Q. Do you think the Penguins tanked the 1983-84 season to get Mario Lemieux?
Josh Sufrin, Pittsburgh
MOLINARI: Depends on exactly who you're talking about.
If it's the players, no way. Those guys were bad enough that they came by their 16-58-6 record honestly. And really, why would players -- especially centers, in the case of that particular group -- lose intentionally so that their employer could get in position to bring in someone who would be more a threat to take their job?
Management, however, made a number of personnel moves that made it possible for the Penguins to slip past New Jersey and into last place in the overall standings as the season was winding down.
The most striking was trading one of the Penguins' few significant talents, defenseman Randy Carlyle, to Winnipeg for absolutely nothing -- right away, at least. Oh, the Penguins got a pretty fair return in that deal -- a first-round draft choice that became Doug Bodger, along with defenseman Moe Mantha -- but Bodger wasn't drafted until a few months after the season and Mantha was a player-to-be-named, which means he wasn't officially identified as part of the trade until the Jets' season was over.
Also, there was an instance when goalie Roberto Romano had the temerity to string together a couple of strong starts late in the season, at which point general manager Ed Johnston sent him to the Penguins' farm team in Baltimore and brought up goalie Vincent Tremblay because "we want to see what he can do." What the front office almost certainly realized was that the list of things that Tremblay could do -- or at least, that he could do well -- at that point in his career did not include stopping hockey pucks with any regularity.
Tremblay, it should be noted, didn't disappoint. He went 0-4, with a 6.00 goals-against average, in what proved to be his final four appearances in the NHL.
As the season was entering its latter stages, Bob Butera, then president of the Devils, publicly accused the Penguins of making a concerted effort to lose so that they would end up with the No. 1 choice in the draft. Coach Lou Angotti reacted bitterly to the charge, and it was obvious that every one of his team's many defeats that winter took something out of him. (It was a horrific season, by any measure, for Angotti, who lost a son in an auto accident during his lone year behind the bench.)
Despite the Penguins' vigorous protests that they were trying to win as often as possible, they stumbled to the finish line with 3-17-1 record -- a stretch that included two six-game losing streaks and one 0-5-1 run -- and a few months later, drafted Lemieux, whose arrival did nothing less than save the franchise. The Devils ended up with Kirk Muller, along with a strong sense of self-righteousness.