A look at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ All-Decade team for the 1990s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1990s. 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 1990-91 and 1999-00) during the regular season.
Team: Pittsburgh Penguins (1990-91 to 1999-00)
411-285-90, .580 WIN PCT, 2,890 GF vs. 2,537 GA, +353 Diff, 10/10 Playoff Appearances, 2 Stanley Cups
After suffering through the miserable decade that was the 1980s, Pittsburgh Penguins fans were treated a team that was the class of the NHL for most of the 1990s. The Penguins were one of three teams to make the playoffs each year during the 1990s (the others being Detroit and St. Louis). They won more games than they lost in each season: they highlight was pair of back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 1991 and 1992, followed by an astounding 56-win, 119-point season in ’92-93 (spoiled only by David Volek and the Islanders in the playoffs). The Penguins won 411 of 786 games during the 1990s, and their win percentage of 58.0% was second only to Detroit’s 62.0% (out of 26 teams that played at least four seasons during the 1990). They were an offensive juggernaut: they averaged 3.68 goals for per game, first in the league during the decade. Their defense however was average at best, allowing 3.23 goals against per game (ranking 18th). However, their freewheeling style paid off: they had the puck more often than not, and their +353 goal differential was 3rd in the league. But what else can be expected from a team whose best player’s name literally translates into The Best?
Left Wing: Kevin Stevens (342 GP, 205-230-435, Even +/-, 770 PIM, 23 GWG)
Kevin Stevens was THE prototypical power forward in the NHL during the early 1990s. In his prime, he was a force to be reckoned with; but a combination of injuries and off-ice problems resulted in that prime being criminally short. Still, he was a critical component of the powerful Penguins’ squads in the early 1990s. He opened the decade with four straight seasons of 40+ goals and 86+ points. This included a 54-goal, 123-point effort in ’91-92, followed by a 55-goal, 111-point season in ’92-93. He was also highly physical, recording 133 or more PIM four straight seasons (including a high of 254 in ’91-92). In fact, he had four straight seasons of at least 253 shots on goal, clearing 300 shots twice. He was a monster on the powerplay, scoring between 18-26 PPG per season for four straight years. He was also clutch, potting 4-6 game-winners each season (his 23 represented 11% of his goal total in the 90s for the Penguins). His +/- was inconsistent: he was +8 in ’91-92, +11 in ’92-93 and an ugly -24 in ’93-94. Stevens had 15 goals and 27 points in 27 games during the shortened ’94-95 lockout season and, during the offseason, he was dealt to the Boston Bruins. He was never the same player after he left Pittsburgh, but he at least was able to return to Pittsburgh and retire as a Penguin after a 64-game stint from 2000 to 2002. He will always be a beloved figure in Pittsburgh as a key cog in the machine that won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Centre: Mario Lemieux (318 GP, 268-388-656, +125, 313 PIM, 36 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Ron Francis
I personally believe that Mario Lemieux is the greatest pure talent ever to play in the NHL. Not its greatest player per se: that argument tends to come down to the Howe-Gretzky-Orr trifecta. But I do think Mario Lemieux had more raw talent than any other player in NHL history. And I would argue that no player meant more to any franchise than Mario meant to the Penguins. The truly scary part about Lemieux in the 1990s is how good he was with so few games played. In ’90-91, he played in just 26 games but scored 45 points. The following season he scored 44 goals and 131 points in 64 games, then 69 goals and 160 points in 60 games in ’92-93. To put that in perspective, if he had kept up that pace over 84 games that translates into 97 goals and 224 points that year. Absolutely incredible. He missed most of ’93-94 (scoring 37 points in 22 games) and sat out the lockout-shortened ’94-95 season. He returned to play two nearly-complete years, scoring 69 goals and 161 points in ’95-96 and then 50 goals and 122 points in ’96-97 before retiring (temporarily, it turned out). He was a beast on the powerplay, scoring 12+ PPG four times (including a ridiculous 31 in ’95-96). And he was also a threat on the penalty kill, scoring 22 shorthanded goals (including 8 in ’95-96, tied with Steve Yzerman for the most by in a single season during the 1990s). His 36 game-winning goals accounted for a solid 13% of his total during the 1990s, and he was an impressive +125 during the decade (including +55 in ’92-93).
The really scary part about Lemieux’s performance in the 1990s is that he was never at 100%, due to back injuries and a recovery from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But even despite those injuries, his list of accomplishments is incredible. Art Ross (as the NHL’s leading scorer) in ’92, ’93, ’96 and ’97; Lester B. Pearson (NHL MVP as voted by the players) in ’93 and ‘96; Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP) in ’91 and ’92; Hart (regular season MVP) in ’93 and ’96; Bill Masterson (perseverance and dedication to hockey) in ’93; and a First-Team All-Star in ’93, ’96 and ’97 (as well as Second Team in ’92). There are few who were as good as Mario Lemieux: he scored 1,723 points in 915 career games. If the man had even managed to suit up for another 100 games he would have finished with more points than anyone except Wayne Gretzky. Lemieux indeed. Honourable mention to Ron Francis, who had two 100+ point seasons and three more in the 87-93 range. But one man single-handedly brought the franchise to respectability as the 80s drew to a close, and led them to back-to-back Stanley Cups in the early 1990s, and he gets the #1 spot among Penguins centres during the 1990s.
