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17 Pittsburgh Penguins
Johnette Howard
October 06, 1997
Strap on your helmet: A taskmaster takes over
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October 06, 1997

17 Pittsburgh Penguins

Strap on your helmet: A taskmaster takes over

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Mario Lemieux retired. Coach Kevin Constantine was hired. If there were any doubts that changes were afoot for the Penguins, they evaporated on the first day of training camp when Constantine stopped practice one minute after it had started. Winger Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh's top player, was on the ice without a helmet. The two men had a brief chat, and the 25-year-old Jagr clambered off to the dressing room. When he returned, he was wearing his headgear. "For seven years I didn't practice with a helmet," Jagr said. "I guess we've got new rules now."

In recent seasons Pittsburgh has been derided as a talented but underachieving team that operated in a country club atmosphere. Under former coach Eddie Johnston, many practices were optional, and most sessions were unstructured. The lack of preparation showed—especially in Pittsburgh's sievelike defense. Last season the Penguins surrendered 280 goals, the second most in the NHL.

"In the playoffs, you have to win the 2-1 games, and you have to play a tight-checking game," Constantine says. "To do that, you need a good work ethic, and you need to be fundamentally solid."

With Jagr and centers Ron Francis and Petr Nedved (as of Monday he was still absent because of a contract dispute), Pittsburgh has the nucleus to be a playoff team. The porous defense could improve if Kevin Hatcher and Darius Kasparaitis rebound from last season's second-half fades and the Penguins buy into Constantine's more conservative style. The goaltending should be solid too, with veterans Ken Wregget and Tom Barrasso. Wregget performed capably last year (17-17-6, 3.25 goals-against average), but Barrasso started only five games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. For now, Patrick Lalime, the rookie sensation who went a record-setting 14-0-2 in his first 16 games last season, is the forgotten man. At press time he was still unsigned.

No factor figures to determine Pittsburgh's season as much as Jagr's ascension into Lemieux's starring role. When Lemieux sat out 1994-95 because of Hodgkin's disease, Jagr won the NHL scoring title. Now Jagr's worth will be measured in more than points. He'll be asked to lead the Penguins, and he admits, "I don't know if I'm ready."

If Jagr isn't, he might want to buckle his helmet a little tighter. Pittsburgh could be in for a bumpy ride.

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