In 1984, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils battled to the last game of the season, not for Stanley Cup glory, but for the coveted first pick in that summer’s NHL Draft. The player expected to go number one overall that year was Mario Lemieux of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Laval Voisins. At this point in the NHL’s history, there was no draft lottery: the team that finished last overall in the league got the first pick. Lemieux could be the type of player that would change the fortunes of a struggling franchise and that urgency was not lost on management of the two struggling teams.
Teams were preparing to get a crack at Lemieux as far back as 1981 (Montreal traded Pierre Larouche to the Hartford Whalers that year in exchange for the Whalers first round pick in the hope that Hartford would finish last come 1984 and Mario could be picked by his hometown team). While Montreal’s gamble did not pay off, come the 1983-84 season, two teams were in the hunt for Lemieux: the Pens and the Devils. As the NHL’s bottom feeders, “Le Magnifique” was within grasp. As the season progressed, Pittsburgh and New Jersey were neck-and-neck at the bottom of the league standings. By the time March rolled around, things started to get a little tense as, on March 5, the Penguins traded former Norris Trophy winning defenseman, Randy Carlyle to Winnipeg for a first round draft choice and a player to be named later. That player would go on to be Moe Mantha, obtained after the season ended. Next, Pens General Manager Eddie Johnston sent the team’s number one goalie (Roberto Romano) down to their American Hockey League affiliate in Baltimore. He was replaced with Vincent Tremblay, a goalie not quite on the level of Romano (he allowed 24 goals in 4 games once called up). And so it was, with a team of minor leaguers and castoffs, the Pens would finish three points behind the Devils (a record of 16-58-8 for 38 points versus the Devils’ 17-56-7 for 41 points). The Devils, to their credit, continued to play their regulars. When the draft – held in Montreal – came around, the Penguins (as expected) picked Lemieux while the Devils, with the second overall pick, selected Kirk Muller of the Guelph Platers of the Ontario Hockey League.
While Kirk Muller was certainly a fantastic player, a franchise player worthy of the first overall pick in any other draft year and the Devils first real superstar, Mario Lemieux would go on to a career rivaled in the modern era only perhaps by Wayne Gretzky. Famously, “Super Mario” would score on his first shift on the ice in the NHL and, in fact, on his first NHL shot. More importantly than that, though, Mario would help to revitalize an NHL franchise that had not had a winning season since 1979 and not made the playoffs since 1982; a team that had filed for bankruptcy back in 1975 (the first NHL team to do so since World War II). Within seven years (1991) the Penguins were Stanley Cup champs thanks largely to Lemieux. The Pens would add another Cup in 1992 under Lemieux’s captaincy. Lemieux would fall in love with the city of Pittsburgh, living there, becoming a naturalized American citizen, and, when the Penguins ran into financial trouble again in the late 1990s/early 2000s and were on the verge of moving (as had been threatened prior to Mario’s arrival in Pittsburgh), he swooped in to buy the team, securing their future in Pittsburgh and helping to get financing for their new arena. Mario Lemieux would be the Pittsburgh Penguins savior not once, but twice.
The rest of the fallout from that draft included the NHL going to a lottery system whereby the lower you finished, while giving you a better chance at gaining the number one overall pick, did not guarantee you the first pick. The Devils, with Muller, would actually see more immediate improvement than the Penguins (making the playoffs in 1988 and going all the way to the Wales Conference Finals that year) while the Pens would not make the playoffs for the first time in the Lemieux era until 1989. However, by 1991, the Devils would trade “Captain Kirk” to the Canadiens for Tom Chorske and Stephane Richer, who was a key component on the Devils first Stanley Cup team in 1995.
In the end, it could be said that everything worked out for everyone involved: the Penguins got Mario and he led them to two Stanley Cups as a player and a third as team owner. But more importantly on the Pittsburgh side of things: he helped keep the team in the city not once, but twice. From the NHL’s perspective, they got a superstar player who would help revitalize a team that was a doormat really since their inception into the league and got incentive to fix a draft system that was broken. The Devils got an immediate superstar in Kirk Muller, who would lead them through the late 80s as captain and undisputed leader. His trade to Montreal would also bring them one of the bigger figures from their ’95 Cup team.
It is easy to look back at this whole affair with 20/20 hindsight and see how everything played out fine for both the teams and the league. Both the Pens and the Devils have the same number of Cups today at three, so we could say that everything worked out. Conversely, there could be a tendency to say that the Devils got the short end of the stick and that they could have had even more should Lemieux been drafted by them. It did not work out that way and we will never know. What is known is how deathly serious getting Mario was at the time. The Devils and the Penguins were in dire straits as franchises and Lemieux was a franchise player, he could only go to one team, but the hockey world got two stable, great franchises out of him.