NHL What If… Mario Lemieux Injuries for the Pittsburgh Penguins

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NHL What-If is a series that looks at big moments in NHL history and wonders what might have happened had things played out slightly differently. The series is a focus on moments that impacted major games and franchises. The next moment to be examined is the injury history of Mario Lemieux.

NHL What If… Mario Lemieux Injuries

History

Mario Lemieux was one of the most highly touted prospects to enter the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins had the first overall pick in the 1984 draft. Despite rumors that Pittsburgh had several trade offers, the Penguins kept the pick and selected Lemieux. He was seen as the savior of hockey in Pittsburgh. The Penguins were struggling. The team was not competitive and having issues drawing fans to their games. The team was in financial trouble and there were rumors of relocation. So excited for Lemieux were Penguins fans, they had a draft watch party at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena that drew 3,000 fans. The Penguins averaged less than 7,000 fans per game in 1983-84. That was less than half the capacity of the Civic Arena.

NHL free agent frenzy

While Lemieux was the consensus pick, there was drama around the selection. Super Mario and the Penguins brass were engaged in a contract dispute before the draft. With negotiations deadlocked at the draft, Lemieux did not put on the Penguins sweater and cap when he was selected. The impasse didn’t last and Mario Lemieux signed just after the draft. The rest is history.

Saviour

Lemieux developed into one of the greatest players to ever play in the NHL. He would win six Art Ross Trophies, four Pearson/Lindsay awards, three Hart Trophies, the Calder Trophy, and the Masterton Trophy. Lemieux would lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, collecting the Conn Smythe in both years. In his 17 year career, Lemieux collected 690 goals, 1,033 assists for 1,723 points in 915 games. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997 with the hall waiving the standard three-year waiting period upon retirement. At the time of his initial retirement, Lemieux was the only player in NHL history to average two points per game.

Lemieux again saved the Penguins in 1999. With the Penguins, again, in financial trouble, Lemieux bought the Penguins to keep them in Pittsburgh. He was able to pay back the debts the team owed by 2005. While he was the owner, Lemieux came out of retirement in 2000 to play in parts of six seasons. In 170 games he played between 2000-2006, Lemieux scored 229 points.

What Really Happened

Lemieux was the only bright spot for the Penguins when he was drafted. The Penguins missed the playoffs in Lemieux’s first four seasons, despite Lemieux scoring over 100 points in each season. Still, Lemieux was bringing the fans back to Pittsburgh. By 1988-89 the Penguins were back in the post-season. Lemieux leads the league in scoring with 199 points. Entering the 1989-90 season, there are high expectations for the Penguins.

Again, between 1984 to 1997 Lemieux averaged over two points per game. He also played an average of 57 games per season. He was still able to dominate the NHL while missing an average of 23 games per season.

Back Issues

Unfortunately, this is where the injuries begin to rear their ugly head. Lemieux misses 21 games with a herniated disc in his back. The Penguins missed the playoffs. Still, Lemieux finished fourth in league scoring with 123 points. Lemieux had surgery to repair the disc during the 1990 off-season. He developed a rare bone disease resulting from a surgery-related infection and misses 50 games of the 1990-91 season. Lemieux puts up 43 points in 26 games. Lemieux puts up 44 points en-route to winning his first Stanley Cup and Conn Smyth. He punctuated his greatness in the 1991 playoffs with one of the most memorable goals in Cup finals history (Oh baby!).

While he could come and play well, his back was always an issue from this point on. He would lead the league in scoring in 1991-92 with 131 points in 64 games. Again, he led Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup victory and the Conn Smythe. Lemieux posted 34 points despite missing five games with a broken hand.

In the 1993 off-season, Lemieux would need a second back surgery, this time for a herniated muscle. Lemieux would miss the first 10 games recovering from the surgery and a total of 58 games overall stemming from back issues. Lemieux’s back issues would plague him throughout his career. His back was so bad that he would need a trainer to tie his skates before games because he was unable to bend over due to the pain. He would deal with his back issues and other issues (getting to that) until his (initial) retirement in 1997.

