There were many ways in which Jarome Iginla could have looked forward to his new life with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the analogy he chose was interesting.
“The way I’m trying to view it is, it’s kind of like going to a Team Canada thing or an Olympics thing, where you’re ready for any role,” Iginla said Thursday, a day after the blockbuster deal that shook the NHL and sent him from the floundering Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup favourite Penguins. “That’s where I’m at and that’s what I’m going to draw on, and be ready to play hard and have fun.
“I’m not sure what my role will be, and I’m fine with whatever that is.”
Talent-wise, the Penguins are as close as a team can get into today’s salary-capped NHL to resembling an international hockey powerhouse, where every player is a top player and even 50-goal scorers can sometimes play a diminished role. In acquiring Iginla, the Penguins stamped themselves as the odds-on favourites to win the Stanley Cup.
“They’re a lock, right?” said Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, whose team was controversially the first runner-up in the Iginla sweepstakes.
But there is also a kernel of truth in Chiarelli’s sly aside.
A team can put all the right pieces together on paper, but it still needs to translate into a winning formula on the ice.
Lots of teams have gone into the Stanley Cup playoffs as the prohibitive favourites and stumbled along the path. Injuries, a hot goaltender on the other team, the weight of too heavy expectations, can all derail even the best made plans. The Penguins’ additions of Iginla, forward Brenden Morrow and defenceman Douglas Murray add some perceived missing ingredients – size and strength – to a Pittsburgh team that was already on a 13-game win streak heading into Thursday night’s action.
Still, none of their new faces are goalies, and last spring, the Penguins were favoured to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round, but lost in six games because they couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net. (They surrendered 30 goals in six games, and starting goalie Marc-André Fleury had a bloated 4.63 goals-against average.)
The challenge for Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will be to take what he’s been given by general manager Ray Shero and blend them into his team, without disrupting the chemistry that has evolved this year. The Penguins made a similar bold move in 2008 to acquire Marian Hossa at the deadline, and Hossa was everything they hoped he’d be, scoring 26 points in 20 playoff games. But the Penguins still lost the Stanley Cup final to the Detroit Red Wings.
Nothing is ever guaranteed in the world of professional sport, but if nothing else, the Penguins will be the team to watch this spring. They may indeed be facing a series of Canadian challengers along the way, given that all four Canadian teams in the Eastern Conference are in playoff contention and could loom as possible first-round opponents.
It should provide great drama.
Bylsma will eventually get Iginla and Crosby on the ice together, but they may start on separate lines as the process of weaning Iginla away from the Calgary way of doing things, and teaching him Pittsburgh’s ways, begins.
Iginla was composed during his send-off press conference, no tears à la Wayne Gretzky, when the Great One was traded to Los Angeles from Edmonton. Iginla talked about the stress of the past few weeks, but he didn’t look stressed at all once the deal was done.
For the first time in a long time, he will be part of an ensemble cast rather than the main attraction in what was often a one-man show. Iginla good-naturedly disputed this assertion and said the Flames had some good scoring teams along the way, citing two players – Kristian Huselius and Todd Bertuzzi – as proof. Iginla genuinely enjoyed playing with them – and with Alex Tanguay and Craig Conroy and Mike Cammalleri and Chris Drury and others – but it doesn’t change the fact that none play at the level of Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
In a perfect world, Iginla wants to play until he’s 40, which means five more years to win that elusive Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh is his way station for now and if it works out, he could sign there in the summer. If it doesn’t, he’s an unrestricted free agent and will be able to pick his next team in the same way he picked the Penguins this time.
“You always want to win, that’s what we’re made to do and what we want to do,” said Iginla, who noted how quickly the first 16 years of his career zipped past. With each passing season, Iginla noted: “You definitely feel a little more urgency to win.”
Iginla needs to get his U.S. work visa in order and once that happens, he’ll get about a month to integrate himself into the lineup before the playoff push begins.
“Honestly, I’m looking forward to getting to Pitt and to focus on hockey again,” Iginla said. “It’s only been a day or two without playing, but it feels way longer. This is not normal, in terms of what we go through daily, so it’ll feel good to get back into a routine and back on the ice, playing.”
Just playing, and not worrying about his future, could be just the thing to rejuvenate Iginla, and get his career nicely back on track.