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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

The Price of Subtlety

November 18, 2003

It would be unfair to say that no one showed up as Wayne Gretzky played out his stint in Los Angeles. After Gretzky carried the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Kings' attendance numbers were actually quite respectable. But L.A., like Atlanta and Miami in the east, is a notoriously fickle a sports town when you're not chalking up the wins.

Thus when Gretzky could no longer bear the weight of waiver wire fodder like John Druce and Robert Lang—not to mention head coach Barry Melrose and his mullet—the Great Western Forum was usually pretty empty, even when the majority of the seats were sold and filled.

What many of those fair-weather fans missed when they were only half-heartedly paying attention was a Gretzky who was admittedly past his prime, but whose game had evolved. He was slower, yet sharper. He was smarter, but less patient as his well-honed skills tried to make household names of Rob Cowie and Chris Snell. Perfect passes drifted harmlessly to the corners, would-be goals were roofed into the tenth row by the Pat Conachers of the world, and soon enough Gretzky was gone.

So now, as we see the same thing happen Mario Lemieux, the current "Greatest Hockey Player Ever," it shouldn't be forgotten that it happened to the last one too.

Watching the Mario Lemieux of today is almost nothing like watching the Mario Lemieux of years ago. When he came into the league his combination of size and skill were an anomaly. He was smart, but his strength allowed him to go through opponents when he decided to prove that the shortest distance between two points really is a straight line. He was so deft and his competition so unfamiliar with what he brought to the game that Lemieux regularly did the impossible.

Little of that is the case any more and while what remains is still remarkable, it is remarkable in a far different way.

By now, much of the league has caught up to or surpassed Lemieux in speed, strength, size, or all three. But like all great players, Mario has adjusted. These days, watching Mario play the game is watching the epitome of someone who understands the value of working smarter, not harder.

Originally, this was necessitated by injury, and it still might be to a point. Yet now when you watch Mario work, you watch less for the spectacular result, but more for the grace of the act itself. Lemieux now picks his spots, watches his work go mostly for naught, his points-per-game average drop another notch, and then returns to the bench.

Is it frustrating? Only Lemieux knows that for certain, it assuredly is for many of those fans who've been weaned on four goal, six point outings and end to end rushes that make the jaw drop. But now the game is different for Mario and perhaps the change is simply a subtle change in perspective.

Instead of playing to open up opportunities for himself, he's now playing to open up opportunities for others. The team still benefits, but now it's the team that is responsible for their own success, their own failure, not just Mario.

Perhaps that's why it's so maddeningly perfect that Lemieux is now teamed with Marc-Andre Fleury.

It's tough to take many positives from another loss or a 9-0 shutout, particularly when it may not be the worst this team endures this year. But these beatings certainly do say something about the Penguins' lineup.

There are two people on the Pittsburgh Penguins' roster who give this current team any real chance to win more than a handful of hockey games. Yes, that hurts to say when one of them will be sidelined for at least another week, but to pretend otherwise simply flies in the face of reality.

This is not to disparage the hard workers and young talents the Penguins have on the squad. You can start with goalie Sebastian Caron and work your way out through the likes of Brooks Orpik, Marty Straka, Rico Fata, Ryan Malone, Konstantin Koltzov, and the like and you'll not much want for talent or effort. But, hard as they may work and talented as they may be, right now they're a minor league hockey team playing an NHL schedule and learning on the job.

So you come back to the two. One, a star fading into the sunset. The other, a star just making his way to the stage. Then you see the rest of this team caught somewhere in the middle.

Can two keep another twenty afloat and a franchise above water? Perhaps. But as Mario continues to sit in the owner's box nursing an injury and the rest of the roster continues to make the case that they are not ready for the talents of Marc-Andre Fleury, you have to wonder.

Would this year be such a long, hard slog if the skills of Lemieux and Fleury weren't so subtle?

Marc-Andre Fleury has already made some spectacular saves (mostly out of necessity) and he will surely repeat the feat. But he's still a goalie and whether he's miraculous a few times a game or not, goalies aren't forwards. Likewise, when Mario makes a play these days it's usually reminiscent of the infamous play he made (or didn't make, depending on how you look at it) in Salt Lake City to help give Canada a gold medal.

Such plays may be eye-popping, but only to those who are looking for them. To the casual fan this brilliance is over-shadowed by how easy it all looks—if it's noticed at all.

When Marc-Andre Fleury stands on his head the scoreboard doesn't change and when Mario pulls a puck out of mid-air before putting a perfect pass on the stick of someone who can do nothing with it, the play rarely ends up on ESPN. Thus, what Penguin fans end up with is an echo from years ago. This beautiful subtlety which plays out within a contest the team loses by three goals.

In so many ways it's everything that's right about the game.

Now, if only it was enough to fill the building.

Brother Karsh appears weekly (well, usually he does) at LGP.com during the season and would travel to see this Penguins team, even though they are easily the worst in all of the NHL.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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