Cancer

Lemieux’s back issues were bad enough, in January of 1993 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He would need to undergo chemotherapy treatments that would sap the energy from his body. Lemieux’s career and possibly his life were in doubt. From a hockey standpoint, the timing could not be worse for Lemieux. He was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons of all time. He was on pace to challenge Wayne Gretzky‘s record of 92 goals and 215 points. The treatment forced Lemieux to miss two months of the season. Despite missing two months of action, Lemieux led the NHL in scoring with 160 points in 60 games.

While Lemieux came back dominant, the effects of the chemotherapy (and his back issues) began to take their toll. So much so that Lemieux took a medical leave of absence for the entire 1994-95 season. He cited fatigue stemming from the radiation treatment for his cancer. He would return the following season and win back to back Art Ross trophies before announcing his retirement after the 1997 playoffs.

At the time of his (initial) retirement Lemieux scored 1494 points in 745 games. He was the only player (at the time) to retire with a point per game average over two. Lemieux missed 275 games due to injury or illness in his career.

Super Mario vs The Great One

Lemieux is already considered one of the greatest players in NHL history. Still, his career was cut short by back injuries and cancer. Before his career was derailed, there was a serious question about whether Lemieux could match or beat Gretzky’s career records. In the 1992-93 season, for example, Lemieux was cutting a ridiculous pace of 2.68 points per game. In comparison, in Wayne Gretzky’s record-setting season of 1985-86, he averaged 2.69 points per game. The craziest part of the whole scenario is Lemieux cut an even better pace (2.8 points per game) AFTER his radiation treatment. In the Penguins final 15 games, Lemieux racked up an amazing 45 points, just over 3 points per game.

One thing is for sure, had Lemieux be able to at least play out the 1992-93 season, he would have at least been the second player in NHL history to top the 200 point plateau. However, the pace Super Mario was setting would definitely have posed a challenge to Gretzky’s season points record. Lemieux even had a chance to match or beat Gretzky’s single-season goal record as well. Had Lemieux been healthy he was on pace to score 92 goals in ’92-93. Needless to say, it would have been more interesting a healthy Lemieux taking a run at Gretzky’s records.

What If…

Lemieux never injures his back in 1990, which does not lead to the rare bone infection that cost Lemieux the majority of the 1990-91 season. Without contracting cancer, Lemieux doesn’t miss two months of the ’92-93 season, nor does he take the season off in 1994-95. A healthy Lemieux plays an average of 78 games per season over his career and plays 18 seasons. Based on his points per game average at the time of his initial retirement, Lemieux amasses 2,808 points. That is comfortably in second place all-time. His 1992-93 season, however, is considered the greatest of all time. He breaks Gretzky’s all-time season goals and points record.

The Penguins continue to be a dominant force in the league. They battle division rivals New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers as the best teams in the conference. Lemieux plays in the 1994-95 season. The Penguins win their division and claim the first seed in the East. Their path takes them through the Rangers, Flyers and New Jersey Devils. Pittsburgh eliminates the Devils, despite the ultra-conservative and defensive game plan of coach Jacques Lemaire. The Devils style does not lead to ultimate success and is therefore not copied by teams throughout the league. The Dead Puck Era as we know it does not come to be.

The Penguins then face the new up and coming would be dynasty in the Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins win their third Stanley Cup in five games. The Wings and Pens would meet two more times in the Cup Finals in 1997 and 1998 with Detroit taking both encounters.

Penguins Financials

With Mario Lemieux healthy, the Penguins continue to roll as one of the marquee teams in the league. Paired with Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh has two of the most dynamic players in NHL history on the same line. The Penguins are a huge draw and fan favorite to new or neutral fans. There is no need for Mario Lemieux to save the team financially.

 

 

 

 

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