18 months of change fuels Penguins' breakthrough

May 18, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PITTSBURGH -- To get a sense of how much everything has changed for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the last 18 months or so, you need spend only a few moments looking at the pictures on the lobby wall at the team's offices.

The Penguins are playing in their first Stanley Cup final, but a lot of the guys hanging on that wall aren't here. Rob Brown? John Cullen? Zarley Zalapski? Dan Quinn? Rod Buskas? At the end of the 1989-90 season, the Penguins' final statistics included 30 players who had seen action at one time or another and hadn't been traded or released during the season. Twelve of those 30 names do not appear on their current playoff roster. Tony Tanti? Gord Dineen? Jim Kyte?

As the Penguins have won their first-ever Patrick Division regular-season title and gotten past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's 24-year history, it might seem as if general manager Craig Patrick, director of player development and recruiting Scotty Bowman and head coach Bob Johnson have been here a long time. But just 18

months ago, they were elsewhere.

Tony Esposito was fired as general manager Dec. 5, 1989, after holding the job less than 20 months. Head coach Gene Ubriaco was fired along with him. Patrick, formerly the Rangers general manager, became the Penguins general manager and interim head coach that day.

After the season, he hired Bowman, a respected hockey figure who had coached the Montreal Canadiens to five Stanley Cups and been general manager in Buffalo, and Johnson, equally respected after winning three National Collegiate Athletic Association championships at Wisconsin and coaching the Calgary Flames for five years.

Patrick, Bowman and Johnson have given Pittsburgh the organizational strength it always lacked. There have been times, during those 16 losing seasons in 24 years, when the Penguins had talent. You don't draft near the top all the time without getting some talent, and Pittsburgh actually blundered its way into the right to draft Mario Lemieux after finishing last overall in 1984.

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