Right Wing: Jaromir Jagr (725 PG, 387-571-958, +188, 551 PIM, 68 GWG)
I remember two key facts about Jagr during the 1990s: he had the most glorious mullet in NHL history, and his first name re-arranged was “Mario Jr.”. He scored 27 goals and 57 points as a rookie, and then 32 goals and 69 points as a sophomore in ’91-92. Then he REALLY took off. Over the next eight seasons, he scored 94 or more points seven times: the only time he failed to do so was the lockout year of ’94-95, where he still managed 32 goals and 70 points in just 48 games. Jagr cleared the 100-point mark three times, with a high of 149 (including 62 goals) in ’95-96. He was a fiend on the powerplay, scoring 10+ PPG five times, including 20 in ’95-96. He was also incredibly clutch, scoring 68 game-winning goals (representing an amazing 18% of his goals during the decade). He was -4 as a rookie, but then never below +12 the rest of the decade. And he had had at least 192 shots per season after his rookie year, with a whopping 403 in ’95-96 (13th-highest season in NHL history). While he never won a Stanley Cup without Lemieux, he was far and away the NHL’s brightest star during the mid-to-late 1990s, as well as the driving force behind the Penguins during Lemieux’s retirement. One of the greatest offensive talents in NHL history.
Defense: Larry Murphy (336 GP, 78-223-301, +102, 213 PIM, 12 GWG)
Larry Murphy is a Hall of Fame defenseman, and was a premiere offensive blueliner during the 1990s. The Penguins acquired Murphy and Peter Taglianetti from the Minnesota North Stars for the criminal price of Chris Dahlquist and Jim Johnson midway through the 1990-91 season. Murphy scored 28 points in 44 games, and then helped the Penguins defeat the North Stars for the 1991 Stanley Cup. Over the next three seasons, Murphy scored 17-22 goals and 73-85 points per season. His +/- was always positive, with a staggering +33 in ’91-92 and +45 in ’92-93. He scored 26 powerplay goals during that time, and also chipped in 12 game-winning goals (15% of his goal total). He also had 200 shots on net for three straight seasons. He During the lockout season of ’94-95 his production dipped slightly to 38 points in 48 games, which is still a 66-point pace during an 84-game season. He was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the ’95-96 season, but he left his mark in Pittsburgh: an All-Star in 1994, and a Second Team All-Star in 1993 and 1995.
Defense: Ulf Samuelsson (277 GP, 11-83-94, 76, 804 PIM, 2 GWG)
Ulf Samuelsson is the VERY definition of a player that fans and players alike love to have on their team, and HATE when he plays against them. Personally I strongly dislike Samuelsson because he could have been an effective agitator/edgy player, but instead chose to play dirty (prematurely ending the career of Cam Neely in the process). That being said, his acquisition from Hartford (along with Ron Francis) helped transform the Penguins from contender to champion. Samuelsson was a decent two-way threat, twice scoring 29 points in a season. He also had +/- ratings of +36 in ’92-93 and +23 in ’93-94. But his role was not to score goals or run the special teams: his role was to defend the net at all costs. He had three straight seasons of 199+ PIM, with a high of 249 in ’92-93. He was a vicious physical player, and gave the Penguins’ blueline a nasty presence that it was sorely lacking. He was a key component of a star-studded Penguins lineup in the early-to-mid 1990s.
Goalie: Tom Barrasso (374 GP, 196-119-41, 21 SO, 3.10 GAA, .899 PCT)
Tom Barrasso was to the Penguins what Grant Fuhr was to the Oilers: a strong, confident (possibly cocky) veteran goalie who might let in some goals, but rarely the one that broke the team’s back. He spent almost the entire decade with Pittsburgh, although he really only spent seven seasons with the team (dressing for just 2 games in ’94-95 and 5 games in ’96-97). Barrasso won at least 19 games in each of his seven full seasons, including an amazing 43 wins in ’92-93. He didn’t get a ton of shutouts, although he had 7 in ’97-98. His GAA was hi, typically in the 3.00-3.50 range during the early 1990s, and his save percentage wasn’t that strong (hovering in the .885-.902 range). But he was a workhorse who you could count on when the going got tough. Ken Wregget was Barrasso’s backup during most of the 1990s, although he was the team’s starter in ’94-95 and ’96-97. He had comparable numbers, but wasn’t “the man” during the team’s championship seasons. So Barrasso gets the nod.