'X-Generation' has given way to new breed of Penguin
The blue-painted goaltender's crease on a sheet of ice suits Marc-Andre Fleury just fine, and he hardly minds sitting at a table with buddy Sidney Crosby to answer a few questions in front of reporters and camera operators following a Penguins' playoff win.
Seeing his portrait on the side of a bus almost five years ago was more than a bit discomforting, though.
"It was never weird to be on the ice, even with a great player like Mario (Lemieux)," Fleury said of the 21 games he played as an 18-year-old during the 2003-04 season. "But one day, I saw my face on a bus, and I was, like, 'Holy ... '. I had to look twice. I couldn't believe it.
"It was pretty cool, I guess. But I did not expect it."
Expectations were not high for the Penguins during Fleury's rookie season. Sure, franchise legend Lemieux was still playing -- so to speak; he appeared in only 10 games in 2003-04. But, aside from its co-owner, the club consisted mostly of guys no more recognizable than they are today.
Very few of them are still around.
Fleury, the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft a few months prior to the 2003-04 season, earned a surprise roster spot after a stellar training camp. An affable if shy personality, he immediately was thrust into a promotional campaign that played off cinema classic "The Wizard of Oz."
Lemieux was the sage wizard.
Fleury was part of the "X-Generation," which also included young, good-looking forwards Rico Fata, Matt Bradley, Ramzi Abid and Guillaume Lefebvre, and defenseman Brooks Orpik. Pittsburgh-born left wing Ryan Malone, who paced the Penguins with 22 goals as a rookie that season, was not even in the picture -- literally.
"I was coming out of college and most of those guys were with (AHL affiliate) Wilkes-Barre/Scranton the year before," Malone said. "I kind of came out of left field."
Unfortunately for the "X-Generation" and its equally inexperienced coach, former team broadcaster Eddie Olczyk, wins also came out of left field.
The Penguins lost seven of nine games from Nov. 4-21 in 2003, six of eight from New Year's Eve to Jan. 12, 2004, and 18 in a row, including an overtime defeat, from Jan. 13 to Feb. 25.
They ended the year strong, going 12-5-3-0, but finished with an NHL-worst 58 points -- and then they were foiled by the Washington Capitals in the draft lottery with the rights to a promising Russian prospect named Alexander Ovechkin at stake.
The Penguins' so-called consolation prize in the 2004 entry draft was Evgeni Malkin. Even though his NHL debut was two years away, Malkin's selection marked the beginning of the end for the "X-Generation."
"Looking back, the feeling was a lot of the guys that were there would be here now," Orpik said. "We were so young, and they tried selling that team hard. Guys were probably forced into roles that probably didn't fit them.
"Now, we've got this 'Evolution,' with Malkin, Crosby and (Jordan) Staal -- guys that are in roles they should be in."
Fleury, Orpik, Malone and forward Kris Beech are the only remnants from the 2003-04 team. Coincidentally, four years after that season marked by "X-treme" losing, those four players are 11 wins from the Stanley Cup.
Fleury, Orpik and Malone were the only impact contributors from the "X-Generation" when the Penguins returned from the NHL lockout in 2005-06. They were joined that season by Crosby, a hyped first overall pick in 2005, and current young core members such as defenseman Ryan Whitney and center Max Talbot, not to mention defensemen Rob Scuderi and Sergei Gonchar.
Malkin and Staal, a second-overall pick in 2006, debuted the next season, and by then, the Penguins were asking fans to "Experience the Evolution," which did not involve most of the "X-Generation."
"Everything changed pretty fast," Fleury said.
"We were all young guys, and they were selling them," Orpik said. "Now, we've got a lot of young guys still, and they're still selling them, but maybe with more expectations ... and I'm the old guy at 27."
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