CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle are winners in all walks of life. And knowing both gentlemen as I have for many years, I'm quite confident in citing three reasons for that:
1. They love winning almost as much as they hate losing. 2. They're smart and talented enough to win on their own. 3. They surround themselves with similarly successful individuals.
And I bring this up for exactly the reasons one might expect after the Penguins' zero-sum, minimal-effort elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs: If Jim Rutherford and/or Mike Sullivan would prefer to proceed into the franchise's future without Kris Letang, they'd best be prepared to make a thoroughly compelling case to ownership. Because it sure won't be easy.
Lemieux and Burkle are believers in the core. For many years, the core was Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. When the NHL's expansion rules essentially gift-wrapped Fleury for the Golden Knights, it was an exasperated Burkle who told me a couple years ago that, if he could somehow keep Fleury, he'd have happily handed Vegas back the $15 million entry fee each team was taking "to keep him with us forever."
Letang's in that same circle, trust me.
In May of 2014, when I interviewed both in an office at PPG Paints Arena immediately after the dual firings of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma, this exchange occurred:
Me: Let’s talk about Kris Letang. There’s a decision to be made, as his no-trade clause will kick in after this summer. Will that be made by ownership? That’s a pretty big call.
Lemieux: That’s on the GM. We signed Kris to keep him. But when the GM comes in, he’s going to evaluate the team. If he sees fit to trade any of these players, he’ll certainly talk to us about it. But it’s his call.
DK: You believe in Kris Letang?
That was the end of that. Lemieux's tone made that clear. I whisked on to the next subject.
It's easy to forget now, two more Stanley Cups later, but the sentiment -- inside and outside the team -- seemed nearly as strong against Letang as it does now, after his several glaring mistakes contributed to this sweep by the Islanders. But Lemieux and Burkle stood by Letang, and he wound up delivering a virtuoso performance in the championship-clincher at San Jose. And after that game, on the ice at SAP Center, when I brought that up with Lemieux, he came back with one of those silent but authoritative nods.
This should be instructive for Rutherford, Sullivan and anyone else in the current hierarchy who'd be amenable -- or even eager -- to move out Letang. And let's not pretend there weren't signals being sent to that effect Thursday.