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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

The Magnificent One

Mario Lemieux is easily one of the most electrifying players to ever laces up the skates in the NHL. A combination of size (6'4", 230 pounds), strength and speed, Super Mario would frequently carry opposing defenders on his back to the goal. In fact, the clutching and grabbing that became defense in the 1990s NHL is what led Lemieux to retire the first time. When did he come back to the NHL in 2000, he became only the third player in NHL history to play after being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame (Gordie Howe and Guy Lafleur are the other two).

As such, I feel it is only fitting Lemieux gets an entry all to himself. As a bonus to readers, I decided to take a look at the fate of all of the #1 draft picks (another Lemieux distinction) from the 1990s. Only one would play his entire career for the team that draft him (Chris Phillips) versus two who held out from their draft teams and forced trades (Eric Lindros and Bryan Berard). Eight would be traded away from their draft teams and only one would win a Stanley Cup with the team that draft them (Vinny Lecavalier). Finally, and perhaps most ridiculously, one is still active in the NHL today (Joe Thornton).

1990: Owen Nolan, Quebec Nordiques

Played 268 games over 6 seasons with Quebec/Colorado, scoring 117 goals and 224 points, making the playoffs twice, losing both times in the first round. Would be traded to San Jose for Sandis Ozolinsh.

1991: Eric Lindros, Quebec Nordiques

Never played a game with the Nordiques. Forced a trade to Philadelphia a year after he was drafted, landing Quebec Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci, a 1st round pick and future considerations that would become Chris Simon and another 1st round pick. Oh yeah, and $15 million.

1992: Roman Hamrlik, Tampa Bay Lightning

Played 377 games over six seasons with the Lightning, scoring 52 goals and 185 points, making the playoffs once, losing in the first round. Would be traded to Edmonton with Paul Comrie for Bryan Marchment, Steve Kelly and Jason Bonsignore.

1993: Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa Senators

Played 301 games over five seasons with the Senators, scoring 74 goals and 172 points, making the playoffs once, losing in the first round. He would be traded to Philadelphia for Vaclav Prospal, Pat Falloon and a second round pick.

1994: Ed Jovanovski, Florida Panthers

Played 362 games over seven seasons (in two separate stints) with the Panthers, scoring 33 goals and 102 points. In his rookie season the Panthers would make the Cup finals, plus there would be two other playoff appearances. In 1999 he was traded to Vancouver as part of the package (Dave Gagner, Mike Brown, Kevin Weekes and a 1st round pick) that landed Florida Pavel Bure, Bret Hedican and Brad Ference. Jovo-Cop would return to Florida as a free agent in 2011.

1995: Bryan Berard, Ottawa Senators

Like Lindros, Berard would never play for Ottawa, holding out from the team immediately after the draft. Part way through the 1995-96 season he would be traded to the New York Islanders with Don Beaupre and Martin Straka for Wade Redden (selected second behind Berard in 1995) and Damian Rhodes.

1996: Chris Phillips, Ottawa Senators

Unlike Berard, Phillips would be a Senators lifer, playing 1179 games over 17 seasons, scoring 71 goals and 288 points. He would be a key part of the Sens team that made its only Cup finals appearance in 2007, making the playoffs 13 times, including 10 seasons in a row from 1997-2007.

1997: Joe Thornton, Boston Bruins

Played 532 games over eight seasons with the Bruins, scoring 169 goals and 454 points. Boston would make the playoffs five times during those eight seasons, advancing beyond the first round only once. He would be traded to San Jose for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau.

1998: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning

Played 1037 games over 14 seasons with the Lightning, scoring 383 goals and 874 points. He would lead the franchise to its first Stanley Cup in 2004, making the playoffs four additional times. In 2013 he would leave as a free agent for Philadelphia.

1999: Patrik Stefan, Atlanta Thrashers

Played 414 games over six seasons with the Thrashers, scoring 59 goals and 177 points. The pick of Stefan at #1 is one of the main harbingers of the failure of hockey in Atlanta the second time around. The Thrashers would never make the playoffs in his time with the team, and he would be traded to Dallas with Jaroslav Modry in exchange for Niko Kapanen and a seventh round pick.

