Sweet vindication for Craig Patrick
Memo to the hockey world, especially to those members who are looking or considering looking for a new general manager:
Craig Patrick is not dead. He is also not retired and is very much looking to get back to what he does best: building teams that compete for, and win, the Stanley Cup.
One might argue that he's done it: Again.
If you hadn't noticed, the Pittsburgh Penguins -- the current darling of the NHL and at least an even-money favorite to win the Cup final, are pretty much Patrick's team. Not exactly a bad thing to have on your resume when you're looking for a GM job in the NHL.
Understand that Patrick is not the most media-savvy GM, which explains why rumors of his being retired -- and even that he might not even be with us anymore -- pop up from time to time. He also doesn't have an agent or a pipeline into a media that always seem to circulate the same names when GM jobs are open. Patrick seeks the spotlight about as often as Dick Cheney's seen handing out candy to congressmen, but don't think for a moment that he's not looking to get back to building championship hockey teams.
"Obviously, I'm not dead and I have no desire to be retired," said Patrick in a phone interview with SI.com on Thursday. "To be honest, I have (interviewed for other jobs). I'm not working right now, but that doesn't mean I don't want to."
Typical Patrick. When it comes to giving out information, he's old school NHL. He plays it close to the vest. Ask him if he's interviewed, yeah, he'll go that far. Ask what teams and, well, you can forget about getting an answer. Patrick, however, does give credit where it's due. He acknowledges that current GM Ray Shero made moves that improved the Penguins to where they have become the Eastern Conference champions, but he's also proud of his work in regards to the team's development.
Patrick certainly doesn't take credit for winning the lottery that delivered Sidney Crosby (though he was there at the time) and it took no great skill to draft Sid the Kid, but he was also at the helm when Evgeni Malkin was drafted and he swung the trade with Florida that moved the Penguins up three spots and made them able to select goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003. It was on Patrick's watch that the Pens drafted and developed players like Ryan Malone, Colby Armstrong (since traded in this year's deadline deal for Marian Hossa), Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik, Maxime Talbot, Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy.
Though Patrick chose Fleury over Eric Staal (a controversial decision at the time), the Pens haven't suffered by having their netminder develop in fits and starts. Having Eric Staal's brother Jordan (Ray Shero's first pick in 2006) in the lineup doesn't hurt, either.
Drafting and development have never been a problem for Patrick, whose history dates back to a legendary hockey family and role as assistant GM and assistant coach to Herb Brooks and the Miracle on Ice US Olympic hockey team of 1980. Patrick was also GM of the 2002 silver medal team. His legacy extends through the New York Rangers and 16-plus seasons with the Pens that included Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. His critics usually make two arguments: that he's had problems picking the right coaches and that it's easy to draft well when a team is at the bottom of the standings.
Regarding his coaches, it should be noted that the Pens won their Cups in the '90s with, respectively, Bob Johnson and Scott Bowman behind the bench, and that Patrick had both the wisdom and the courage to hire the two-strong-willed men at the same time. There are many GMs in the NHL who fear a successful coach because he is often a threat to take over their job, but Patrick saw a need for more good hockey people in his organization and went out and got two of the best.
Yes, he put Ed Olzcyk behind the bench in his later years and did so when Eddie O had no coaching experience whatsoever, but that was largely a budget move. For the record, Patrick brought current coach Michel Therrien into the organization at the same time. Hiring Therrien for the AHL farm team in Wilkes-Barre was a future move. Patrick knew it would only be a matter of time before the coach charged with developing the young talent in the minors would move up to be with it when it was ready for the NHL.
It should also be stated that Patrick was fired because of the team's poor record (one that produced Malkin, Fleury and the place in the Crosby lottery). He would argue that the record was poor because he was forced to sell or trade most of the good players who were on the roster when there was yet another financial crisis in Pittsburgh.
"They told me at the time that it was time to make a change and I accepted that," Patrick said of his dismissal in the spring of 2006. "I was grateful in a way. I needed a break and I needed to recharge. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was necessary and I see that now. I used the time away to do exactly that. I took care of things that needed to be taken care of and I've recharged."
Patrick also said that he never intended to go out that way and he certainly didn't expect to stay out.
"Frankly, I don't like the way it ended in Pittsburgh," he said with barely a hint of bitterness in his voice. "I did what I was told to do (regarding the selloff of players like Jaromir Jagr and others). That's the way it happened in New York, too. We had to start over there and we did, and two years after I left (after drafting Brian Leetch as the cornerstone of a rebuilding program), the team started to win again and, eventually, they won the Cup.
"I want to do that again. I want to build another franchise."
Patrick admits that he buried himself to some degree after the Pittsburgh firing. He was, after all, a Stanley Cup champion, a gold and silver Olympic medal- winner, and a member of the U.S. and hockey halls of fame. He didn't feel he deserved to be fired for carrying out orders. He stayed away from watching the Penguins and a great many other things involving hockey. He was wounded, but that seems to have passed. Recently, he accepted an invitation from Mario Lemieux to sit with him in the owner's box and see the fruits of his labor: the Pens beating the Flyers in Mellon Arena to clinch the Eastern Conference title.
It was a decent gesture on Lemieux's part, a wordless acknowledgement that the Pens would never have won those two Cups if Patrick hadn't made the crucial moves in regards to surrounding Lemieux with the necessary talent and bringing in Johnson and Bowman to help finish the job. One might also suggest that it was Lemieux acknowledging that not everything that went wrong after those Cups was Patrick's fault.
Patrick said he is still confident in his abilities and that he has what's needed to do the job.
"It's never been about me or saving or protecting my job," he said. "In all my time in hockey, I've always been guided by the idea that it was my job to do what was best for the organization, not for Craig Patrick. It was like that when I drafted Leetch in New York. There were people who told me not to do it because starting over might cost me my job, but my feeling was that it was the best thing to do for the Rangers at that time. I've made all my decisions based on what I thought needed to be done in order for us to win."
It's impossible to say whether these Penguins will win the Cup. Detroit is the best team they have played thus far. The Red Wings also have home ice in the series, more Cup experience in their lineup and, some would argue, the better or at least more experienced defense. But the Penguins have great talent and coaching, goaltending that is morphing toward greatness, and more depth. Much of that can be traced back to Craig Patrick.
Owners with the "help wanted" sign in the management office window might be wise to consider that.
"There are openings," Patrick said without directly mentioning the looming vacancy in Toronto, the so-called center of the hockey universe. "I think I'd be perfect for one of those opportunities."
Looking at the current edition of the Penguins, one would be dead wrong to disagree.
Around the boards
Add assistant Penguins coach Andre Savard to the short list of candidates for the Florida Panthers job. He has a long-running relationship with GM Jacques Martin and a near-lifetime of NHL experience in coaching, managing and scouting. ..
Alain Vigneault appears to have survived a near firing in Vancouver in part by giving up two assistant coaches, Barry Smith and Mike Kelly...
Tony Granato gets a second chance as head coach of the Avalanche largely because he put his time in. It remains to be seen if he can clear the inevitable hurdles that come with going from assistant to head coach with the same organization. It didn't work the last time he was their coach, but one could argue that Granato wasn't ready then. He's certainly more experienced now.