If Eddie Johnston is the builder who set the Pittsburgh Penguins foundation for growth by drafting Mario Lemieux, Craig Patrick is the master architect who designed and directed the total reconstruction of the Penguins franchise into a first-class organization. Patrick brought Hall-of-Fame talent, an organizational culture built on offense, and most importantly, Stanley Cups.
Patrick was the Penguins GM for over 1200 games and more than 16 years. In the moment, players didn’t always appreciate Patrick’s penchant for blockbuster deals but the results of Patrick’s tenure which began on Dec. 5, 1989, and stretched to the end of 2005-06 sustain the Penguins to this day.
Johnston told Pittsburgh Hockey Now, “Craig Patrick did a great job here. He was a very, very big guy to get that franchise on the right track.”
In the current Penguins universe, Patrick had the easy decisions to draft Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005 and Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004. But Patrick circled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the 2003 draft and outlasted other suitors to swap forward Mikael Samuelsson the Penguins third overall pick (Nathan Horton) with the Florida Panthers for the first overall pick which became Fleury.
Working backward, in 2002 Patrick nabbed defenseman Ryan Whitney (who Patrick’s successor Ray Shero dealt for Chris Kunitz). In 2000, Patrick selected Brooks Orpik (18th overall), who anchored the Penguins defense for over a decade including the 2009 Stanley Cup team.
Craig Patrick Builds a Champion
Patrick’s first trade as Penguins GM didn’t alter the franchise trajectory, but it was a six-player deal which made headlines. In January 1990, Patrick shipped high-scoring Dan Quinn, Dave Capuano, and Andrew McBain to Vancouver for gritty defenseman Rod Buskas, Tony Tanti, and Barry Pederson.
He was just getting warmed up. Mario Lemieux’s serious back injury hamstrung the 1989-90 Penguins and they were not yet Stanley Cup contenders. Patrick changed that beginning in the summer of 1990.
And when Patrick began, he didn’t stop. He moved quickly, decisively. And flawlessly.
In June 1990, Patrick acquired Joe Mullen from Calgary for a second-round pick. Mullen was a former 50-goal scorer and had life left in his legs. Then Patrick performed highway robbery in the draft by selecting Jaromir Jagr fifth overall.
Later that summer, he plucked New York Islanders all-time leading scorer and future Hall-of-Fame center Bryan Trottier of the scrap heap (the Islanders released Trottier from his contract in 1990, which made him a free agent).
In the first half of the 1990 season, Patrick solidified the Penguins defense. He acquired Gordie Roberts in October, then pulled his first big-time move in December. He sent defensemen Chris Dahlquist and Jim Johnson to Minnesota (North Stars) for future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Larry Murphy and blue line thumper Peter Taglianetti.
Two days after acquiring Murphy and Taglianetti, he acquired Czech center Jiri Hrdina to be a mentor and friend to the homesick Jagr. Eight days after that, Patrick sent former 40-goal scorer Robby Brown to Hartford for Scott Young (who is currently the Penguins Director of Player Development).
Patrick wasn’t done remaking the team, or the franchise. Note the foreshadowing by using the word “franchise”.
Mar. 4, 1991.
The day which changed the Penguins fortunes forever. Johnston drafted Lemieux, traded for team legend Kevin Stevens and acquired Hall-of-Fame defenseman Paul Coffey. Tony Esposito, who had a short one year tenure as general manager, acquired big-time goalie Tom Barrasso and drafted Mark Recchi. Yet the Penguins were still not ready for primetime.
That changed in March 1991. Patrick acquired Hartford Whalers cornerstone Ron Francis (Ronnie Franchise), physical defenseman Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski, and Jeff Parker.
The Penguins were complete. After a 25 year struggle just to survive (read Johnston’s comments in Part 1 about how close the team was to vanishing), the Penguins had every piece necessary for a championship. They rallied to win the Patrick Division (named for Craig Patrick’s grandfather, Lester) and didn’t stop.
The Penguins and the cast of future all-time greats carried the 1991 Stanley Cup.
Trottier, Mullen, Murphy, and Francis are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Jagr undoubtedly will be soon. Samuelsson’s image hangs in the Penguins Ring of Honor. That’s five Hall of Fame players added in nine months.
In 2000, a few years after Mullen retired, he returned to the organization as an assistant coach. Mullen remained an assistant coach under three head coaches (Ivan Hlinka, Rick Kehoe, Eddie Olzcyk) and was the interim head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2005-06 after Olzcyk was fired.
In an interesting footnote, the General Manager of the Hartford Whalers who dealt Young and Francis to Pittsburgh? Eddie Johnston.
1992 Controversy and Vindication
Patrick was not as busy in the 1991-92 season. In the 1991 NHL Draft, Patrick selected Swedish forward Markus Naslund, who would later be part of the worst trade in Penguins history (In 1995, he was traded for Vancouver enforcer Alek Stojanov. Naslund then scored 756 points in 884 games with Vancouver). Otherwise, the 1991-92 season was on cruise control.
Except the Penguins faltered later in the season.
