For the past 36 years, the Pittsburgh Penguins have had a once-in-a-generation talent leading their team. In 1984, Mario Lemieux made the team relevant, and in 2005, Sidney Crosby saved them from disarray. Both players are franchise legends and were even teammates for 26 games, but which player has made a bigger impact to date?
Lemieux Saved the Penguins…Twice
There are similarities between Lemieux and Crosby’s careers. Not only have they achieved comparable acclaim, but they kick-started decades of winning in Pittsburgh after being selected first overall.
After scoring 133 goals and 282 points in his final year of junior hockey with the Laval Voisins, there was no debate about who the first-overall pick was going to be in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. Lemieux was one of the greatest junior hockey players of all time with 562 points in 200 games and the Penguins desperately needed him.
The Penguins joined the NHL in the 1967-68 season and filed for bankruptcy in 1975. Until they drafted “Super Mario”, they had never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, and their average attendance fell to 6,839 the season before he was drafted.
Although the Penguins failed to make the playoffs in five of Lemieux’s first six seasons, he inspired the fanbase. By the 1989-90 season, the average attendance rose by over 9,000, drawing 16,018 per game. The crowds stayed full until Lemieux’s health concerns forced him to miss three seasons from 1997-2000.
With Lemieux out of the lineup, the Penguins suffered financial issues and, as a result, they filed for bankruptcy again in 1998. He had already saved the franchise in the previous decade, but Lemieux rescued them a second time by deferring $30 million owed to him in team equity and became team owner.
Crosby Reawakens the Fanbase in Pittsburgh
The Penguins may be the luckiest franchise in professional sports. After surviving two bankruptcies in 20 years, Crosby came in and saved them from relocation.
The Penguins won the draft lottery and the privilege to select “Sid the Kid” with the first-overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
Similar to Lemieux in 1984, Crosby’s entrance rejuvenated the fanbase. The average attendance grew from 11,877 to 15,804 in his rookie season. Despite the arrival of the NHL’s next superstar, the threat of moving to Kansas City became very real for the Penguins in March, 2007.
With the oldest rink the in NHL, Pittsburgh needed a new arena to play in. However, they were having issues getting government support. With negotiations at a standstill, Kansas City offered its nearly completed Sprint Center rent-free and the opportunity to gain revenue from development projects around the arena.
Not only did they have a brand-new arena available but they had financier William “Boots” Del Biaggio III on their side who offered to put up $200 million to bring an NHL team to Kansas City.
As tension grew, Lemieux played hardball with government officials telling them that they were seriously considering relocation to Kansas City. Unsure at whether or not he was bluffing, the city took that threat seriously and negotiations picked up again, ultimately ending in an agreement to keep the team in Pittsburgh.
Crosby and the Penguins were an exciting young team and the city of Pittsburgh could not live with itself if they relocated. Thanks to Lemieux’s negotiating tactics and Crosby’s play on the ice, the team was able to stay in the “Steel City.”
Lemieux’s Trophy Case Is Full of Awards
In terms of the player who had the most impact on the franchise, individual success is just as crucial as team success.
Before his health issues, Lemieux dominated the NHL even as Wayne Gretzky was still in his prime. From 1984-1997, he won 17 individual awards, including two Stanley Cup championships (1991, 1992), a Calder Trophy (1985), Lester B. Pearson Trophy (1985-86, 1987-88, 1992-93, 1995-96), Art Ross Trophy (1987-88, 1988-89, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1995-96, 1996-97), Hart Trophy (1987-88, 1992-93, 1995-96), Bill Masterton Trophy (1992-93) and Conn Smythe Trophy (1990-91, 1991-92).
Although it was a different era from Crosby’s, Lemieux had 10 seasons of 100 or more points and six seasons when he scored 50 or more goals. His greatest individual season was in 1988-89 when he scored 85 goals and 199 points. However, four players had 150 or more points that year, so it was clearly a different time, but he still has an outstanding resume.
Crosby Has More Rings
Crosby will likely never reach Lemieux’s career point-totals (690 goals, 1723 points in 915 NHL games) but his trophy case is not bare. He’s had an incredibly successful career (462 goals, 1263 points in 984 NHL games) to date, and still has the luxury of time for more success, unlike his former teammate and current employer.
“Sid the Kid” also has three Stanley Cup rings (2008-09, 2015-16, 2016-17) as a player. “Super Mario” has two as a player. Although, as part of the ownership group, he has five rings, it’s not the same as being on the ice.
After listing off Lemieux’s career achievements, it’s hard to find a better resume, but Crosby has tried. Despite scoring 102 points in his rookie season, he lost the Calder Trophy to rival Alex Ovechkin, but here is a list of his individual hardware: Art Ross Trophy (2006-07, 2013-14), Hart Trophy (2006-07, 2013-14), Lester B. Pearson Trophy (2006-07), Ted Lindsay Award (2012-13, 2013-14), Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award (2009-10), Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (2009-10, 2016-17) and Conn Smythe Trophy (2015-16, 2016-17).
In terms of the hardest trophies to win, Crosby has the advantage as a player with three Cup wins, but both are tied for Conn Smythe Trophies with two. Besides that, Lemieux’s trophy case is much nicer and should have three more. Since the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy was first introduced in 1999, Lemieux never won it, but would have three times since he led the NHL in goals in the 1987-88, 1988-89 and 1995-96 season.
Lemieux’s Legacy Outshines Crosby’s
The Pittsburgh Penguins may have relocated to Kansas City if it wasn’t for Crosby, but it could have happened a lot sooner if Lemieux never arrived. “Super Mario” saved the day on three occasions and he’s worthy of the statue that bares his name outside of PPG Paints Arena.
Crosby may still have a few years left in his career, but it would take a miracle for him to pass Lemieux’s legacy. After years of success on and off the ice, “Super Mario’s” impact on the franchise is everlasting.