It's kind of sobering to think there are only three days left in this decade. Three. That's like almost five shifts for Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen.
But yeah, there's only three days left to say you did something in the aughts of the 2000s.
So with that, we offer you our selections for the 10 best Penguins in the 2000s.
When compiling this list, we considered three factors:
- - Time. How long did the player serve the franchise in this decade? If you played a lot of games, you must've been good enough to be in the lineup on a nightly basis.
- - Skill. This one is pretty obvious. And with this franchise, there were a lot of nightly displays of MVP-caliber skill.
- - Impact. There had to be something significant the player did for the franchise other than be a name with a few points next to it on a score sheet.
And for the sake of statistical arguments, the "decade" starts with the 2000-01 season.
10.) Maxime Talbot
This one was a tough one to pick. Really.
You have players like Martin Straka or Petr Sykora who had far better statistical accomplishments and frankly, were just much more talented than Talbot. Additionally, they found ways to come through with clutch postseason performances of their own.
But Talbot's longevity (277 games) and ability to come through in the postseason (the team is 9-0 when he scored a postseason goal) put him in the top ten for us. Additionally, Talbot brings a myriad of other skills in the other ends of the ice that players such as Straka, Sykora or Mark Recchi didn't possess. Those three didn't kill penalties to a large degree. And go ahead and find us a clip of Straka dropping the gloves and getting his butt kicked in a fight that changed a series-clinching postseason game against a bitter rival.
And scoring both your team's goals to win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final will put up high on a lot of list more prestigious than this one.
Maxime Talbot is hardly the most skilled player in the history of the Penguins, but he sure is one of the most valuable in the 2000s. At least one of the ten most.
9.) Brooks Orpik
When Orpik debuted with the Penguins at the NHL level in a ho-hum 4-2 loss at Toronto, Dec. 10, 2002, there wasn't a great deal of hoopla. The Penguins were a mediocre team with grim postseason hopes. True, he was a first-round pick and there's always some level of intrigue when a player with that pedigree makes an appearance, but few realized this player would become a rock of consistency.
Sure there were some growing pains. He was a little undisciplined at first and he had to pick up the little nuances of the position which take seemingly every player a while to learn, but Orpik would eventually become this franchise's Adam Foote. Not only did he turn into a reliable, physical defender, he also became a leader. He might not wear an "A" on his chest, but that doesn't lessen his impact in the locker room.
His offensive numbers are modest (68 career points) but those aren't the numbers that matter when it comes to the Penguins' first draft pick this decade. No Penguins player has appeared in more regular season games than Orpik this decade (411).
8.) Jordan Staal
Third-line centers don't generally get brought up in conversations such as these. But there aren't too many third-line centers like Jordan Staal.
When he was taken No. 2 overall in the 2006 draft, he was pretty much just known as "Eric Staal's brother." Most fans just figured, "He's a Staal. He must be good."
Staal validated that endorsement very quickly when he earned a 10-game "tryout" at the NHL level at the start of the 2006-07 season. The team had the option of sending him back to his junior team before he played in his 10th game, and Staal pretty much made that decision a no-brainer.
There was absolutely no way they could send him back. He was too valuable. As an 18-year-old, he blossomed as a winger on a line with fellow rookie Evgeni Malkin and racked up an impressive 29 goals. Even more impressive was his play as a penalty killer which allowed him to record seven shorthanded goals.
His numbers regressed a bit offensively his next season, but he managed to return to the 20-goal plateau as a third-line center last season. And in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, he abused veteran Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski for a shorthanded goal that many said changed the series which the Penguins won.
And while his offensive numbers aren't what many would like to see out of a player chosen No. 2 overall, here's one number no one can be displeased with:
That's how many consecutive games Staal has appeared in. It's the third highest total in franchise history.
You don't just get your name on a lineup sheet by simply showing up. Especially as a center on this team. Staal has given the various coaching staffs a reason to keep writing his name.
7.) Sergei Gonchar
The lockout came and went. Cost certainty was here. Rules promoting offense were here. The "new" NHL was here.
The Penguins, with the security of a new economic model and a boatload of cash to spend needed a stable, veteran defenseman with oodles of offensive skill. And they went and got one.
Sergei Gonchar was the first big free agent signing by the Penguins following the lockout. He was a sight for sore eyes. After the team's bankruptcy in the late 1990s, the team operated on the cheap signing bargain-bin free agents. The former Capitals star was the exact opposite of that. He was expensive at $5 million per season and unlike the Mike Eastwoods and Kelly Buchbergers of the world, he was a legit all-world talent.
His first season in Pittsburgh was a rough one. It got so bad, many felt he was a bust. But in all fairness, the entire team that season was a disappointment.