Card 156 - Mario Lemieux

Lemieux was the most hotly anticipated draft prospect since Guy Lafleur was drafted in 1971. In his draft season with Laval in the QMJHL, Super Mario scored an unbelievable 133 goals and 149 assists for 282 points (the goal and points total are still records to this day). There was little doubt he would go first overall to Pittsburgh, and after working through some initial contract issues, Lemieux made his debut in 1984-85, scoring a goal on his first ever shift, stripping Ray Bourque of the puck to boot. His season would end with 43 goals, 100 points, the Calder Trophy and being named to the all-rookie team.

Lemieux would continue to ascend quickly to superstardom, winning the Pearson Award as MVP as selected by his peers, finishing second in Hart Trophy voting and being named a second team all-star in his second season. In his third season, Lemieux would break the 50 goal mark for the first time, scoring 54.

1987-88 and 88-89 would represent the peak of Lemieux’s career, bringing him up to a level only Gretzky has reached in terms of points production. In 87-88 he would lead the league in goals with 70 (10 of which were short-handed) and assists (168), winning the Art Ross Trophy, being named a first team all-star and winning the Pearson and Hart, ending Gretzky’s streak of eight straight Harts. 88-89 would see Lemieux score 85 goals (fourth highest all-time), 199 points (fifth highest all-time), winning another Art Ross, and being named a first team all-star. He would end up second in Hart Voting, 80 points behind Gretzky. He would also set the single season record for short-handed goals with 13.

Sadly, injuries would begin to hamper Super Mario in the 89-90 season. His point totals would drop to 45-78-123 (in only 59 games mind you) and he would miss all but 26 games in 1990-91 due to a back injury. He did return in time for the playoffs, and would guide the Penguins to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, scoring 16 goals and 44 points, leading the playoffs in scoring and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.

In 1991-92 he would play in 64 games, posting a 44-87-131 stat line. The Pens would win their second straight Cup, and Lemieux would win his second Conn Smythe, and third Arts Ross trophy. 1992-93 would bring more health challenges, as in January 1993 Lemieux would announce his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He would miss 20 games while undergoing radiation treatment, but would come back to win his fourth Art Ross trophy, scoring 69-91-160, winning his second Hart Trophy and third Pearson Award.

For the 1993-94 season he would play in only 22 games, and he would skip the entire lockout shortened 1994-95 season due to back injuries and overall fatigue. In 1995-96 he would pull off another remarkable comeback, posting an almost identical stat line to 1992-93 (69-92-161), winning the Hart, Pearson, Art Ross and being named a first team all-star. The following season he would win another Art Ross and be a finalist for the Hart Trophy.

After 12 seasons, Lemieux would retire following the 1997 playoffs, citing fatigue and injuries. Those in the know would understand that Lemieux was also fed up with the ‘Dead Puck Era’ of the NHL, the clutching and grabbing eliminating the skill game that was integral to Lemieux’s play. Not surprisingly, he would be elected immediately to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997.

Having already saved the Pens franchise with his play throughout the 80s and 90s, Lemieux once again came to the rescue in 1999, saving the team from bankruptcy by becoming a part owner of the team. On December 27, 2000, Lemieux came out of retirement to play for the team he owned. He would play 43 games, scoring 35-41-76, be named a second team all-star and finishing second in Hart voting.

In 2001-02 he would play in only 24 games due to a hip injury, with 2002-03 being his final full NHL season, playing in 67 games, scoring 28 goals and 91 points. Lemieux would play only 36 games in 2003-04 and 2005-06 due to hip injuries, and would retire in 2006 due to a heart condition.

In a 17 season career, Lemieux would only play 70+ games in six seasons. He would retire for good having played in 915 games, scoring 690 goals (11th all-time), 1033 assists (12th all-time) and 1723 points (8th all-time). He sits fourth all-time in shorthanded goals (49) and has the second most number of hat tricks (40). He was first named the captain of the Penguins in 1987 and is still the chairman of the franchise, winning three additional Stanley Cups in 2009, 2016 and 2017. There is no player in the NHL that is so singularly tied to the success of a franchise than Lemieux is to Pittsburgh. One wonders how successful Lemieux would have been had he been healthy and not played a good portion of his career in the Dead Puck Era.

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