The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
There have been three notable eras in the Pittsburgh Penguins history — Pre-Lemieux, Post-Lemieux and Post-Crosby.
Of the three first-overall picks in team history, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, have undoubtedly written the story of the Penguins. But, let’s not forget the other top selection, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Nonetheless, Pittsburgh fans have been blessed to see such talent don the skating penguin, and with every number one pick, there’s a story.
1984 – Mario Lemieux
The first story starts in Montreal. Not only was the 1984 NHL Draft in Montreal, but it was also the birthplace of the top pick — a six-foot-four kid known as Le Magnifique. As an 18-year-old in his final underage season with the Laval Voisins, Lemieux netted 133 goals and 282 points in 70 games, which is still a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League record.
Before today’s draft lottery, the No. 1 pick belonged to the team with the worst record, which subsequently opened the door for tanking. There is still speculation on whether the Penguins “tanked” during the 1983-84 season.
While then-General Manager Eddie Johnston has always denied tanking, then-head coach Lou Angotti has admitted to it. TSN also made a documentary title “Playing To Lose,” which documents the season leading up to the 1984 draft.
In the days leading up to the draft, Pittsburgh failed to negotiate a deal with Lemieux, which created tension between the two parties, so much so that Super Mario refused to put on the Penguins jersey after his name was called and he didn’t shake Johnston’s hand.
Eventually, Lemieux and the Pens agreed to a deal and, as they say, the rest is history.
2003 – Marc-Andre Fleury
In the early 2000s, the Penguins began a rebuild after Jaromir Jagr was traded to the Washington Capitals and Lemieux prepared to retire for the second and final time.
After finishing with a 27-44-6 record during the 2002-03 season, the Penguins landed the third-overall pick in the draft. The general manager at the time, Craig Patrick, completed a trade with the Florida Panthers to send Mikael Samuelsson, the No. 3 pick and a third-round pick in exchange for the No. 1 pick and a third-round selection.
Pittsburgh took the slender six-foot-two Fleury, making him the third goalie in NHL history to selected first overall. He eclipsed 375 wins in his time with Pittsburgh which included three Stanley Cups and a Penguins’ franchise record for shutouts (44).
“The Flower” was selected in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft before leading the newly-formed Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with the team.
2005 – Sidney Crosby
The Penguins’ rebuild continued after they selected Fleury in 2003, followed by Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004. However, the NHL draft format changed following the 2004-05 lockout. Accordingly, the 2005 NHL Draft order was determined by a weighted lottery and the Penguins had to rely on luck to nab the would-be top pick, Sidney Crosby.
As legend has it, Patrick carried a four-leaf clover in his pocket on the day of the lottery, and the Penguins drew the winning ball to land the most highly-touted prospect since Lemieux. The following season, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs, but their rebuild proved successful as the team has not missed the playoffs since.
The Penguins haven’t had a top-five selection since 2006 when they took Jordan Staal, but the recent picks, including a highly-touted Samuel Poulin, have fans hoping they can lead the team back to the Stanley Cup a few more times before the next rebuild.
Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers as the 12 Days of Hockeymas continues with the Penguins’ two retired numbers.