A look at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ All-Decade team for the 1980s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1980s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1980-81 and 1989-90) during the regular season. A complete list is available here.
Team: Pittsburgh Penguins (1980-81 to 1989-90)
291-419-90, .420 WIN PCT, 2,993 GF vs. 3,470 GA, -477 Diff, 3/10 Playoff Appearances, 0 Stanley Cups
Good LORD Pittsburgh had some terrible seasons in the 1980s. They were below .500 in the first two seasons of the decade, and then I’m guessing Mario Lemieux appeared on their radar, because in the two years leading up to Lemieux’s 1984 draft, they were AWFUL. They went 34-111-15 in the two years before Lemieux, and then 24-51-5 in Lemieux’s first season. That’s right, they lost 162 games in just THREE YEARS. Yikes. Fortunately things did improve over the next five seasons, but they still had just two seasons with a .500 or better record, and only one season with at least 40 wins (’88-89). They never hit 90 points, and had three seasons in the 38-53 range. That’s a special kind of bad. Not surprisingly, they only made the playoffs three times, and had a six-year run from ’82-83 to ’87-88 where they missed it every year. That being said, they had the misfortune of playing in the stronger Patrick division; put the Penguins in the Norris, and they would have made the playoffs each year from 1986 to 1988. And in those three appearances, they won just one playoff series. Pittsburgh’s overall win percentage was 42.0%, ranking them 18th out of 21 teams (ahead of only Detroit, Toronto and New Jersey/Colorado). They were strong offensively, ranking 13th with an average of 3.74 goals for per game (3.51 pre-Lemieux, 3.90 with Lemieux). But they were awful defensively, ranking 19th while allowing 4.34 goals per game (4.58 pre-Lemieux, 4.18 with Lemieux). Their horrid goal differential of -477 ranked 19th out of 21 teams, and they were one of just four teams with a differential of worse than -350. Just a brutal decade. But at least things were on the verge of turning around for them as the 1990s approached.
Left Wing: Randy Cunneyworth (295 GP, 101-115-216, +17, 513 PIM, 14 GWG)
Cunneyworth was a decent offensive winger for the Penguins whose production steadily improved over his first three seasons, before falling off in his final year. He had 35 goals in ’87-88, and two others in the 25-26 range. ’87-88 was also his high-water mark of 74 points, and his other three seasons saw him finish in the 43-53 point range. He was typically positive for +/-, getting +12 to +14 for three years before dropping to -22. Not coincidentally, his +/- progress mirrored Mario Lemieux’s. He clearly got powerplay time in his final two years; he scored 5 PPG in his first two seasons, and 24 in his next two. He also scored a respectable 14 game-winning goals, 14% of his total. And he wasn’t afraid to mix it up, as evidenced by three seasons in the 141-156 penalty minute range.
Centre: Mario Lemieux (427 GP, 345-493-838, +18, 424 PIM, 29 GWG)
Super Mario, arguably the best pure talent in NHL history, and definitely second only to Wayne Gretzky during the 1980s and 1990s. What an incredible talent. He scored 43 goals and 100 points in his rookie year, and that was his worst season. His best season (‘88-89) saw him score 85 goals, 114 assists and 199 points. That is the greatest offensive performance in history by an NHL player not named Wayne Gretzky. And that was an improvement on his 70-goal, 168-point season in ’87-88. In his other four seasons he averaged 48 goals and 117 points. In all, he had three seasons with 90+ assists, including a high of 114 in ’88-89. He absolutely dominated on the powerplay, getting 11+ PPG every season (including 31 in ’88-89). He was equally dominant on the penalty kill once he started getting more ice time there; he scored 10 shorthanded goals in ’87-88, and then set a single-season NHL record with 13 in ’88-89 (as record that is still standing as of the 2012-13 season). He fired at least 200 shots on goal every year, including an amazing 382 in ’87-88 alone. The one area he was lacking was game-winning goals: he scored 29, which accounted for just 8% of his total. But he did improve as the team did; he had 19 GWG from ’87-88 to ’89-90, representing 10% of his goals during that time. He was so good that he virtually redefined greatness in the NHL.
