You're an NHL coach and you take over a franchise that just lost
alltime great Mario Lemieux to retirement, and you guide that
team to an unexpected division title anyway. Then, in the
off-season, you see the club's captain and best center, Ron
Francis, bolt as a free agent while the squad's co-owners, Roger
Marino and Howard Baldwin, call each other stupid and wrestle
for control of the team.
Penguins second-year coach Kevin Constantine could lament all
that, as well as the club's move to the much tougher Atlantic
Division and the continuing holdout of restricted free-agent
center Petr Nedved. But Constantine doesn't mention a word about
the franchise's difficulties. He's either fully focusing on the
task at hand or he's suffering from a colossal case of
self-delusion. Says Constantine, "We're thinking we want to do
even better than last year."
Not likely. The Penguins lack the size to bang with new division
rivals New Jersey and Philadelphia, and they'll start the year
without hard-hitting defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, who injured a
knee in the preseason. Fragile goalie Tom Barrasso had a career
year in '97-98, and he will have to remain healthy for Pittsburgh
to stay competitive.
The Penguins were already short on scorers before losing
Francis, a locker-room sage and the NHL's seventh-leading
point-getter last season. Star right wing Jaromir Jagr, who
signed a four-year, $40 million extension last January, is the
obvious choice to assume the team's captaincy, but he's a cutup,
not a guy who kicks garbage cans between periods or gets in the
face of a dawdling teammate. Even Jagr acknowledges his
shortcomings. "I'd like to try to be captain," he says. "But a
lot of people don't think I can."
A lot of people don't think the Penguins will make the playoffs,
either. But don't expect Constantine to admit it.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA A heavier burden will fall on Jagr this season. [Jaromir Jagr in game]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
Goalie Tom Barrasso, a finalist for the 1998 Vezina Trophy, had
career-best numbers in several categories, including
goals-against average (2.07), save percentage (.922) and
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--General manager Craig Patrick must continue to make outstanding
trades--he stole Stu Barnes from the Panthers in 1997--for a
club that counts every penny.
--The Penguins need to stick to coach Kevin Constantine's
disciplined system, or it could be a long season.