When 2006-07 rolled around, a new regime was in place and Gonchar had a new role with the Penguins. He was charged with being a mentor to prized prospect and fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin would find his place in Pittsburgh that season and Gonchar would match a career high in points as the Penguins returned to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Gonchar hit the 60-point mark again and helped the team reach another level as it returned to the Stanley Cup final in 2008.
Gonchar's true value to the Penguins was revealed in 2008-09 when a preseason injury would force him out of the lineup until mid February. The Penguins mostly stumbled, particularly on the power play, and hovered near .500 until his return. His recovery along with the promotion of Dan Bylsma as head coach pushed the Penguins to a mad finish and eventually a third Stanley Cup title.
6.) Jaromir Jagr
We know he only spent one full season with the Penguins this decade. We know his play in the 1990s define him. We know he didn't leave on ideal terms. We know he's not popular. And we know he bounced around with a couple of rival teams after he left.
But none of that matters. His one season netted the Art Ross Trophy and his departure impacted this franchise unlike anyone else.
Jagr's last season with the Penguins was a doozy. He had 121 points despite the fact that the NHL was still in the midst of its "dead puck" era. Sure he had the return of Mario Lemieux to boost him. And the team's amazing second line of Alex Kovalev, Robert Lang and Martin Straka created balance that allowed Jagr some freedom. But... 121 points. 52 goals. 10 game-winning goals. Wow.
And that brings us to the trade that ended his time with the Penguins. Has any one deal been more damaging to the franchise? What the 1991 "Ron Francis-Ulf Samuelsson" trade did for the Penguins in a positive sense, the Jagr trade did in the exact opposite. It ripped the guts out of the team. This went from a Stanley Cup contender to a team hoping to contend for the eighth playoff seed, something it failed to do for four seasons following his departure.
We don't care if Jagr demanded the trade or if it economics forced Craig Patrick's hand. It was a bad trade that crushed the franchise.
And the Penguins didn't recover until the lockout implemented a salary cap and a fortunate bounce of a lottery ball brought Sidney Crosby.
5.) Alex Kovalev
Kovalev will always be a question mark to us. Why did he seem to find his greatest consistency as an NHLer here? What if he had stayed? How good was he really?
It's hard to imagine that his career-best 95 points in 2000-01 were an afterthought that magical campaign. Mario Lemieux's star was brightest that season for obvious reasons. Jaromir Jagr was the league's top scorer. Heck, Johan Hedberg's "Moose" persona might've even been bigger.
Yes folks, once upon a time, there was a second-line winger with 95 points on the Penguins. Can someone get Ray Shero a time machine?
And even beyond that, Kovalev's other two seasons with the Penguins in the 2000s were quite remarkable. In 2001-02, he managed 76 points in 67 games despite injuries. And before he was dealt before the 2003 trade deadline, he racked up 64 points in 54 games.
What might be most impressive is the Penguins' impact on Kovalev. In 2002-03, his points-per-game average in Pittsburgh was 1.13. After the trade that sent him back to the Rangers, that number dipped to 0.54.
In terms of pure simple talent, some long-time observers of the Penguins claim Kovalev might be the best. Considering the likes of Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, Malkin and others have skated here, that's pretty hefty praise.
But like just about everywhere else he's called home, Kovalev is a question mark in Pittsburgh.
4.) Mario Lemieux
What Penguins-related list should this name not be on? (Aside from like... the... uh... worst left-handed... Swedish... defensemen list... maybe. Hans Jonsson is going to be tough to beat in this one.)
His comeback in 2000 was one of the brightest moments of the decade for the entire sport let alone the franchise. He brought some mainstream attention back to the NHL by becoming the first player/owner in modern hockey history. In just a pure statistical perspective, his numbers in 2000-01 were unreal. After three seasons away from the game, he stepped back onto NHL rinks and punched out 35 goals and 76 points in just over half a season. And he helped the team get to its first conference final in half a decade.
After the departure of Jaromir Jagr, the Penguins became Lemieux's team in more ways than one. But it was apparent that season was his last great one. By this time, Lemieux, never a picture of health, was fairly brittle and was squeezing out whatever hockey he had left on a team mostly devoid of complimentary talent. He maintained a pace of over a point-per-game over the next two seasons, and even was leading the league in scoring until his body conked out at the end of the 2002-03 season. As it was, he had to settle with "only" 91 points.
He couldn't muster more than 10 games in the dreadful 2003-04 season.
The lockout fixed a lot of things off the ice and it gave Lemieux a season to rest his weary body. With the addition of new rules and new players including Sidney Crosby, Lemieux was poised to lead his franchise back to glory. But a new problem arose. He developed heart problems and was forced to retire for good.
