The Florida Panthers play their next two games against the top team in the Eastern Conference (and so-far probable first-round opponent, if everything continues on it's current trajectory). Find out what longtime buddy Hooks Orpik has to say about the Pittsburgh Penguins facing the Cats.
Kevin Kraczkowski (LBC): 1. Pittsburgh had two of the best five players in the world in the late 80’s/early 90’s in Lemieux and Jagr. There was a brief period of about four seasons before Crosby and Malkin came to town where the Penguins weren’t exactly the creme of the crop. Attendance went down - and there was talk of the team leaving. This is of special interest to Panthers’ fans who are constantly bombarded by the mainstream media with "reports" of the Panthers skipping town. Can you break down how the Penguins got over this hump - and how the Panthers can learn from history?
Hooks Orpik (PB): Ok, apologies in advance for the super long answer, but this is an important topic and the more detail, the better so roll with me here.
The biggest similarity between Pittsburgh and Florida, that I can see, is Gary Bettman. If Bettman is in your corner and comfortable with some combination of your team/market/owner your team is going to be OK. It's the difference between his positions for Pittsburgh & Phoenix and how he felt about Atlanta. Florida seems to be on the good side, since Bettman has praised and been committed to the Panthers current ownership, whom he says in turn is committed to the market.
The thing to remember is- yeah, the Penguins had bad attendance for a few years. Even though "bad" in this instance means an average of 14.0k people in a 16.9k building (in the 3 non playoff years from 2001-02 / 2003-04). You know what else they had? The second oldest NHL arena- located in one of the shadiest areas in town- and a last place team that, due to finances, lost literally every one of their good players. The Pens needed a new arena, and a salary cap to stay viable. Luckily, they got both at the perfect time.
Pittsburgh had a few years of poor attendance but strong local TV ratings even in the tough times. When Mario Lemieux came in the '80s so did a ton of rinks and a youth system that's produced a ton of young NHL'ers- including Brandon Saad, John Gibson and Vince Trocheck (you're welcome) who had crucial years during this lean time. Really proving that interest in hockey didn't diminish, interest in paying to go to a crappy arena in a crappy part of town to watch a last place team is what people stopped doing.
With Bettman in their corner, the Pens pulled through. I honestly do hope the best for southern Florida. In America, we love winners. If the product is good- the people will come. It happens everywhere in hockey (look at Dallas, Tampa, Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago and many others). If the product is hopeless, people will find other ways to spend their hard earned money. Hopefully Florida gets some stability and builds their fanbase back. We've seen, like in 2012, the casual fan will come if the team is good. It's just going to take good management to get there.
KK: 2. Marc-Andre Fleury has been Pittsburgh’s starter for 10 seasons now, since the lost 2004-05 season. Now 30-years old, he already has over 300 wins (305 and counting as of this question). It seems that he has always been solid between the pipes, but this season he seems to have actually hit another gear. Is this his limit or is there still more? In other words, is this guy a multiple time all-star or a probable Hall-of-Famer?
HO: I don't know if Fleury is a hall-of-famer, maybe if Chris Osgood- who had a similar career and reputation- makes it, so too might Fleury. For obvious reasons I would love if Fleury boosts his case with another Stanley Cup or two. Fleury is also just 30 years old and has won 300+ games, and by the end of his Penguins contract (assuming he keeps on pace) we crunched the numbers and he would have 478 wins at the end of the 2018-19 season. Which would make him 4th all-time in wins behind only Marty Brodeur (690), Patrick Roy (551) and Ed Belfour (484). He probably won't catch Brodeur, but there's a realistic chance Fleury ends up #2 all time in wins if he gets a starting job on his next contract.
Fleury catches a lot of heat, and some of that is very deserved for as bad as he was in the 2012 and 2013 playoffs. But, if you block that out, he's been a pretty good goalie, and has a thankless job behind a very offensive minded Penguins team. Also, the Pens hired a real goalie coach before the 2013-14 season and since then Fleury's shutouts have skyrocketed. There might be some validity behind the idea he's getting better coaching and is in better position to make more saves. Consistency and focus have always been his issue, so hopefully he can keep it going.
KK: 3. I’ve already mentioned goaltending. Pittsburgh’s PP + PK is somewhere north of 110%. They have five players with 20 or more points (Panthers have zero). They have four of the most consistently excellent players on the planet (including Letang and Fleury). They have the best record in the NHL. My question is: How do the Penguins ever EVER lose a game?
HO: Hah. Well, there's injuries. Crosby's missed time this season, Hornqvist has missed time, Dupuis, Letang and Kunitz have missed time- injuries have not been kind to Pittsburgh this year or any year recently. Also in an 82 game season there's obviously some occasions when a team comes out a little flat or just aren't ready to play and will lose that 3rd game in 4th nights. Overall though, Penguins fans are very lucky- we get to watch a very talented, skilled machine that piles up the wins in the regular season.
Special shout out to Hooks for spending a little time with me on these questions. Join us tomorrow as we gear up for the home-and-home series with the Pens that will give us a little headcheck on if the Panthers are contenders or also-rans.