When Craig Patrick was hired to replace Tony Esposito in December 1989, it was his last shot to reform his image as just another man living off his family's name. Patrick stopped at nothing to bring a winner to Pittsburgh and a Stanley Cup ring to his name. He would hire Badger Bob Johnson as head coach and Scotty Bowman as Director of Player Personnel to surround himself with the best because he was motivated to shed the label, something a decade later would no longer be a driving force.
The desire to win paid off handsomely as he took the risk to draft Czech Republic winger Jaromir Jagr during the 1990 June Entry Draft. Scouts and team personnel across the NHL were worried it would be too difficult to pry Jagr out of the Czech Republic but Pittsburgh felt they could do it.
During the 1990-91 summer to trade deadline, Patrick would sign or acquire Bryan Trottier, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, Jiri Hrdina, Gordie Roberts, Peter Taglianetti, Grant Jennings, and Scott Young. The moves paid off as each player had a role in the team's first Cup over Minnesota North Stars.
Badger Bob controlled the team, Bowman was an eagle's eye in the box and Patrick listened well. It was a dream team of hockey minds that unfortunately came to a crushing halt as Badger Bob passed away due to a brain cancer in November of 1991. Bowman was already the interim head coach in hopes Badger could overcome the disease but Patrick still had quality men in the organization as guys like Barry Smith and Pierre McGuire were around helping Bowman on his staff.
The team would have to go to the trade well again to right a struggling ship during the 1991-92 season acquiring Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, and Ken Wregget from Philadelphia. The moves were the spring board to another Stanley Cup win, this time over Mike Keenan's Chicago Blackhawks.
It was during this Cup season, players began to tune out Bowman because he was more of head games type of guy and wasn't like Badger Bob. The Penguins would dominate during the 1992-93 season but would fall to New York Islanders in a major second round upset thanks to the physical clutch-n-grab tactics of guys like rookie defensemen Darius Kasparaitis.
This was all happening as owner Howard Baldwin was becoming a significant ear for Mario Lemieux and the players through Lemieux made it quite known they had their fill of Bowman. After the playoff disappointment, Bowman would leave for Detroit to bring back glory for Red Wing fans in the tune of 3 Cups.
How did the death of Badger Bob and the backstabbing of Bowman reflect negatively toward Patrick, he decided to hire a friend of Lemieux as the next head coach. Eddie Johnston was the man who drafted Lemieux and happened to be the GM of the Hartford Whalers in the Ron Francis-Ulf Samuelsson trade to Pittsburgh.
EJ was a great hockey man but his age and closeness to players like Lemieux and Francis eroded any chance of being a disciplinarian, especially after the players ran Bowman out of Pittsburgh. This coaching move solidified the infamous "Country Club" atmosphere that has permeated this franchise ever since.
When it was clear the franchise was in a transition period with the retirement of Lemieux after the 96-97 season, Patrick had no choice but to hire a qualified hockey coach to give the organization an opportunity to win with younger players and a need for more defensive stability.
Kevin Constantine was known as a tough to like coach for players but fans took to his approach to give hard work rewards, rather than laziness that had existed under Johnston for three-plus seasons. The two season plus coaching tenure of Constantine ended in another weak moment for Patrick as the players revolted with the video and practice sessions plus the style of play.
The players quit on Constantine forcing Patrick to go back to a friend, this time hiring Herb Brooks. It appeared to be a match made in heaven as the Penguins were an offensively skilled team with Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang, Martin Straka, Jan Hrdina, German Titov, Alexei Morozov, Jiri Slegr, Michal Rozsival, and Janne Laukkanen.
Brooks would have none of it after the team lost in the second round as he could not stay quiet while the key offensive stars refused to play within a framework of team play. It was thought since the team was mainly run by Jagr and a few of his Czech friends, Patrick believed the legendary head coach Ivan Hlinka could have their respect to be a little more team oriented.
