There are a few teams, including the NHL Original Six, which are as decorated with individual awards as the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since Mario Lemieux’s arrival in 1984, the Penguins have 15 Art Ross Trophies for the league’s leading scorer. The organization which is known for elite offensive talent also has five Stanley Cups, and some of the greatest individual seasons ever recorded.
Believe it or not, the Penguins have more egregious Hart Trophy snubs than they have Norris (1) and Jack Adams awards (1).
In this Penguins superstar era, all-time greats have treated Penguins fans and hockey fans to some of the greatest seasons in NHL history. From Mario Lemieux burning through NHL defenders for 199 points to Jaromir Jagr leading a no-name cast into Round Two and away from bankruptcy, superstars do their best work when they must.
So, some of the greatest Penguins individual seasons didn’t end with a Hart Trophy or a Stanley Cup. Perhaps someday we’ll get to a Top 5 Snubs list, too. We’ll also not make an honorable mentions list because that too would fill an entire story. The hockey gods and ping pong balls have blessed the Penguins with extraordinary talent, and we’ve witnessed more than a handful of exceptional seasons.
Top 5 Pittsburgh Penguins Individual Seasons
5. Sidney Crosby, 2006-07
Back when he was “Sid the Kid,” Crosby boldly crossed from future star to superstar in his sophomore season. After the Penguins team collapsed around him in 2005-06, Crosby owned the puck, and nightly highlight shows in 2006-07. He posted 120 points (36g, 84a), which made him one of only four players in this century to hit the 120-point plateau.
Even more impressive, despite Crosby’s dominance, only one winger had 20 goals, 38-year-old Mark Recchi (24). The other top-scoring wingers on the 2006-07 Pittsburgh Penguins had career years, including Michel Oullet, who had 19 goals but played just 67 more NHL games before being banished to the minors and Europe.
The third-leading scorer among the wingers on a team with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby was Colby Armstrong, who had 34 points (12g, 22a) in 80 games.
Crosby’s breakout year established him as the new premier player in the world, and he staked that flag with authority. Crosby ran the table at the NHL Awards, too. He won the Art Ross, Lester Pearson, and the Hart Trophy.
4. Evgeni Malkin, 2011-12
Crosby played just 22 games while dealing with concussion-like symptoms (which turned out to be a soft-tissue injury). The Penguins fell on Malkin’s shoulders, and he carried them well.
Malkin hit the magical 50-goal mark and won the Art Ross trophy with 109 points (50g, 59a). The Penguins rode Malkin like a thoroughbred and finished second in the Atlantic Division.
Malkin was in beast mode for the entire season, but an injury also ended his season in the final weeks. He cleaned up at the NHL awards with an Art Ross, a Pearson, and a Hart Trophy.
Malkin led the league with 339 shots on goal and set a career-high with 583 shots attempted. He also had nine game-winning goals.
3. Mario Lemieux, 1988-89
It will forever be the last great offensive season in the NHL. Lemieux scored 199 points with 85 goals, and a god-like 27.2% shooting percentage. Imagine, more than one in four shots he took lit the lamp.
Lemieux dominated the NHL that season and built generations of fans. Waiting for the next Lemieux moment was a sport unto itself. When he touched the puck, the Civic Arena crowd would begin standing (As a 12-year-old, I couldn’t see, but I get it now). The excitement was neverending.
Lemieux breakaway goals filled highlights on ESPN Sportscenter. In 1988-89, there was Lemieux, and there was everyone else. His 199 points placed him firmly in league with Wayne Gretzky, who set the NHL single-season record with 215 points in 1985-86, and there’s never been anyone else to approach their levels.
For most franchises, this would be the greatest single season. Easily. However, Lemieux didn’t win the Hart Trophy that year, which is still the greatest snub of my lifetime. It is the greatest statistical achievement in Penguins history, but not for other reasons, including significance, it’s not the greatest season.
2. Jaromir Jagr, 1998-99
The NHL morphed from the offensive salad days of the 1980s to a clutch-and-grab slog. Widely held theories posited the NHL owners didn’t want to pay exorbitant salaries, so they allowed the game to become a hook-filled, grinding battle. Offensive totals suffered greatly.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were trying to transition from the Mario Lemieux era to the next chapter, but ownership issues and money dogged the Penguins. Facing bankruptcy and even talk of disbanding the club filled hockey media.
It’s not an exaggeration. The Penguins needed a new arena, had no money. And fan support wavered.
Yet somehow, someway, Jagr carried the Penguins on his back with those legs which are larger than most people’s waist. Jagr scored 127 points to win the Art Ross trophy. His Herculian effort also netted him the Pearson and the Hart Trophy.
The Penguins had Jaromir Jagr, and little else. The Penguins third-leading scorer that season was German Titov, who scored only 56 points in 70 games. Jagr linemate Marty Straka was the Penguins second-leading scorer, of course. Their top defenseman was the lumbering Kevin Hatcher, who scored only 38 points (11g, 27a).
The Penguins were not a good team, except for Jagr. Alexei Kovalev was there, too, but he scored only 46 points that season.
On one leg, Jagr willed the Penguins past the New Jersey Devils in Round One and into much-needed cash of a second playoff round, too. Jagr’s Round One bravery, as he scored the OT game-winner in Game 6, remains perhaps the greatest individual playoff effort in franchise history. Jagr still credits that goal as his most important.
The Penguins were teetering on bankruptcy, and anything less than Jagr’s extraordinary season propelled the Penguins into the second round of the playoffs and badly needed revenue. It was a franchise saving season.
1. Mario Lemieux, 1992-93
Lemieux not only torched the NHL for 160 points in just 60 games, but he also won the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy (in just 60 games?!), the Masterton Trophy for perseverance, and he overcame Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Lemieux underwent cancer treatments at mid-season, which caused him to miss 20 games. On the day of his final treatment, he chartered a flight to Philadelphia to join the Penguins for their game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Lemieux received a standing ovation. In Philadelphia. His season transcended offensive statistics and even sports.
Lemieux became a bonafide hero. It would have been easy to pause his career, be treated, and come back on a much slower timetable. Instead, he beat cancer then tortured NHL goalies. He scored 69 goals and 91 assists in just 60 games.
Injuries and the physical toll of being the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion caught up to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs, as coach Scotty Bowman recently told PHN. Still, as good as Lemieux was in 1988-89, he was even better in ’92-93. The Penguins could not be stopped. Had Lemieux played close to 80 games, he may well have broken Gretzky’s record.
And he inspired millions of others to fight the good fight.