Right Wing: Rob Brown (199 GP, 106-133-239, +25, 276 PIM, 10 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Rick Kehoe
Arguably a one-hit wonder, receiving pucks from Lemieux briefly brought him to an elite level. He debuted with 24 goals and 44 points in 51 games during the ’87-88 season. Paired with Lemieux the following year, he exploded for 49 goals (24 on the powerplay) and 115 points in 68 games. He fell off the next season, getting 33 goals and 80 points in 80 games. Brown did manage a decent +/- rating, at +25 in three seasons. He also cleared 100 PIM twice, so he was either nasty or undisciplined (likely a mix of the two). Brown was dealt to the Hartford Whalers in December 1990; he briefly held onto his point-per-game production before his offensive production nosedived, and he was essentially a minor-leaguer by ’92-93. Amazingly, Brown managed to make a comeback with the Penguins again for a three-year stint from ’97-98 to ’99-00. Nothing against Brown, but if he hadn’t played with Lemieux he would likely have simply been a winger with 25-goal, 50-point totals. Honourable mention to Rick Kehoe; he had a 55-goal, 88-point season to open the decade, but then his goals and offense began to slide as injuries took their toll, and he was out of the league by ’84-85. He also played on some truly awful Penguins teams, resulting in a brutal -101 rating in 289 games (although he did managed 135 goals and 285 points).
Defense: Paul Coffey (201 GP, 74-209-283, -36, 383 PIM, 7 GWG)
Easily the most talented defenseman in Penguins history. While definitely not defensive responsible (he had a negative +/- rating each season), he scored in buckets. He recorded 67 points in 46 games after arriving from Edmonton in ’87-88. The next two seasons saw him score 29-30 goals and 100+ points in each season, including an impressive 83 assists in ’88-89. He somehow fired 342 shots on goal that year, and had another 324 in ’89-90. If I didn’t know he was a defenseman, I would swear from his stats that he was a forward. He was money on the powerplay as well, scoring 27 PPG in 201 games. His speed helped turn around the Penguins, and it is no coincidence that Lemieux’s production took off like a rocket after Coffey’s arrival.
Defense: Randy Carlyle (260 GP, 45-195-240, -83, 459, 2 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Doug Bodger
Doug Bodger put in four solid years of service, with a pair of 40-point seasons and a pair of 30-point seasons. Ignoring an awful -24 rating in his rookie year, he was in the -4 to +6 range over the next three seasons. But he simply can’t match the output of Randy Carlyle, who won the 1981 Norris as the NHL’s best defenseman in 1981. Carlyle is the only position player on this list who played for the Penguins pre-Lemieux; those teams just didn’t have much going for them. Carlyle erupted for 83 points in 76 games in his first season, and then followed that up with 131 points in 134 games over the next two seasons. He slowed in ’83-84 (26 points in 50 games), and was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets. But he had three seasons of double-digit goals, 7-8 PPG and 110+ PIM. While his +/- was awful (-83 in 260 games), the Penguins had a differential of -343 during the four years he spent in Pittsburgh, so that is to be expected.
Goalie: Roberto Romano (123 GP, 45-62-7, 4 SO, 4.00 GAA, 0.879 PCT)
Roberto Romano (not to be confused with the brother from Everybody Loves Raymond) is the best Penguins goalie of the 1980s. But that’s an awful lot like saying Brent Gretzky is the best Gretzky brother not named Wayne; you have to pick one, even that pick isn’t very good (sorry, Keith Gretzky). Romano had a three-game stint in ’82-83, and then made 18 appearances in’83-84 (likely as backup). He then played in 102 games over a three-year span from ’84-85 to ’86-87. So I don’t think he was ever the Penguins #1 goalie for any significant length of time, and he only played three NHL games after leaving Pittsburgh during the ’86-87 season. The Penguins had several #1 goalies during the 80s: Greg Millen, Michel Dion, Denis Hero, Gilles Meloche, Tom Barrasso and Wendell Young. None lasted as #1 for more than two seasons, and virtually all of them got worse over time. To show you how bad things were, they had four goalies play 19-27 games apiece in ’87-88. Roman’s best season was ’85-86; he went 21-20-3 with a 3.55 goals-against average and a .886 save percentage. He was brutal during the rest of the time, going 24-42-4 with a 4.29 GAA and a .874 PCT. Again… this was the best goalie the Penguins had during the 1980s. Quality of supporting cast aside (and the differences between Edmonton and Pittsburgh are pronounced), it’s no wonder Lemieux couldn’t drag the Penguins to respectability. Wayne Gretzky had Andy Moog, Bill Ranford and Grant Fuhr. Mario Lemieux had the dog’s breakfast from earlier in this entry. If the Penguins had had a half-decent goaltender during the 1980s, they might have given Lemieux some playoff success earlier in his career. At least Barrasso improved after an awful start, but Romano is (virtually by default) the cream of this particular crop.