PITTSBURGH When he came out of retirement less than three years ago to try to win another Stanley Cup, Mario Lemieux couldn't have envisioned being so willing to embrace such enormous change.
The Hall of Famer ended the offseason speculation about his future plans Thursday by announcing he will play the upcoming season for the rebuilding Pittsburgh Penguins, who have almost no chance to win the cup.
His linemates won't be Jaromir Jagr or Ron Francis, but perhaps Rico Fata or Ramzi Abid. One of the most prolific scorers in hockey history will patiently wait for scoring chances in a defense-first system the kind that once would have led to the firing of any Penguins coach who installed it.
But these are different and more difficult times now for the under-construction Penguins, who have significantly cut their payroll to retrench with younger, faster and lower-paid players. Lemieux, long the star, expects to be the bridge between the high-scoring, highly paid Penguins of the past and the Kids 'R Us Penguins of the future.
Lemieux was all but ready to retire again in April following a second straight dismal Penguins season, but now looks relaxed and seems re-energized.
''I retired before for 3 1/2 years, and I know how much I missed it,'' he said. ''As long as I feel good physically and mentally, I want to play.''
No doubt the Penguins were desperate for him to play, too, and not just to sell tickets for the team he also owns or to help them land the funding for a new arena. They can think of no better player to be a mentor to their roster of young players, to not just tell them how it should be done but to show them.
''I'm a better coach than I was a half-hour ago, and we're a lot better team,'' said Eddie Olczyk, the Penguins' new and inexperienced coach. ''He will lead us and they will follow.''
General manager Craig Patrick called it, ''a great day for hockey,'' copying the trademark slogan of the late Penguins coach Bob Johnson.
The news wasn't unexpected, as the sixth-leading scorer in NHL history has hinted for weeks he was coming back. He's been working out since last month and has never been in better shape during any offseason, even when he was in his teens. Lemieux will turn 38 in October, yet is 12 pounds lighter than last season.
If there was any surprise, it's that Lemieux is talking like he will play well beyond this season, even though the 2004-05 NHL season is already in jeopardy because of a pending labor dispute.
Lemieux pointed out how Igor Larionov and Chris Chelios, among others, have been productive NHL players into their 40s, and that the rugged, year-around conditioning that is a must for top players could prolong his career.
Even if the two-time Stanley Cup champion never thought he would be playing so late in his career for a team with so little chance of winning. The Penguins finished 29th of 30 in the overall standings last season and, with few established players beyond Lemieux, Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov, can't realistically expect to be a lot better in 2003-04.
''I don't know about competing for the Stanley Cup; that's a different level,'' Lemieux said. ''But we'll be out there competing every night to win. Our goal should be to make the playoffs ... because, if you get hot, a lot of good things can happen.''
Lemieux has 682 goals and 1,010 assists over 15 seasons, despite playing hundreds of fewer games than any of the other top 10 career scorers. He needs 18 goals to become the seventh in NHL history with 700 goals.
With the skilled scorers who complemented Lemieux long gone Jagr, Francis, Alexei Kovalev Olczyk will install a tight-checking defensive system. To partly replace the veterans who left through six late-season trades, the Penguins added two experienced forwards Thursday by signing free agents Mike Eastwood and Kelly Buchberger.
Lemieux also understands the Penguins made the mistake of trying to stay with their freewheeling, fast-tempo European style well after many top teams shifted their emphasis to defense. As a result, Olczyk will install a Minnesota-type system that looks to create scoring chances with speed and by forcing turnovers in the neutral zone.
''We're going to have to take care of defense first,'' Lemieux said.
Offensively, Olczyk said, his instructions to the younger Penguins will be simple.
''If there's nobody around the big guy, give him the puck,'' he said.
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