I'm sure many of you know quite a lot about the Penguins, but this post is directed toward readers like myself who might not. I didn't know enough to put into perspective this morning's Post-Gazette story about Pens co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle offering to buy the Pirates, so I asked someone who does: "FrankD," who runs SB Nation's Pensburgh. Here are his answers to my questions:
BD: Is it correct that the Penguins' team salary was, for the most part, below the NHL average during the years between Lemieux and Burkle's purchase of the team and the NHL going to a salary cap? If so, why was this? Were there hockey reasons? Financial reasons?
FrankD: At the time Burkle and Lemieux's purchase in 1999, they were definitely operating on a low budget. When Lemieux came out of retirement in 2000, they couldn't afford to keep certain guys around. More specifically, free agent market. He had a nice payday in DC but by that time it didn't matter much for the Pens. There's no way they could've matched his ridiculous seven-year, $77 million deal. That season they failed to make the playoffs and had to cut the salary of and Robert Lang as well. So yeah, the salary was an issue at the time. I wish I could give you exact numbers that the Pens had to work with at the time, but I don't really know what they were. All I know is that this looked liked the beginning of the end for them until Lemieux ultimately resurrected them with the acquisition of draft picks, which ultimately brought in the young, talented group of guys playing for the Pens right now.. He was sent packing off to Washington, although there was a lot of speculation at the time that Jagr was all for testing the
BD: In your opinion, how would Lemieux do as the owner of a team like the Pirates, given that Major League Baseball does not have a cap?
FrankD: It's hard to say. I don't think he'd step up and try to buy big-time players along the likes of George Steinbrenner or anything, but the guy hates to lose. But to be honest I don't think Lemieux's all that savvy when it comes to baseball knowledge (I could be wrong of course, but I'm going to at least believe I'm right), so chances are it's going to really come down to the Pirates' GM presenting the case for certain players. With the Penguins, GM Ray Shero makes a lot of go-get-em decisions when it comes to locking up players for the future or signing some low-key, high-contributing players. Overall I just get the impression that he's intent on winning, but given unlimited spending potential I don't think he would triple the payroll or anything.
BD: Given that the Pirates are a young organization in the process of rebuilding, do you think Lemieux would be likely to want to continue that process, or would he want to make a splash right away by acquiring veteran talent?
FrankD: Again, hard to say. If anything the guy has proven that he isn't afraid to take on challenges, as seen with his purchase of the Penguins during the darkest days and ultimately raising them to the level of champions. But if the structure of the Penguins will reflect on the Pirates in any way than I see it going down like this: Have a core of young, talented players and find a way to keep them around for a few years. Experiment with them in the majors as much as possible and keep them in the mix, gaining experience along the way. Maybe they'll shuttle up and down for a season or two, but it's important to get them into major league action. Meanwhile, bring in a veteran or two or three and have them sort of act like a player coach to the younger guys. Little things like rehashing fundamentals down to perfecting things like eating healthy on the road (this is something Gary Roberts was famous for during his time in Pittsburgh) can do wonders for the future of a younger player. If they can find that young, talented player to build around then the formula will be even more successful.
BD: Judging from the way Pittsburgh sports fans have responded to Lemieux as a player and as an executive, what effect do you think he might have on the Pirates' image if he were the public face of the team?
FrankD: It definitely couldn't hurt. I'm sure you know more than anyone else that the Pirates have been the butt end of jokes lately because they are seen as the red-headed stepchild in a City of Champions. Lemieux's position as owner of the Penguins brought with it tremendous respect for the guy, not just as a player but as a philanthropist and cancer survivor, and I don't think that sort of thing will wash off easily with a trip across town.
BD: How have Lemieux and Burkle handled actual hockey decisions (that is, decisions about player acquisitions, etc.)? Do they mostly trust those decisions to others? The results they've gotten speak for themselves, but have those been the result of luck, sound planning, or both?
FrankD: I can't say for sure, but I really don't think Burkle has much to say in terms of transactions. GM Ray Shero is the one who handles the hockey transactions and such. In the past there have been instances where it was suggested Lemieux said things like, "I want so and so on this team, make it happen," and then Shero goes out and makes it happen. There have been other instances where Shero allegedly approached Lemieux and said, "We need this guy and here's why" and Lemieux said, "Do it" (paraphrasing, of course). It strikes me as a team effort between Lemieux and Shero, but again I don't see what goes on behind closed doors.