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Madden: Lemieux's return bad news for some

Saturday, December 09, 2000

When Mario Lemieux told Craig Patrick he was coming back, Patrick is said to have cried. I'd ordinarily call Patrick a big softy. But, to be honest, the Penguins' general manager wasn't the only one weeping tears of joy over the announcement of Lemieux's return as a player.

Logic dictates that Lemieux might fail. He hasn't played in more than three years, and when it comes to hockey, 35 is a lot older than 31. Lemieux, of course, will dictate that he succeeds, and in a big way, I'm sure. He's the best hockey player ever. Abilities like his fade, but they don't disappear. Courage doesn't disappear, either. When you beat the nightmare of cancer, the annoyance of advancing middle age is nothing.

This will work. Rick Tocchet, Lemieux's former teammate, predicted that Mario will lead the NHL in scoring for the period encompassing the game he comes back until the end of the season. That seems a reasonable proposition.

But if Lemieux can do even better than that, that's what could push the Penguins over the top and make them Stanley Cup finalists, which seems to be Mario's primary goal.

To maximize Lemieux's return, certain things need to happen.

For starters, Coach Ivan Hlinka needs to get the heck out of the way. Have Milan Kraft's line play the left-wing lock if it makes Hlinka feel like he's coaching. But let the top two lines open up the throttle. Let the Penguins' stars take advantage of the fact the diluted NHL has too many teams and not enough good players. With Lemieux, the Penguins have the offensive depth to terrorize foes. They might lose a tight 2-1 game. So don't play tight 2-1 games. With Lemieux back, they'll win a vast majority of the 6-4 decisions.

To be quite frank, Lemieux's return makes Hlinka's presence largely insignificant. No offense, Ivan, but go sell defense somewhere else. This team needs to attack constantly.

Jan Hrdina must come through big. Despite recent struggles, Hrdina will likely skate on a line with Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Hrdina has the conditioning to forecheck the corners and backcheck the slot, freeing Lemieux and Jagr to concentrate on manufacturing offense. Hrdina can also take faceoffs, something Lemieux has no intention of doing.

Hrdina has allowed his psyche and style to be demolished by Jagr's constant demand for the puck. He has been dishing to Jagr so often -- and in such inappropriate situations -- that it's been embarrassing. But now, with Lemieux a pretty fair passing option, Hrdina should become the complete player he was once on his way to being. Lemieux's presence should calm and energize Hrdina. The Penguins' top line will operate as a unit, not as two players spoon-feeding one.

Lemieux also will calm and energize Jagr. But Jagr must realize that there will be nights when he has to energize Lemieux. There will be occasions when he has to help elevate Lemieux's game. When the two played together in the past, Mario was the dominant figure. But for Lemieux and Jagr to maximize achievement this time around, the on-ice relationship has to be an equal partnership. Jagr is in his prime, Lemieux isn't.

At least I don't think he is.

Jagr probably won't ask to be traded again. Jagr made that demand within the past two weeks, just before he learned that Lemieux was returning. Jagr's emotional, erratic behavior figures to be a thing of the past with Lemieux back. Jagr won't dare shame himself in front of his idol.

With Lemieux playing, Alexei Kovalev needs to realize that he's still a critical part of the equation and continue on his way to a career year. Actually, with big accomplishments realistically in sight for the Penguins, it's more crucial than ever that Kovalev keeps tearing up the league.

Lemieux's return isn't good news for everybody. Kip Miller won't play on a line. Lemieux wants no part of a borderline NHLer on his troika. Actually, Mario played with Miller the first five years of his career. His name was Steve Gatzos then. Or perhaps it was Dan Frawley. At any rate, never again.

Billy Tibbetts seems unlikely to play with the Penguins as long as Lemieux does. Tibbetts, because of his past, is a potential public relations nightmare whether Lemieux plays or not. But there's no way Lemieux is going to answer questions about being on the same team as a convicted rapist. Everybody deserves a second chance, but Tibbetts isn't going to get his on the same roster as Lemieux.

Lemieux's return is bad news for Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque, all of whom passed Mario on the NHL's all-time points list within the past few years. If Mario plays more than the rest of this season -- and this appears to be a multiyear thing, by the way -- those guys will wind up in No. 66's rear-view mirror. That's a familiar position for Bourque, by the way. Mario has made a good portion of his living spinning the legendary defenseman into the ice like a drill bit.

Lemieux's return is marvelous news for pretty much everybody else, though. It's wonderful that Mario's career will be more than a highlight video to his 4-year-old son, Austin.

But while we wallow in emotion right now, let's remember that Lemieux came back for results. Will he get them? Ultimately, that's the real story of Lemieux, Part Deux.

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