Nostalgia, need, or never letting go. Some players wear other sweaters, but Pittsburgh Penguins fans still call them one of their own. Who is to say what makes a fan favorite or embeds a player in a fanbase’s heart even after he leaves, but especially Penguins fans embrace players and don’t easily forget.
The ground rules for this Top 5 list (to avoid the nitpicking and hurt feelings) are simple. The player must be an active player. So, no, Mario Lemieux doesn’t qualify for the list because literally, every hockey fan in existence would like to see him back in a Penguins sweater.
At 50-something, he could still score 20 goals. And no Chris Kunitz or Darius Kaspiritis, either.
Also, there are no further rules. The rest is a subjective look at the Penguins fan base based on social media reaction, the popularity of historical articles, and memorabilia.
Honorable Mentions: Ryan Reaves, Nick Bonino, and, of course, Sergei Plotnikov (just kidding).
The Top 5 Players You Wish Still Played for the Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Carl Hagelin
The lightning-fast Swede who showed up in the biggest moments is now a Washington Capitals stalwart, by way of Los Angeles. The sputtering 2018-19 Penguins had grown stale, and GM Jim Rutherford felt his core needed a wake-up call. So, Rutherford dealt the popular, but light-scoring Hagelin to Los Angeles for suddenly ice-cold Tanner Pearson.
After an initial hot streak, Pearson’s scoring touch ran dry for the Penguins, too, and later in the season, Rutherford flipped Pearson to Vancouver for Erik Gudbrandon.
Hagelin rose to prominence in the Penguins fan base as the spark plug for the H-B-K line during the 2016 Stanley Cup run. Hagelin remains one of the best penalty killers in the NHL, and his scoring touch seems to return each spring.
Even the Penguins wish he still played for the Penguins. Rutherford tried to re-acquire Hagelin at the 2019 NHL trade deadline but realized only at the last minute that NHL rules prevented him from doing so because the Penguins retained a small portion of his salary in the trade with LA.
4. Ian Cole
Also a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Penguins, Cole is a gritty, shot-blocking, do-what it takes defenseman who moves well and can move the puck reasonably well, too. His giant red beard was more reminiscent of Tormond in Game of Thrones, and the colorful defenseman was well-appreciated by fans, teammates, and media alike.
However, in 2017-18, Cole found himself in head coach Mike Sullivan’s doghouse. Actually, that might insult doghouses. Sullivan first forced Cole to the press box as a healthy scratch, then out of Pittsburgh when Cole was part of the complicated trade for Derick Brassard.
The Colorado Avalanche happily picked up Cole via free agency on July 1, 2018, with a three-year, $12.75 million contract. Cole was the solid left-side defenseman who anchored Justin Schultz. Together, the pair were primary defenders on the Penguins 2017 Stanley Cup run, and Schultz had a career year beside Cole.
This season, Cole scored 26 points (4g, 22a) in 65 games and was a plus-21.
To turn the knife in Penguins fans, the Penguins replaced Cole with Jack Johnson. While PHN defends Johnson from the fan onslaught, there is little argument the Penguins miss Cole.
3. Phil Kessel
Good guy. Tries hard. Loves the game.
No player since Mario Lemieux or a young Jaromir Jagr grabbed the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase’s still-beating heart quite the way Kessel did. Emails, social media comments, and personal shouts from across the street flowed to any media member who dared poke at Kessel’s lack of complete game or print stories of the internal conflicts.
Trust us on that one.
“Phil Kessel, two-time Stanley Cup champion,” became its own catchphrase of sorts. Even President Barack Obama had to use it during the Penguins visit to the White House.
The every-man with jostled hair and an unkempt suit was the victim of a weird attack column in the Toronto media, which claimed he went out of his way every day to visit a specific hot dog cart. Kessel was, at first, a controversial get by Rutherford. Penguins fans liked Kessel, but many didn’t like the summer trade for a first-round pick and top prospect Kasperi Kapanen.
Actually, Penguins fans were decidedly against it. Kessel was mostly quiet in his first season (2015-16), until February. Things first clicked with Evgeni Malkin, but Malkin suffered an injury that forced Sullivan to unite Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel.
The rest is history. Kessel filled the net en route to two-Stanley Cups. He amassed legions of fans, in part because he was a lethal offensive weapon and in part because he was so vociferously run out of Toronto. And…Kessel knew Pittsburgh loved him, too.
He would flash a little smile on the topic of fans interceding on his behalf against the Pittsburgh media. And, even though he rarely spoke to the media, he would drop memorable lines.
Kessel was traded to Arizona in July 2019. Both the team and player were ready to move on, but that doesn’t mean Penguins fans don’t wish the story had a different ending.
2. Jaromir Jagr
The ageless, 48-year-old wonder qualifies for the list as he is still playing professional hockey in the Czech Republic for a team he owns (Hey, if the Hockey Hall of Fame counts that as still playing, so can we).
Jagr was the Penguins first-round pick in 1990 (fifth overall). The giant-haired kid who barely spoke English snowed the four teams in front of the Penguins by proclaiming he would not leave Czechoslavakia, but secretly told the Penguins he would happily arrive in Pittsburgh for a chance to play with Mario Lemieux.
Jagr is the last link to the first Penguins glory days. Everyone else long-since retired, bought teams, became broadcasters, general managers, and even coaches.
But “the great Jagr” is still playing.
This season, he played nine games for the Kladno Knights of the second-tier Czech league (the team which owns), and he played 38 games in the top Czech league for Kladno. In the top Czech league, Jagr scored 29 points (15g, 14a) in 38 games.
His accomplishments are too many to list. He has two Stanley Cups in which he dazzled with remarkable individual efforts, a Hart Trophy, five Art Ross Trophies, three Ted Lindsay awards, and Jagr is the second all-time leading NHL scorer with 1921 points (766g, 1155a).
For years, #JagrWatch was a hashtag on social media when Jagr was available. Fans couldn’t wait to see the famous mullet again wear his iconic No. 68 Pittsburgh Penguins sweater.
It still has not come to be, and maybe never will, but as long as Jagr is still playing, Penguins fans can hope that last shift is in Pittsburgh.
1. Marc Andre-Fleury
The gregarious goalie has three Stanley Cup rings from his time in Pittsburgh. He made one of the biggest saves in Pittsburgh Penguins history when he dove across the crease to stop Detroit defenseman Niklas Lidstrom in the final seconds of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. The save secured the Penguins third Stanley Cup and first for the young crew, including Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.
Fleury was the first-overall choice in 2003. Penguins GM Craig Patrick made a deft deal on draft day to move up from the third position to snag Fleury.
Unlike other fan favorites who left, Fleury’s stock rose and fell numerous times throughout his career in Pittsburgh. Penguins fans lined up behind young Matt Murray, against Fleury, too (don’t lie, the overwhelming volume of fans did). However, Fleury’s brilliant playoff performances in 2017 when he stole at least one, probably two games against the Washington Capitals in Round Two laid waste to “Fleury haters.”
Fleury’s performance in the 2017 playoffs helped to propel the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup wins, even though Sullivan replaced Fleury with Murray in the Eastern Conference Final.
Fleury’s legend has only grown since he was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 Expansion Draft. There were more than a few tears when Fleury finally returned to play against the Penguins in 2019, including a few from Fleury as the video tribute played.
Fans were hard on Fleury during his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that is forgotten now as the goalie climbs the all-time wins list. Fleury is now fifth all-time with 466 wins, just 18 behind Ed Belfour for fourth. Watch Fleury spray the water to hide the tears as he received a several minutes long standing ovation: