(Note: Something we've done from time to time is "eulogize" former Penguins who have passed... on to other franchises. If your time here one earth as a Penguin was substantial, we look back on your career in the black and gold and examine your place with the franchise. For whatever reason, we just never got around to taking care of Sykora earlier this summer. Now that he's officially a member of the Wild, we take a look at his Penguins career. As soon as Miroslav Satan signs with someone or retires or whatever, we'll "eulogize" him too.)
At the start of the Ray Shero's second offseason as general manager, he identified two immediate needs for his developing club. Scoring from the wings and depth on defense.
The first night of that offseason's free agency period, Shero filled one of those needs perfectly with the signing of former Oilers forward Petr Sykora.
Penguins fans were more than familiar with Sykora before he came to Pittsburgh. He had been a prominent scorer for the Atlantic Division rival Devils during that club's peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was one of the few sconsistent offensive forces on a club that primarily played defense. In the 2001 Eastern Conference final, he ripped up the Penguins for seven points (four goals, three assists) in only five games.
After leaving New Jersey, Sykora spent time with the Mighty Ducks, Rangers and Oilers. He continued to be a consistent steady goal-scoring threat with all three teams. Between the 1998-99 and 2006-07 seasons, he had averaged 26.5 goals per season.
So when Shero felt he needed some reliable scoring to put on the wing of one of his spectacular young centers - Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin - Sykora stood out as a talented player with playoff experience who could easily be inserted on one of the team's top lines.
Originally intended to be teamed with Crosby, Sykora ended up finding a place running shotgun with Malkin, a player he had played with in Russia during the NHL's lockout that wiped out the 2005-06 season.
Sykora immediately endeared himself to Penguins fans in his home debut by scoring two goals and an assist in an entertaining 6-5 defeat of the Ducks, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
As the team fought its way through the regular season, it suffered several losses with injuries to key players such as Sidney Crosby, Maxime Talbot, Gary Roberts, Marc-Andre Fleury and others. The forward position was so decimated, head coach Michel Therrien resorted to using defenseman Brooks Orpik as a winger.
The injuries forced the creation of one of the more potent line combinations in recent team history. Sykora and Malkin were joined by rugged power forward Ryan Malone on a line some dubbed the "Steel City Line" due to all three players' connections to industrial cities.
The trio had skills that complimented one-another magnificently. Malkin was the all-world talent that generated everything whenever he was on the ice. Malone was the rough, tough big body in front of the net which created havoc for goaltenders and opportunities for teammates. And Sykora was a plain and simple goal scorer.
Malkin, Malone and Sykora carried a patch-work lineup long enough for the likes of Crosby and others to get healthy. The team would make some key moves at the trade deadline and claim its first division title in a decade. In his first season with the Penguins, Sykora did exactly what he was brought here for as he scored 63 points (28 goals, 35 assists) in 81 games.
In the Penguins' four-game sweep of the Senators in the first round, Sykora scored three goals. He also scored a key goal in a thrilling 5-4 series opening win at home against the Rangers in the second round.
As Malkin appeared to grow a fatigued by the time the Eastern Conference final rolled around, Sykora's production dropped off. He scored one goal in the opening game against the Flyers, but failed to find the net for the next eight postseason games.
Then came the moment that will forever define Sykora's career as a Penguin.
In the early morning hours of June 3 in Detroit, Sykora cemented his legacy in the hearts of Penguins fans:
Sykora, who had actually made a bold prediction by claiming he would score the game-winning goal during an intermission earlier in the game, ripped a wrister on a power play just inside the crook of Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood's left elbow in the third overtime of a dramatic 4-3 win. He gave life to a team that was being stamped out by a much more powerful Red Wings.
The Penguins would not win that series, but they could hold their heads high knowing they made the Red Wings earn their Stanley Cup title.
During the offseason, Malone left the team, but Sykora was still entrenched on Malkin's right wing. While Crosby toiled with the likes of Pascal Dupuis, Miroslav Satan and Tyler Kennedy on his wing, Malkin had steady reliable Sykora alongside him converting several of the scoring opportunities he had created.
On Dec. 11, 2008, the consummate goal-scorer finally got a bit of a monkey off his back. Prior to that date, Sykora, a player in his 13th NHL season, had never scored an NHL hat trick:
The team eventually sunk into a slump that would ultimately see Therrien lose his job, but Malkin and Sykora continued to find ways to create offense. Malkin led the league in scoring for most of the season, much in part due to Sykora who had 22 goals through his first 57 games. Additionally, Sykora's goals carried some weight. Ten of his scores were game-winners. The only person in franchise history to score more was Jaromir Jagr who had 12 in 1995-96.
Sometime in February, Sykora's game began to decline. He was having trouble producing at all and he only managed to score two goals (both game-winners) in his final 17 games. His game failed to rebound as the playoffs began. He was pulled from the lineup after the first four games of the first-round series versus the Flyers and replaced by Miroslav Satan, a player who had been banished to the AHL. Sykora found a way to play in the first two games of the second-round series against the Capitals and contributed very little other than a secondary assist in Game 2.
Sykora was again benched and didn't see any action for the rest of that series nor did he see the ice for the four-game sweep of the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final.
Following a rout at the hands of the Red Wings in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, head coach Dan Bylsma re-inserted Sykora into the lineup on the fourth-line. While the duties often associated with that role didn't fit Sykora's talents, he accepted the meager playing time he got and managed to find a small way to contribute by blocking a shot from Red Wings forward Kris Draper in the second period. The block ultimately brought Sykora's career as a Penguin to an end as he ended up with a broken right foot. He would not play in the team's dramatic Game 7 victory that brought them the Stanley Cup.
Despite his foot, Sykora skated with the Cup on Joe Louis Arena's ice that night and even limped down the Boulevard of the Allies slapping five with fans during a victory parade in Downtown Pittsburgh a few days later.
There was much speculation that Sykora's decline in play late in the regular season and in the playoffs was due to a rift between himself and Bylsma. A tabloid in Sykora's home country of the Czech Republic falsely quoted Sykora as having a dislike for Bylsma. Sykora's agent cleared the air by shooting down the report and revealed his client had been playing with shoulder separation since February.
After contemplating bolting to the KHL for a lucrative, tax-free contract, Sykora accepted a no-guarantee tryout with the Wild and signed with the team yesterday.
Sykora scored 109 points (53 goals, 56 assists) in his two seasons with the team. That is the 70th best total in franchise history.
The Penguins brought in Sykora to be a goal-scorer. And that's exactly what he did for them for two seasons.
(Photos: First-Peter Diana/Post-Gazette; Second-Jim McIsaac/Getty Images; Third and Fourth-Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)