Former Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Bob Johnson used to say, "It's a great day for hockey." When looking back to the 1990s, it could be said that it was a great decade for hockey in the city of Pittsburgh.
During the 1990s, few NHL teams were as talented or as successful as the Penguins.
Blessed with a roster a future Hall of Famers, the Penguins were perennial Stanley Cup contenders, and despite some heartbreaking postseason defeats, Pens fans can look back fondly on the '90s as a time when great players achieved great things for the both the franchise and the city.
As the stars of today look to add another Stanley Cup banner to the rafters at the Consol Energy Center, let's look back at the greatest Pittsburgh Penguins of the '90s.
As the first U.S.-born player to reach the exclusive 500-goal plateau, Joe Mullen was one of the premier goal scorers in NHL history, and were it not for his legendary teammates, he would be higher on this list.
Acquired by the Pens for just a second-round pick in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, Mullen had been a fixture with the Calgary Flames and was just two seasons removed from a 51-goal performance. But at 33, the Flames felt that he was on the downside of his career.
Newly named Pens head coach Bob Johnson, having coached Mullen in Calgary, believed that he could still be an offensive force and convinced Pens general manager Craig Patrick to make the deal.
Scoring 153 goals and averaging a bit less than a point per game with the Pens during the 1990s, Mullen was an integral part of two Stanley Cup-winning teams, and his trade to the Pens from the Flames is considered one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history.
Although he was overshadowed by his more accomplished and flashy countryman and teammate Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka was both team sparkplug and fan favorite for the Penguins during the 1990s.
Topping the 30-goal plateau in his rookie season, Straka made an immediate impact after being drafted by the Pens in the first round of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft.
Despite being traded away twice by the Pens during his tenure, Straka remains in the top 10 for both games played (560), goals scored (165) and points (442) in franchise history.
Possessing great quickness and a strong work ethic on the ice, Straka excelled at chasing down pucks and creating space for linemates Ron Francis and Jagr, who teamed together to form one of the top lines in the NHL during the late '90s.
Had he played on most other teams, Ron Francis would have centered the top line, been the top scorer and captained the team. Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the 1990s were not one of those teams.
Acquired in the infamous 1991 trade-deadline deal along with Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from the Hartford Whalers, Francis was the quiet catalyst for the Pens during the 1990s and ranks third in assists (449) in franchise history.
Excelling in both faceoffs and the defensive aspects of the game, Francis won both the Selke Trophy and the Lady Byng Trophy and led the league in plus/minus in 1995. He would win the Lady Bing Trophy again in 1998.
Forced to assume the mantle as team captain on numerous occasions due to injuries to Mario Lemieux, Francis was a stabilizing influence for the Pens. His legendary overtime winner against the New York Rangers in Game 4 of their 1992 second-round matchup saved the Pens' season and propelled them to win the second of back-to-back Stanley Cups.
As the Penguins' all-time statistical leader, former savior and current owner, Mario Lemieux would be expected to be found at the top of any list of the top players in franchise history.
Unfortunately, Lemieux's unbearable string of injuries, which limited him to an average of just 53 games a season during the 1990s, cost him the entire 1994-1995 season and led to an early retirement in 1997, keeps him from the top spot on this list.
While these injuries have left the hockey world wondering what Lemieux might have accomplished, in a strange way, they may have actually added to his legendary status.
Winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP is one thing. Winning it while being unable to even tie your own skates, as Lemieux did in 1991, is quite another.
It's one thing to lead the league in scoring. It's quite another to do so having missed a quarter of the season due to cancer treatments, as Lemieux did in 1993.
While Lemieux's status is firmly fixed at the top of the Penguins' franchise history, the title of best Pens player of the '90s goes to the player who became the face of the franchise after Lemieux retired in 1997.
While most Pens fans would understandably bristle at the notion of putting Jaromir Jagr above Mario Lemieux on any list, his amazing level of play, coupled with Lemieux's nagging health problems during the 1990s, earn Jagr the distinction of the best Pittsburgh Penguin during that decade.
Drafted by the Pens with the No. 5 overall pick in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, Jagr became an immediate star, would average nearly 39 goals per season during the '90s and seemed a natural understudy to Lemieux. Even scrambling the letters of Jaromir spells out Mario Jr.
Blessed with tremendous hands and lower-body strength, Jagr was a force in the corners and had an uncanny ability to control pucks while fending off defenders to generate scoring chances.
Unfortunately, the enigmatic Czech, perhaps unhappy with having to share the spotlight, demanded a trade after Mario Lemieux returned in 2000 and was dealt to the rival Washington Capitals.
While Jagr's defenders claim the trade was because of the Pens' financial difficulties, others claim it was an ego-driven move on his part which tainted, in the eyes of many Pens fans, a decade of dominance which made him the best Pittsburgh Penguin of the '90s.