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Lemieux Learns the 'D' Word

Pittsburgh's owner and captain, one of the greatest offensive players ever, is ready to buy into the Penguins' defensive system.

August 03, 2003|From Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — For years, Mario Lemieux knew only one way to play hockey: all offense, all out, all the time.

Defensive systems? Neutral zone traps? Tight checking? Take no risks? Those words were as absent from his hockey vocabulary as these: rebuilding effort and youth movement.

Not now. Not only is one of the NHL's greatest offensive players ever reshaping the only style of play he has ever known as he nears age 38. He's also learning some brand new words.

"We're going to have to take care of defense first," Lemieux said.

Now that's an upset: Mario Lemieux getting excited about defense, not offense.

Lemieux ended speculation about his future plans by announcing Thursday he will play this for the Pittsburgh Penguins even though they have almost no chance to win the Stanley Cup.

It was Lemieux's quest for a third Cup that drove him to end his 3 1/2-year retirement in December 2000.

Previously, the Penguins refused to go along with the NHL's ever-growing reliance on offense-stifling systems in which goal stopping is as important as goal scoring. Now, Lemieux is ready to embrace a soon-to-be-installed defensive system that new coach Eddie Olczyk hopes will make the Penguins into an East Coast version of the Minnesota Wild.

It's not that Lemieux has fallen in love with a style in which defense is used to create offense. Rather, it's because he has little choice.

These are different and more difficult times now for the under-construction Penguins, who have significantly cut their payroll to retrench with younger, faster and lower-paid players.

To have any chance of winning, at least short term, the Penguins must used their speed and energy to force opponents into playing low-scoring games. Having Lemieux to serve as the finisher on the goal-scoring chances they do get could improve their ability to steal some games they probably should lose.

"I'm a better coach than I was a half-hour ago, and we're a lot better team," Olczyk said. "He will lead us and they will follow."

The news of Lemieux's return for the 2003-04 season wasn't unexpected, as the sixth-leading scorer in NHL history has hinted for weeks he was coming back. He's been working out since last month and has never been in better shape during any offseason, even when he was in his teens. Lemieux has yet to resume on-ice work, yet is 12 pounds lighter than last season.

If there was any surprise, it's that Lemieux is talking like he will play well beyond this season, even though the 2004-05 NHL season is already in jeopardy because of a pending labor dispute.

Lemieux pointed out how Igor Larionov and Chris Chelios, among others, have been productive NHL players into their 40s, and that the rugged, year-around conditioning that is a must for top players could prolong his career. even if the two-time Stanley Cup champion never thought he would be playing so long for a team with so little chance of winning.

The Penguins finished 29th of 30 in the overall standings last season. With few established players beyond Lemieux, Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov, Pittsburgh can't realistically expect to be much better in 2003-04.

"I don't know about competing for the Stanley Cup; that's a different level," Lemieux said. "But we'll be out there competing every night to win. Our goal should be to make the playoffs ... because, if you get hot, a lot of good things can happen."

Lemieux has 682 goals and 1,010 assists over 15 seasons, despite playing hundreds of fewer games than any of the other top 10 career scorers.

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