburgh as bad as they seemed?
Let's take deeper look.
There were huge expectations surrounding the Pens and much like today the core cast of players: Lemieux, Jagr, Francis, Nedved and Kevin Hatcher were accused of under achieving.
A look at the stats of those players seems to suggest otherwise. The following were point totals at the end of the season:
Those numbers Look pretty good to me.
The previous season the Pens were exiled in the Eastern Conference Final by the Florida Panthers in 7 games.
That must have been quite a blow to the collective million dollar egos of the organization.
So did the Penguins start the next season “Screaming For Vengeance”?
They started the season with a record of 2-9-0. Not a stellar way to begin what was to be Mario Lemieux’s first farewell tour.
There was a glimmer of hope though, In the form of rookie sensation Patrick Lalime.
Tom Barrasso suffered a season ending shoulder injury a mere 5 games into the season, allowing Lalime to be summoned from the depths of the IHL. His first appearance occurred on December 6th replacing Ken Wregget in the cage, with his first start occurring the next night against Anaheim.
Lalime went on a (League record) incredible 14-0-2 run, Providing the Penguins with a much needed spark. Surely, the fire was now stoked and flame burning bright, Right?
Pittsburgh did not win a road game after Feb 5th.
After Johnston's firing Patrick was quoted as saying “We got a ship that is off course and listing, and we’ve got to back on course.”
Mario Lemieux was surprised by the move and loss of his friend as coach. but understood the logic behind it.
Lemieux added “If a team is not doing too well, coaches don’t stick around too long. I think mainly it is a fresh start” Lemieux had been instrumental in getting Johnston hired in 1993 after ties with Scotty Bowman were cut.
This was the second time that Craig had accepted interim coach duties. The first occurred during the 1989-90 season when he replaced Gene Ubriaco.
After Craig Patrick assumed the command did things get better?
I guess it depends on your view of a glass with water in it.
Patrick went 7-10-3 down the stretch and the Penguins staggered into the playoffs with as much moxy as a box full of kittens.
Their first round opponent were the dreaded Philadelphia Flyers and the Pens were systematically dismantled in 5 games. (To be fair, Philly did earn the Eastern Conference Championship that season)
It wasn't all doom and gloom, however.
Lemieux did capture the Art Ross Trophy and The Penguins finished first in goals scored with 285.
Coupled with that the Penguins were very active in trade market and made approx 12 deals from June 96’ to March ‘97 to upgrade the roster. Darius Kasparaitis, Stu Barnes, Jason Woolley and Petr Klima were some of the players brought in to elevate the depth of the franchise.
In June 1997 Kevin Constantine was hired as Head Coach and had a rather interesting tenure as well.
But worry not Eddie Johnston was reassigned as assistant GM. Which would have made for an interesting work arrangement between himself and Patrick. I am sure the extension he signed in June of 1996 helped cushion the blow.
Thanks for reading.