You're an NHL coach and you take over a franchise that just lost alltime great Mario Lemieux to retirement, and you guide that team to an unexpected division title anyway. Then, in the offseason, you see the club's captain and best center, Ron Francis, bolt as a free agent while the squad's co-owners, Roger Marino and Howard Baldwin, call each other stupid and wrestle for control of the team.
Penguins second-year coach Kevin Constantine could lament all that, as well as the club's move to the much tougher Atlantic Division and the continuing holdout of restricted free-agent center Petr Nedved. But Constantine doesn't mention a word about the franchise's difficulties. He's either fully focusing on the task at hand or he's suffering from a colossal case of self-delusion. Says Constantine, "We're thinking we want to do even better than last year."
Not likely. The Penguins lack the size to bang with new division rivals New Jersey and Philadelphia, and they'll start the year without hard-hitting defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, who injured a knee in the preseason. Fragile goalie Tom Barrasso had a career year in '97-98, and he will have to remain healthy for Pittsburgh to stay competitive.
The Penguins were already short on scorers before losing Francis, a locker-room sage and the NHL's seventh-leading point-getter last season. Star right wing Jaromir Jagr, who signed a four-year, $40 million extension last January, is the obvious choice to assume the team's captaincy, but he's a cutup, not a guy who kicks garbage cans between periods or gets in the face of a dawdling teammate. Even Jagr acknowledges his shortcomings. "I'd like to try to be captain," he says. "But a lot of people don't think I can."
A lot of people don't think the Penguins will make the playoffs, either. But don't expect Constantine to admit it.