Monday, November 30, 2009

The Pittsburgh Penguins: Futility Wins Championships

During Game One of the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was quoted as saying that the Pittsburgh Penguins were a model NHL franchise. A model franchise. That means that he thinks that the Penguins are an exemplary franchise that other NHL teams should model themselves after. Does Mr. Bettman know anything about the league he currently runs? Apparently Gary was living under an NHL rock for every year before the 2007 season. The Pittsburgh Penguins are a model for futility and, before the 06/07 season, consistently ranked in the bottom portion of NHL attendance figures. It might be wise to show Penguins fans, NHL fans, and the league commissioner how the Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup.

Let's first look at the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins. During the early years of the Penguins, their ownership sought to relocate the team because of problems making money. This could have possibly been due to the fact that the Pens average attendance during the 1970s was about 9,700 in a stadium with an average capacity at the time of 14,200. And during the 82/83 and 83/84 seasons the Pens had average attendances of 8,408 and 6,839 respectively, in an arena with a capacity of 16,033. The average NHL attendance during this time period was hovering around 12,000 per game. Yea, but that was a long time ago, right? Well the Pens won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. And attendance spiked, as it should when a championship has been won. But from the years 2001 to 2007 (excluding the 2005 lockout season), Pittsburgh ranked in the bottom 3rd in NHL attendance including 2004 where they ranked dead last in attendance. I'm not going to say that the fans only show up when the team is winning (fair weather fans and the definition if it), but... Just for something to look at, during the 2006/2007 season the Philadelphia Flyers were the worst team in hockey. They ranked 7th among NHL teams in attendance. This is why, once again, there was another threat to relocate the team. There was no fan base. But Mario Lemieux saved the team from being relocated to Kansas City and kept them in Pittsburgh.

In order to win a championship a team needs a little bit of luck, right? Well the Pens draft picks from 2002-2006 were a little more than luck. Starting in 2002, the Penguins had the 5th overall pick (Ryan Whitney); in 2003, the 1st overall pick (Marc-Andre Fleury); in 2004, the 2nd overall pick (Evgeni Malkin); in 2005, the 1st* overall pick (Sidney Crosby) and in 2006, the 2nd overall pick (Jordan Staal). That's five straight years with top five picks and four straight with top two overall picks. I suppose that's what happens when you're a terrible team for a long time. But the 2005 draft was a little different from the others. The Pens had had the 2nd overall pick the year before and chose Evgeni Malkin. And the very next year, without even playing a game during the 2005 season, they received the 1st overall pick. No conspiracy, just really lucky.

Now I'm not commenting on the overall quality of the Penguins now. They have a very good team and rightfully so. If they weren't the best team in the NHL with five straight top five picks, they don't deserve to be in the NHL. And they have a large fan base now which is to be expected after a team wins a championship. But where were these fans but a few years ago and why weren't they supporting their team and doing their job to try to keep their team in Pittsburgh? It took five top five picks to bring the fans back to Mellon Arena. Other franchises have fans no matter how well or how poorly their team is performing. I'm not going to get into the Sidney Crosby debate, that's for another post but the Pittsburgh Penguins are NOT a model franchise, Mr. Commissioner. They're actually the exact opposite of how an NHL team should operate itself.

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