On Feb. 19, 1992, Patrick pulled another blockbuster trade which altered the course of the franchise. He traded Coffey to Los Angeles for defensemen Brian Benning, the tough Jeff Chychrun, and a first round pick. Patrick flipped Benning along with locker-room-popular Mark Recchi to hated rival Philadelphia for another franchise cornerstone, Rick Tocchet.
The Penguins also received backup goalie Ken Wregget and towering defenseman Kjell Samuelsson.
Two very popular players within the fanbase and locker room were gone, within hours. The Penguins players were not happy and they voiced their displeasure, publicly. Team leader Kevin Stevens spoke to the Chicago Tribune:
“Mark Recchi turned down more money from Philadelphia at the beginning of the year, figuring he was giving something back to the Penguins. And this happened,” Stevens said. “I just don`t understand sometimes how they do it.” You may read the full article from 1992 here.
Backup goaltender Frank Pietrangelo, who made “The Save” in 1991 against the New Jersey Devils called the acquisition of Wregget, “a slap in the face.”
The Penguins won the 1992 Stanley Cup.
Tocchet remained a great friend of the organization. In 2014, Tocchet became the Penguins assistant coach and won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017.
Wregget stayed with the organization beyond 1992 and even became the starting goaltender when Barrasso dealt with injuries and extended absences through the mid-1990’s.
Managing the Decline
The 1992-93 Penguins found darkness on several levels. They won the President’s Trophy, set an NHL record with 17 consecutive wins and won the Patrick Division. However, Patrick’s Midas touch seemingly failed him when he dealt sparkplug forward Bob Errey for heavy defenseman Mike Ramsey. The move didn’t work and the Penguins lost to the upstart New York Islanders in the Patrick Division Final.
In that series, the Penguins also lost Stevens with a scary facial and head injury which required extensive surgery. Stevens was never again the same player and the injury was the beginning of Steven’s long battle with substance abuse.
The loss also meant Penguins owner Howard Baldwin was denied millions of dollars in playoff revenue. Baldwin had already spent the expected money on big contracts to Lemieux and others. The financial fallout sent the Penguins organization careening towards fiscal insolvency. That Penguins core never again won the Wales or Eastern Conference and within five years, the franchise was in bankruptcy court facing extinction.
Even in the decline, Patrick found a way to be competitive. In 1995, Patrick dealt Luc Robitaille, who didn’t work out, and Ulf Samuelsson to the New York Rangers for dynamic but difficult forward Petr Nedved and talented defenseman Sergei Zubov. Nedved was later flipped for Alex Kovalev (and his white skates) in 1998. Kovalev was a home run who played in Pittsburgh until 2003, and again for 20 games in 2011. In 365 games, he scored 354 points including 151 goals.
However, as the 1990’s wore on, Patrick was forced to dig through other team’s trash for players. By 1999, players like Kip Miller and Jiri Hrdina were top line players with Jagr. The Penguins remained competitive with Kovalev and Martin Straka but depth was lacking.
Lemieux’s return in 2000-01 provided one more high point for the old Penguins. Lemieux and Jagr were a historic duo but the team wasn’t jdeep enough to beat the life-sucking Devils in the Eastern Conference Final. That season, the list of Penguins acquisitions included low priced names like Dan Trebil, Marc Bergevin, Steve McKenna, an aged Kevin Stevens, and a true Patrick treasure: Minor league goalie Johan Hedberg.
Hedberg’s meteoric rise provided the Penguins with much-needed goaltending for three seasons. Hedberg had a 12-year career after Patrick plucked him from deep in the San Jose Sharks system.
After 2001, the jig was up. The Penguins were unable to afford a competitive team in the salary cap-less NHL. Patrick was forced to deal Jagr for three minor leaguers and a figurative duffle bag full of millions of dollars. The Penguins drafted highly and successfully in the following years but Patrick was coming to the end of his tenure.
16 years is a long time. Two Stanley Cups, bankruptcy battles, being unable to compete with exploding salaries, and piecing together teams with borderline NHL players and bubble gum took its toll. Patrick was done after the epic tumble of the 2005-06 team, which included more big names than talent, and a rookie Sidney Crosby.
In 2011, after a five-year absence, Patrick was named a senior advisor to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In 2014 and 2015, he was a senior advisor with the Buffalo Sabres.
Patrick’s hockey lineage extends back to the famed Lester Patrick who brought the New York Rangers and the NHL to prominence in the 1920’s. His resume extends back to being Herb Brooks’ assistant coach for Team USA in the 1980 Olympics, which became the Miracle on Ice. Patrick helped make history in 1980 and he built a championship franchise with a sustainable culture in Pittsburgh.
“That’s what I’m saying. He made some great decisions,” Johnston emphasized.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are widely considered one of the premier franchises in the NHL — a club that has won the Stanley Cup five times, is considered a perennial contender, spends to the salary cap ceiling, boasts stellar TV ratings, sells out all its home games and draws an impressive number of fans on the road, and has had a parade of Hall of Fame and star players. It wasn’t always that way. There were humble beginnings as an expansion franchise more than 50 years ago under the direction of original general manager Jack Riley, who was sharp but realistic and remained in the team “family” into his 90s. Through the years, several key individuals have been responsible for the Penguins’ rise. This is a look at some of those individuals.
Today was part three of the series.