The 2000s were very much a roller coaster for Lemieux fans. He came back in as glorious of a moment as you'll ever find in the NHL. But in the end, it was difficult to watch. Regardless, no one had (and still has) a bigger impact on this franchise, on and off the ice, than Mario Lemieux.
3.) Marc-Andre Fleury
It feels odd "only" ranking him third. He's a franchise goaltender. Maybe one of the five best in the world. A candidate for Team Canada. A Stanley Cup winner.
But the two guys ahead of him are really good.
That shouldn't take away from the importance Marc-Andre Fleury has had on this franchise.
With apologies to Brook Orpik, he was the first one. It was a bit of a gamble to select a goaltender with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. But Craig Patrick and company saw the value in Fleury. They saw a foundation they could build a winner on. That's why they wheeled and dealed with the Panthers and moved up to select him first overall.
Fleury had a cup of coffee with the Penguins in 2003-04. Despite losing, 3-0, in the season opener to the Kings, Oct. 10, he dazzled his new fans with a 46-save performance. Seeing little benefit (beyond ticket sales) of having him be abused behind a poor defense, the Penguins had Fleury bounce between the World Junior Championships, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the AHL much of that season for the sake of his development. The 2004-05 lockout saw him continue his growth in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Following the lockout, Fleury was still seen as a project, so the team brought in seemingly reliable veteran Jocelyn Thibault. As the disappointing 2005-06 season wore on, Thibault's body failed him and Fleury finally became the team's starting netminder. Fleury entered the 2006-07 season as the starter, responded with a career-best 40 wins and the Penguins reached the postseason.
Injuries derailed his 2007-08 regular season, but once the playoffs rolled around, there might not have been a better player in the first three rounds of the postseason than Fleury. He was inconsistent in the Stanley Cup Final, but his 55-save performance in Game 5 in Detroit, a 4-3 win in three overtimes, might be the greatest goaltending effort in team history.
Free agent defections and other factors cast doubts the Penguins could get back to the final in 2008-09 and a patch of rough play midway through the season made it doubtful they could even reach the postseason. But Dan Bylsma's promotion and some hot play by Fleury ensured a return to the playoffs. Once there, Fleury was again the team's biggest difference maker. He made 45 saves on the road in Game 4 of the first round against the Flyers. He stoned the world's most dangerous goal-scorer, Alex Ovechkin, early in Game 7 of the second round in Washington. That save made it possible for the Penguins win the game and the series. Following a clean sweep of the Hurricanes, Fleury and the Penguins got another crack at their nemeses, the Red Wings.
Doubts came up on Fleury once again when he gave up iffy goals in Games 1 and 2. He rebounded to help his team tie things up in Games 3 and 4 at Mellon Arena. Then there was Game 5 in Detroit.
Fleury gave up five goals on just 21 shots. It was a brutal performance that earned him a first-row seat on the bench after 36 minutes.
Just like the previous season, the Penguins returned to Mellon Arena with their playoff lives on the line. And once again, they turned to Fleury. He held the powerful Red Wings at bay most of the night. A clutch, clutch save on a breakaway by Dan Cleary (and some help from Rob Scuderi's left foot) earned a 2-1 win and a right to play one more game.
Fleury silenced a lot of critics and entered a fairly elite club in Game 7. He became a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender by making 23 saves, including one iconic stop on Nicklas Lidstrom, the greatest defenseman since Bobby Orr, in a last-second scramble.
We'd rank Fleury higher, but unlike the two gentlemen ahead of him, he's never won any individual awards. Just the one big one that counts.
2.) Evgeni Malkin
All we knew about him initially was that he wasn't Alexander Ovechkin.
Entering the lockout, the Penguins played out the 2003-04 season by stripping away any players who might have trade value and essentially tanking it so they could get a high draft pick. And Ovechkin was the player the Penguins and several other teams had their eyes on.
As it was, the Capitals won the draft lottery and the Penguins got stuck with this other Russian.
And even after he was drafted, Penguins fans didn't know a lot about him. Heck, the Penguins didn't know when or even if he'd ever play for them. He was stuck over in Russia under murky circumstances and he was just a bit of a question mark. While Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin brought back the NHL with a furious competition for the Calder Trophy, Evgeni Malkin was in Russia playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
He “escaped” his Russian team in an adventure reminiscent of the days of players sneaking through the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. And it seemed as if Penguins fans would finally get to see this dynamo of explosive talent. But a collision with John LeClair in a preseason game in Maritime Canada injured Malkin’s shoulder and briefly delayed his Penguins debut.
Once he got into a Penguins uniform, it was quite evident from the start this was a special player. He set an NHL record by scoring goals in his first six NHL games. Malkin would go on to lead all rookies with an 85-point campaign and become the second player in franchise history claim the Calder Trophy.