All it did was embolden Jagr and some others to play their way under a soft left-wing-lock. The team struggled forcing Mario Lemieux to step out of his ownership box and back to the ice. The team couldn't afford to lose millions if they failed to make the playoffs and Lemieux felt this would be his last shot to play in front of his children and have a great opportunity to win another Stanley Cup.
The face of the franchise since Lemieux's retirement was Jagr and though Lemieux's comeback seem to waken Jagr's dull play on the scoring sheet, by the end of the season, Jagr would proclaim he was "dying alive". He felt Lemieux had already passed the torch to be the team's and game's face but his comeback did nothing but take away his airtime as the leader and began to believe he would need to leave Pittsburgh to ever write his own script.
It was this poorly written script of Jagr's that began the final act of Craig Patrick's tenure as General Manger in Pittsburgh.
Patrick received offers from Los Angeles, NY Rangers, and Washington for Jagr but feeling a sense of disdain for the way he was treated in New York during his tenure as the Rangers GM, Patrick decided to move Jagr for three B level prospects and $5 million to the Capitals. There is no other way to describe the decision of Patrick but pure selfishness on his part. He knew Jagr wanted to play in New York, he knew the Rangers badly wanted him and he knew the NHL really wanted it to happen.
The Penguins received prospects that have amounted to a bucket of pucks.
It was the virtual donation by the Penguins that eliminated any chance of Patrick holding strong on other deals like Kovalev back to New York, Straka to Los Angeles, allowing Lang to walk via free agency, Kasparaitis to Colorado, and Jan Hrdina to Phoenix.
While highly skilled players were leaving Pittsburgh, many wondered out loud how the Penguins with a bare cupboard were going to compete. Patrick's failures to have quality men in the front office or behind the bench would be one aspect of blame but his draft and development record from 1993-1999 is a record that deserves the most.
It was during this time period, Patrick felt the team was rich in talent to spend little time and money on scouting and development of prospects. The Penguins drafted Stefan Bergkvist (26), Chris Wells (24), Alexei Morozov (24), Craig Hillier (23), Robert Dome (17), Milan Kraft (23), and Konstantin Koltsov (18) in the first round from 1993 to 1999. Koltsov is the only player in the NHL and struggles to maintain a spot on the team's bottom two lines. The career NHL totals would 1040 games, 151 goals, and 225 assists.
Since 1993 to 2005 drafts by Pittsburgh, 43 players have played in the NHL. Of those 19 are still property of the Penguins in the NHL and AHL and 8 others are in the NHL for other organizations. How bad have the drafts been? Sidney Crosby has tallied the most points in one season than any player and only trails Morozov for career point totals.
During this time period, many NHL teams have deepened their scouting departments and have also created rookie tournaments and player development camps in the summer and before training camp.
Then we come to today's news in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat reporter Dave Molinari reporting Penguins President and CEO Ken Sawyer was very non-committal towards the future of Patrick as GM or his work this season and past. It is a relatively unknown piece of information about the Penguins were willing to let Craig Patrick shuffle his way to San Jose before Sharks ownership decided to hire their current GM Doug Wilson.
The lack of support by Sawyer with a contract set to expire for Patrick has churned the rumor mill for the GM to be ready for a new job. Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs is expected to ask current GM Mike O'Connell to step down and take a job in another capacity to allow Patrick to step into the GM position. It should come to no one's surprise then, when Patrick announces his resignation before the final home game on April 17th.
Vancouver Canucks Assistant GM Steve Tambellini is the leading candidate for the job with Chicago Blackhawks Director of Player Personnel Rick Dudley, Dallas Stars Assistant GM Les Jackson, and Detroit Red Wings Assistant GM Jim Nill to be involved in the interview process if Tambellini declines the offer or takes a job elsewhere.
As the curtain closes for one, another one will open for a lucky man in charge of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney, Noah Welch and this year's 2006 #1 pick.