The Pittsburgh Penguins have won five Stanley Cups and made six Stanley Cup Final appearances. In five of the six seasons which ended with Final appearances, a mid-season shakeup occurred. The following is the first in a series from PHN contributor and amateur Penguins historian Rob Joncas.
–By early December of 1990, the Penguins struggled. The team missed the playoffs the year before and showed little signs of the championship moxie which was on full display in the spring of 1991. They were 5th place in the Patrick Division and were without the talents of Mario Lemieux, who had yet to skate in a single game after a nasty back infection left him sidelined until the end of January.
One of the critical deficiencies management addressed in the Penguins line-up was the lack of size on the defensive end of the ice. Head coach Bob Johnson knew what Pittsburgh needed stating, “We need some bigger, stronger bodies in there,”
The prognosis was good for Lemieux’s return, but that didn’t ease the tensions as the Pens hit a 2-8-1 skid.
Penguins GM Craig Patrick made immediate moves to add size. The Penguins recalled left winger Troy Loney and defenseman Jim Kyte from Muskegon of the now-defunct IHL. Both players provided significant girth to the roster as Kyte, measured at 6’5 and Loney 6’3 respectively.
On Dec 12. 1991 Patrick made the first of several deals which provided a significant impact on the Penguins championship timbre. His willing trading partner was Minnesota North Stars GM Bobby Clarke, who was also looking to shake up his roster.
The Penguins obtained defensemen Larry Murphy and Peter Taglianetti from the North Stars for defensemen Chris Dahlquist and Jim Johnson.
Clarke surrendered Murphy’s offensive output to acquire the solid defensive work that Dahlquist and Johnson added to the North Stars. It also didn’t hurt that both Johnson and Dahlquist were natives of the gopher state.
This deal was the first of five which Patrick made before the trade deadline.
The Murphy deal was a great start and showed the NHL that the Penguins were to become a force to be reckoned with as Mario ascended toward greatness.
Good Bye to the Past
Between December and March of 1991, the Penguins play showed slight levels of improvement, but the overall consensus was their game was still inconsistent. Not satisfied with the direction of the team, Patrick made a couple of moves.
Patrick sent Kyte to Calgary for Jiri Hrdina on Dec. 13, 1990. Then Patrick dealt Rob Brown to the Hartford Whalers for forward/defensemen Scott Young.
Brown had been a highly productive forward for the Penguins. He scored 49 and 33 goals in the previous two seasons, respectively. However, Brown fell out of favor with the Pittsburgh brass, due to his apparent “hotdogging” tendencies and “lazy” approach to gameday preparations.
The Detroit Red Wings were making a hard push to acquire Brown’s services to put him on a line with Steve Yzerman, but the Penguins were adamant the return had to have a high value.
Published media reports of the time, indicated the Red Wings unhappiness, “You hear that the Penguins are fed up with Brown, but that doesn’t show in what they ask for him in a trade,” said a member of Wings management. “All of a sudden, he’s the equivalent of Mario Lemieux.”
The Penguins moved Brown to center, more out of necessity, then as a mechanism of motivation. With the absence of Lemieux and Bryan Trottier, Pittsburgh needed help down the middle. Brown’s lackluster play led to his removal from the power play, eventually his benching, then a permanent home in head coach Bob Johnson’s doghouse.
Whalers GM Eddie Johnston drafted Brown and felt he would be a critical piece for the Whalers and their playoff push. The deal paid immediate dividends for the Whalers, as Brown collected six goals and 13 points in his first 10 games with the Whalers.
Lemieux returned to the ice on January 26, but Patrick was not finished. Not even close.
At the trade deadline in early March 1991, the Penguins and Whalers swung the second deal. This one went down in history as one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history.
March 4, 1991. The Pittsburgh Penguins finally became Stanley Cup contenders.
The Penguins acquired Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, and Grant Jennings from Hartford in exchange for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski, and Jeff Parker.
The seeds for Francis’s departure from Hartford were planted in early December when Whalers coach Rick Ley stripped Francis of the captaincy. Ley felt Francis was not providing the proper leadership to the team and a change was necessary.
The action didn’t sit well with the Whalers fans who saw Francis as their bonafide superstar. Francis held the team records for games played, goals, assists, points.
Ulf Samuelsson was considered a defensive defenseman and provide the Pens with an insurance policy for anyone looking to take liberties with Lemieux and the other Penguins stars.
“I was shocked that (Francis and Samuelsson) were available, but it was hard to give up Cullen and Zalapski,” said Johnston to media reporters.
Cullen centered one of the highest scoring lines in the league, with wingers Kevin Stevens and Mark Recchi. Cullen’s 31 goals and 94 points placed him fifth in league scoring.
Johnston felt if the Whalers were to make it past the first round of the playoffs, he needed more offensive output from the blue line. Zalapski was another one of the players Johnston selected during tenure as Penguins GM. Zalapski’s 12 goals and 48 points made him an offensive upgrade over Samuelsson.
We’re getting two quality players (Cullen and Zalapski),” coach Rick Ley said. “We’re getting some people that have good offensive skills. But we had to give up quality to get quality.”
End Results of Penguins Shakeup 1991
The Whalers succumb to the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs in six games.
The Penguins went on to dispel the Bruins, despite trailing two games to none in the Eastern Conference Final. The Penguins then beat the very same North Stars, propelled by this Lemieux goal, for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Larry Murphy appeared in 44 games for the Penguins. He scored five goals, 28 points in the regular season. He appeared in 23 playoff contests, scoring 5 goals and 23 points.
Peter Taglianetti appeared in 39 games with Pittsburgh, scoring three goals and 11 points. He also made appearances in 19 postseason games earning three assists.
Chris Dahlquist appeared in 42 games with the Stars, collecting two goals and eight points. He also skated in 19 playoff contests earning one goal and eight points.
Jim Johnson appeared in 44 regular season games scoring one goal and 10 points and appeared in 14 playoff games, picking up one assist.