As 2009 winds down it's time to look back on the decade that was. Japers Rink had a great list of the Washington Capitals all-decade team, and Puck Daddy hoped that all the SB Nation teams would follow suit. So here's the Pittsburgh entry for the decade that was.
The Decade of the '00s saw the Pittsburgh Penguins experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They had four 40+ loss seasons and four 40+ win seasons. They either had very bad years or very good years.
In the beginning of the decade Mario Lemieux thrillingly returned in December 2000, a brief peak before the economic climate of the "old NHL" forced Pittsburgh into the gutter. The Pens dealt away talents the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, Darius Kasparaitis and Robert Lang for pennies on the dollar of their hockey-worth and suffered with four straight non-playoff seasons. During that time, they reloaded through the draft with several high picks that would be the core of the ultimate redemption: the 2009 Stanley Cup. With a new CBA, a new arena almost open, and the two best offensive centers (and arguably players) in the game at age 23 and 22, the Penguins are poised to be competitive for the forseeable future.
It was a wild ride though, with six different head coaches (assuming Dan Bylsma is safe); starting out with the late, great Herb Brooks during the 2000 season. With 30 games to go in the calendar year, the decade record stands at 311 wins, 306 losses, 52 OT losses and 36 ties (remember them?)
After the jump, we highlight all the individual players now named to the Pittsburgh Penguins All-Decade team, which includes: 4 scoring titles in the 9 seasons played, 2 Lester B. Pearson winners, 1 Hart Trophy, 4 first-team NHL All-Stars.
|Mario Lemieux (2000-06)||170||77||152||229||-28||97||19||0||4||579|
Returning to the sport at age 35, Lemieux was the league's leading points/game getter in 2000-01. Various injuries to hips and the ever-present bad back robbed Mario of many of his latter playing days and a revealed heart condition in 2006 put the spike in his career's coffin. Off the ice, owner Lemieux steered the Penguins through bankruptcy, danced with Pennsylvania politicians for a badly needed new arena and saved the franchise. That's worth a spot on this team any day of the decade. Hey, he owns it.
|Sidney Crosby (2005-09)||301||138||270||408||+36||301||45||1||16||980|
100 point scorer as an 18 year old, MVP and scoring champion at age 19. Youngest permanent captain at age 20, Stanley Cup winner at age 21. There's about literally nothing Crosby hasn't yet done in the early years of his career, which can only make one wonder what the future holds. Crosby already an industry with books, videos, museum exhibits and countless items of merchandise dedicated to him.
|Alexei Kovalev (2000-03)||246||115||152||267||+1||284||32||5||16||924|
With spectacular skill and a couple years in his prime, Alexei Kovalev cracks the All-Decade team. He finished fourth in the league in scoring during the 2000-01 season and had a couple good years playing with Lemieux on the top line in the leaner years that followed. Unfortunately though the Pens would have to trade Kovalev (and salary dumps of Mike Wilson, Dan LaCouture and Janne Laukkanen) back to the Rangers for a not-so great return of Rico Fata, Michael Samuelsson, Joel Bouchard and the all important cash consideration.
|Sergei Gonchar (2005-09)||269||45||161||206||-1||168||32||1||8||648|
Early in his Penguin career, Gonchar was seen as a UFA bust, but he transitioned his game from "offensive-defenseman" into "well-rounded-#1-defenseman" and is a linchpin of the Stanley Cup champion. A wizard on the power-play, Gonchar's among the league leading scorers from the blueline over the decade of the 2000's, and his contributions for the Pens were a large part of the reason they turned last season around and won the Stanley Cup.
|Brooks Orpik (2003-09)||387||6||50||56||-22||475||1||0||0||247|
Perhaps as a mark of longevity, given Orpik was drafted into the organization in 2000, he's stuck around the longest (no one has pulled the sweater on more this decade). A guy like Michal Rozsival or Dick Tarnstrom certainly would have made this list if they stuck around longer, but they didn't. Orpik's improved every season, positionally he's solid and dishes out hits now wisely, not recklessly.
|Marc-Andre Fleury (2003-09)||244||13,915||119||86||26||660||2.85||7114||6454||.907||15|
Amazingly, the still precocious 24 year old goalie is already staking his claim to the franchise's goalie records: Fleury's first in team history in GAA and save percentage, 2nd in wins, shutouts and total saves (all behind Tom Barrasso) and already 3rd in total games played for a goalie. MAF was the championship piece in winning the Stanley Cup and, with six more years on his contract, figures to continue and pile up the stats in the decade to come.
And to fill-out the team, here's the rest of the lineup:
Lemieux - Crosby - Kovalev
If all were healthy, this line would absolutely own the puck. Kovalev's skating and shooting ability, Crosby driving the net and controlling the puck down low, and Mario doing what Mario does, making plays. An absolutely sublime and unfair grouping of talent.
Martin Straka - Evgeni Malkin - Jaromir Jagr
Not many team's "2nd line" on a decade team would feature two scoring championships, but it speaks to the level of depth of skill the Penguins have treated their fans to over the years. Though Jagr was mercurial and a handful at times away from the ice, there's no doubt about his talent or dedication he showed to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A mix of grit and skil here, with the hometown boy Malone, the hulking power-forward in Jordan Staal and Aleksey Morozov, who's pre-lockout transformation into a solid NHL scorer has become over-looked by his return to Russia.
Jan Hrdina - Robert Lang - Mark Recchi
The smooth passing Honza Hrdina played wing-man to Jagr enough to earn a spot on this team, recording over 200 points in the 2000's for the Penguins. Robert Lang was an instrumental setup man for Kovalev and Straka in his Penguin and Mark Recchi chugged along beside Sid Crosby for a few years.
Gonchar - Orpik
The #1 pairing of the Stanley Cup title winning team. It's got Gonchar's all-around ability paired with Orpik's positional play.
Dick Tarnstrom - Rob Scuderi
Tarnstrom will be the great answer to the trivia question: "who was the last Penguin not named Malkin or Crosby to lead the Penguins in scoring". Scuderi showed continual improvement year after year and became a defensive stalwart, the true picture of development and preserverance.
Ryan Whitney - Darius Kasparaitis
While much derided by some fans, Whitney put up 150 points in 253 games with the Penguins. He might not have been physical as fans like, so how about pairing him with the rambunctious Kasparaitis, at one time the most feared and devastating hitter in the game (apologies to Scott Stevens).
Honorable mention: Andrew Ference
Endured some growing pains along with the team early in the decade, but blossomed into a Stanley Cup caliber one as we close it.
(Backup) Johan Hedberg
The "Moose" burst onto the scene and captured fans hearts back in 2001, leading the Pens to the EC Finals as a 27 year old NHL rookie. He'd stick around and get shelled for two more seasons before moving on, but his place in Pittsburgh folklore is established.
So there you have it, a roster of enormous skill. Between Jagr, Lemieux, Malkin and Crosby we capture the wonderful mix past and present super stars that any franchise would love to have one of, yet alone four in the course of this decade. To be that good and get the high picks we suffered -- who could forget the 0-17-1 stretch in 2003-04? But with the current economics of the sport, those days have past. The turbulence of the 2000's; with questions of relocation and shady suitors like "Boots" Del Biaggo and Jim Balsillie are gone, replaced by a sterling new venue and the promise of more trophies to come.
As wild as the 2000's were, all the focus can be on winning championships and keeping to core built this decade in tact for the next.