The first time Mario Lemieux saved Pittsburgh he was an 18-year-old arriving from the QMJHL, and he did it on the ice, putting himself in the conversation among the best who ever played the game.
There were two Cups.
The second time Super Mario saved the Penguins was in the boardroom as he leveraged $32.3 million in deferred salary into an ownership stake and turned a teetering franchise trapped in a decrepit building into a model of mid-market ownership playing in one of the best arenas in the NHL.
There has been one Cup.
For a team run by Lemieux and captained by Sidney Crosby, the closest thing the current NHL has to Lemieux’s all-time talent, that’s not enough.
So for his third act Lemieux isn’t so much saving the Penguins as attempting to rescue them from the netherworld between contender and champion, a condition both blessed and cursed.
Or that’s what we can assume. Lemieux has never been a big talker and he chose to remain silent at the news conference Friday announcing the Penguins’ decision to fire long-time general manager Ray Shero.
But you could see Lemieux moving the strings behind Penguins president and chief executive officer David Morehouse, who made the announcement, mouthing words right from the top: Good isn’t good enough.
“This is a team that has had a level of success,” said Moreway. “What we’re trying to do is get from good to great. We’re in the top quartile of the league in everything we do. A lot of teams would like to be where we are. However, we do have high expectations.”
In the past, Lemieux had nothing to lose when he rode to the rescue, the situations in Pittsburgh were so dire simply surviving them was a triumph. This time the stakes are higher, failing means falling a long way down.
That they could swing the axe on an executive like Shero — it’s presumed head coach Dan Bylsma will be fired by his replacement, which at least keeps Crosby one step removed from the kill floor — proves how thin the edge is between success in the NHL and being bloodied.
A year ago, Shero was the NHL’s executive of the year for in-season trades that landed the Penguins Stanley Cup quality depth in the form of , Douglas Murray, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla.
As Shero went about the annual task of trying to add pieces to a perpetual Stanley Cup contender, he managed to pick up long-term solutions like Chris Kunitz, who was the lowest-paid regular on Team Canada in Sochi, and reliable top-six winger Pascal Dupuis before that. The team’s best defenceman, Kris Letang, was a third-round pick; perhaps their best defenceman this season while Letang was recovering from a stroke was Matt Niskanen, who arrived mid-season from Dallas in 2011 along with stalwart James Neal for hardly-missed Alex Goligoski.
Meanwhile, incoming Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan has kept general manager Dave Nonis, even though the franchise still owes six years and $30 million to David Clarkson and he gave an extension to head coach Randy Carlyle even if he can’t work a toaster.
It’s different in Pittsburgh. It’s different when your No. 1 centre is in his prime and is the face of the NHL. It’s different when your No. 2 centre, Evgeni Malkin, might be the best centre in the NHL other than your No. 1 centre.
“People don’t really understand the pressure we have here,” Letang told reporters earlier this week as the Penguins gathered to clean out their lockers after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers and losing Game 7 on home ice.
It was their fifth straight untimely playoff exit since 2009.
“Because we have the two best players, we have to win every year. You can’t. We didn’t.
“That doesn’t make us a bad team, but I think that’s what people say now. They say we need a lot of changes.”
The Penguins were ascendant when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and won the Cup in 2009.
The next five years have been a study in the precarious nature of dynasty building in the hard cap NHL, where filling one gap means leaving a hole somewhere else and hoping your goalie can cover it up.
From a distance, Shero seems to have done what anyone in his position would be commended for doing. The Penguins have been one of the NHL’s best teams even in seasons disrupted by Crosby’s concussion woes and Malkin’s knee woes and the white-knuckle existence of Marc-Andre Fleury as its No. 1 goalie.
Whatever moves the incoming general manager makes will reveal where Lemieux believed Shero fell short. Maybe it was failing to have enough toughness to keep Crosby from being mugged by the likes of the Rangers’ Brian Boyle?
Maybe Lemieux is in favour of sending Malkin or Letang on his way and using the substantial return to solve problems elsewhere on the roster, which seems like the highest kind of risk poker.
But no one knows better than Lemieux how fleeting championships can be. What’s not clear is if he’s being realistic about what it takes to go from good to great in the modern NHL, how steep the drop is from good to no good at all.
These are different problems than when Lemieux was a saviour the first time around. When Lemieux was the best player in the world, the Penguins won their two Cups, back-to-back. At the time they were a young team with future Hall of Famers all over the roster. Jaromir Jagr was still just a teenager; Ron Francis was the team’s No. 2 centre. Bryan Trottier was happy to be perhaps the most accomplished No. 3 centre in NHL history. When Hall of Famer Paul Coffey left, his power-play time was soaked up by Hall of Famer Larry Murphy.
But stuff happens, even in a league where the only real obstacle to building a championship roster at the time was how much you could spend. In Lemieux’s case, there was a chronically bad back and cancer. There were close calls. There were some amazing seasons, but there was never more than those two Cups.
Lemieux got a third as an owner, riding shotgun with Crosby and Malkin. He obviously believes Shero was the reason he’s yet to win a fourth.
Funny, no one better than Lemieux should understand that the biggest obstacle is always going to be luck. As a hockey saviour, Super Mario is an impressive 2-0 in Pittsburgh, but no one stays undefeated forever.