His rookie season was dazzling but his sophomore campaign was where he showed he was one of the world’s most valuable talents. When injuries sidelined the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Gary Roberts, Maxime Talbot and most importantly, Sidney Crosby, Malkin took the team on his back and led it to its first division title in nearly a decade. Along the way, he made a run at the Art Ross Trophy with 106 points short, but was edged out by Ovechkin.
Malkin’s game continued to grow the next season and it resulted in him racking up 113 points and becoming the fourth Penguin to claim the Art Ross Trophy. And after two less than stellar playoff campaigns, Malkin capped off his finest season by leading the post season 36 points and becoming the first Russian to claim the Conn Smythe Trophy, as well as his first Stanley Cup ring.
He’s not Alex Ovechkin. And no one’s complaining.
1.) Kelly Buchberger
Hmmm... not quite. But typing "Buchberger" still makes us laugh out loud.
1.) Sidney Crosby
Is this any surprise?
Go ahead and tell us he's not as talented as Evgeni Malkin. We agree.
Go ahead and tell us he's not nearly as bright of a star in the Penguins' universe as Mario Lemieux. We agree.
Go ahead and tell us his star is largely based on the Gary Bettman hype machine. We agree.
Go ahead and tell us he's only a Penguin through luck. We agree.
But you will not find a player who did more to alter this franchise's direction this decade than Sidney Crosby.
Lemieux is still is the face of the franchise, whether he likes it or not, but when Bettman opened up an envelope with a Penguins logo on it on a late summer day in 2005, things changed. They changed in a way that an aging Lemieux could no longer manage to do. They changed in a way that only a young, spry 18-year-old Lemieux could manage to do roughly 20 years before. The world changed for the Penguins.
Things were still very unsure for the Penguins' that summer. Even with the lockout that brought cost certainty and implemented a salary cap to aid teams in smaller markets like Pittsburgh, the team's ownership situation was up in the air. The pursuit of a new arena was still a very big obstacle to clear in order to ensure the team's future in this city. And beyond Mario Lemieux, who was more and more becoming a superstar in name only at this point of his career, the Penguins didn’t have a franchise player.
Sidney Crosby offered that and much more. He was the pre-packaged superstar. He was ready right out the box. He didn’t need much in the way of development. He didn’t need much in terms of adjusting to another culture. And he didn’t need help handling the weight of being the face of a franchise and even an entire sport.
All he needed was a stick and some ice to do his thing.
The 2005-06 came with so much anticipation but ended with a great deal of disappointment. The team casually threw out “Stanley Cup” when declaring its goal for that season. But along the way, Lemieux retired. Zigmund Palffy “retired.” Sergei Gonchar disappointed (early on at least). Jocelyn Thibault got hurt. Ed Olczyk got fired. Michel Therrien introduced us to the word “soff.” Mark Recchi got traded. And someone named Jani Rita became a first-line winger.
Crosby was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise miserable season. He scored 102 points and broke Lemieux's franchise record for points by a rookie. He also became the youngest 100-point scorer in NHL history.
Ray Shero took over the Penguins as general manager the following offseason and adopted a less aggressive approach in building a Cup contender around Crosby. With a team of mostly younger talent mixed in with a few veterans (and that "other Russian"), the Penguins returned to the postseason for the first time in six years. Along the way, Crosby led the NHL with 120 points and won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
An ankle injury severely limited the team's newly appointed captain the next season, but he still managed to pick up 72 points in 54 games. And oh yeah, there was that whole run to the Stanley Cup final.
In 2008-09, Crosby “only” scored 103 points, third best in the league and watch as his teammate, Evgeni Malkin, and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin battle for the league’s scoring title, which Malkin eventually won.
The playoffs came. The Penguins got by the Flyers in six games. That set up the NHL’s dream match up. Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. The NHL’s yin and yang. The sport's two biggest superstars in a seven-game series.
They didn’t disappoint. Over the course of seven intense contests, Ovechkin got 14 points. Crosby had 13. But Crosby got one more win than his rival. After a sweep of the Hurricanes, he got another shot at the Stanley Cup.
He didn’t do much from a statistical standpoint during the seven-game rematch with Detroit. He only had three points in seven games. And he missed much of Game 7 due to a knee injury. But in the end, he was the first one holding the sport’s most cherished prize. He brought the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh.
And in the long run, he has brought much more to Pittsburgh than anyone else in the 2000s.
(Photos: Talbot-Jamie Sabau/Getty Images; Orpik-Jim McIsaac/Getty Images; Staal-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Gonchar-Dave Sandford/Getty Images; Jagr-Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press; Lemieux-Matt Freed/Post-Gazette; Kovalev, Fleury and Buchberger-Peter Diana/Post-Gazette; Malkin and Crosby-Harry How/Getty Images)