Tim Benz: Evgeni Malkin's No. 71, Jaromir Jagr's No. 68 belong in Penguins' rafters
Since the Giants retired Barry Bond’s No. 25 last week in San Francisco — with the Pirates on hand as the opponent — a lot of debate has sparked in Pittsburgh about giving Bonds the same honor.
I’ve already written if there is so much debate, don’t do it. Hold off until it’s clear a vast majority of the fan base that’ll be on hand the night No. 24 is retired in Pittsburgh will actually cheer and not boo.
As sports conversations often do, one tangent led to another. Many in town began kicking around the notion of what the Penguins should do with No. 68 for Jaromir Jagr and eventually No. 71 for Evgeni Malkin.
As opposed to Bonds, there’s less debate over the fan enthusiasm surrounding that idea. If Malkin were to retire tomorrow, I can’t imagine a single Penguins fan having any reason to hold anything but positive memories about him.
While living up to the “mercurial Russian” stigma at times in terms of consistency early in his career, Malkin has done nothing but win, produce and remain loyal to this team and fan base.
Jagr is a touchier subject because of his brooding nature, his widely panned effectiveness as leader despite wearing the “C” as team captain, his trade requests during his final season and his public feud with Ivan Hlinka on the way out the door in the 2001 Eastern Conference finals.
Then there was his extended flirtation with a return to Pittsburgh in free agency before the 2011 season started, only to join the hated Flyers instead.
Public sentiment seems to be much more on Jagr’s side than Bonds’. The fact Jagr helped win the franchise’s first two Stanley Cups certainly helps his cause.
I’d retire both numbers.
However, some feel neither should go to the rafters. Mario Lemieux’s iconic No. 66 and Michel Briere’s No. 21 are the only numbers retired by the team. Lemieux is honored for his Hall of Fame on-ice achievements, and Briere is remembered for his untimely death after a standout rookie season in 1970.
Given all the great players who have skated through Pittsburgh, there’s still plenty of room near that Consol Energy Center roof for a few more.
Of course, Sidney Crosby’s No. 87 is a lock. As a player, what he has been to this era of Penguins greatness is what Lemieux was to the early 1990s.
The Trib’s Mark Madden said on his 105.9 FM radio show Crosby should be the only other person deserving of that acknowledgment if anyone else gets it at all.
I say extend the ceremony to Jagr and Malkin upon their retirements.
But if it’s only one, make it Malkin.
Jagr, whose NHL career likely finally ended in Calgary last season, is 396 goals and 991 points in front of Malkin. However, Malkin only trails Jagr by 69 goals and 149 points for their Penguin careers. Malkin should pass both of those marks.
Malkin was part of three championships to Jagr’s two. Malkin has a Conn Smythe. He already has been a Penguin longer than Jagr.
I’d go so far as to say you can’t retire 87 without 71. It should be both or neither. For as great as Jagr was, he was a part of the Lemieux era.
A big part of it. But a part.
Lemieux had six 100-point seasons, an MVP, and two scoring titles on his resume by the time Jagr broke into the league.
Crosby and Malkin have crafted their legacy together. Sure, Crosby got here a year earlier. But the two have been much more a duo than Lemieux and Jagr, who had more of a “Big Brother, Little Brother” dynamic.
Honoring Crosby without Malkin would be like honoring Ruth without Gehrig. Montana without Rice. Malone without Stockton.
In each case, the former may have been the more memorable “face of the franchise.” But the latter was integral to every achievement their partner had.
Who knows? It’s possible Malkin could surpass Crosby’s point totals and maybe even win another Cup without him if Crosby retires first.
How could you have Crosby’s number retired without Malkin’s under those circumstances?
Lemieux is different. I get it. His player-owner-franchise savior legend is unique. But so is a franchise with a history of two dynamic duos such as 66 and 68 plus 87 and 71.
The legacy of Lemieux and the memory of Briere would by no means be sullied or cheapened by the presence of those three numbers in their company.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.