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Rob Rossi: Time for Penguins to give Stanley Cup catalyst Paul Coffey his due

| Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, 2:36 p.m.
Mario Lemieux #66 and Paul Coffey #77 of the Penguins alumni pose for a photo during the alumni game prior to the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on Dec. 31, 2010, in Pittsburgh.
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Mario Lemieux #66 and Paul Coffey #77 of the Penguins alumni pose for a photo during the alumni game prior to the 2011 NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic at Heinz Field on Dec. 31, 2010, in Pittsburgh.

On another soldout hockey night in Pittsburgh, another achievement by another all-time Penguin was justly celebrated.

But Kris Letang did not share an adoring crowd's appreciation of his 300th assist on Saturday night. As an image commemorating his accomplishment flashed on the video board, Letang flashed a bemused look as he briefly glared into the rafters at PPG Paint Arena.

It was a striking image of arguably the best defenseman to skate for a franchise that has employed some really good ones.

Still, only two could be called "great."

Though he later confirmed it was not the case, I had preferred to theorize that Letang's upward glare was actually a search for a banner honoring the other "great" Penguins defenseman.

That would be Paul Coffey.

His No. 77 should be next Mario Lemieux's No. 66 — and until it is, no number should be retired by the Penguins.

"Coffey and Orr, they were the best with the puck ... ever," said Eddie Johnston, my unofficial go-to source for perspective when it comes to hockey history.

"They were playing different games than other defensemen. They could. They were that great offensively. Orr was our best offensive player in Boston. Only reason 'Coff' wasn't the best offensive player here and in Edmonton was because he played with Mario (Lemieux) and (Wayne) Gretzky.

"Orr and Coffey were special."

No need for deep hockey expertise to confirm EJ's opinion. Two defensemen rank among the NHL's top 50 point-per-game scorers: Orr (fourth) and Coffey (28th).

Until goals are not required to win games, put me down for Orr and Coffey as the No. 1 pairing on any all-time team. (Give me Dominik Hasek in net and Lemieux centering Alex Ovechkin and Mike Bossy; we'll spot you a 3-0 lead just because we're good sports.)

Wherever you fall on debates about hockey's best, you cannot claim to have studied Penguins history and be against retiring Coffey's number. However open the NHL was when he played in Pittsburgh, Coffey's 440 points in 331 regular-season games remains a feat not easily believed.

Those of us who saw it still have a hard time believing it.

Thing is, Coffey's numbers actually aren't the reason he should join Lemieux as the only Penguins player to have a number retired because of career accomplishments. His impact was greater than his output.

His arrival from the Oilers' 1980s dynasty turned wild dreams of wining a Stanley Cup title into real hope for the Lemieux-led Penguins. In Coffey, the NHL's dominant offensive force (Lemieux) was provided a teammate who had won big and who could score big when The Big Guy had a rare off game.

Or, as it would turn out, when The Big Guy's back became a big problem.

Coffey contributed to 32.6 percent of the Penguins' goals in his first full season, which ended with Lemieux's first trip to the playoffs. When the Penguins barely missed qualifying the next year, mostly because Lemieux's back gave out as he chased Gretzky's record for consecutive games with a point, Coffey scored or set up 32.4 percent of the Penguins' 318 goals.

He was a combined minus-35 over those two seasons. So what?

Those Penguins scored their way into the Cup tournament. They would have returned had health not stopped Lemieux from scoring in a way that no hockey force could at that time.

And when Lemieux didn't play until late in the 1990-91 season, Coffey provided the how-to for a burgeoning title team — not to mention the talent that made John Cullen expendable.

Could general manager Craig Patrick have swung the deal that brought Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson to the Penguins had he not had Coffey's offense? In Patrick's words, "Absolutely not."

In his third full season, which was mostly contested without Lemieux, Coffey accounted for 27.2 percent of the 342 goals the Penguins scored on their way to a first Patrick Division title.

That title was a big deal for those players and Penguins fans. It doesn't happen without Coffey.

Without Coffey, the Penguins may never have become great. He was the great player most responsible for helping Lemieux transform a moribund franchise into the sterling standard it has been for three decades.

Those five Stanley Cup banners at PPG Paints Arena are hanging because of Lemieux's work as a player, owner and soul of the Penguins.

As a first order of business for the next 50 years of hockey nights in Pittsburgh, Lemieux should order the Penguins to put Coffey's No. 77 where it belongs: next to his No. 66.

Rob Rossi is sports editor at upgruv, a trending-news site operated by 535Media. Reach him at rrossi@535mediallc.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Real_RobRossi.

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