PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins players hailed the appointment of Craig Patrick as general manager and coach, but they denied they were instrumental in having Patrick's predecessors fired.
The Penguins fired General Manager Tony Esposito and Coach Gene Ubriaco Tuesday and replaced them with Patrick, a former general manager of the New York Rangers. Esposito and Ubriaco were in their second year with the Penguins, who entered Wednesday night's game against Washington in fifth place in the Patrick Division with a 10-14-2 record.
Center and team captain Mario Lemieux, the NHL's two-time defending scoring champion, denied he played a role in Ubriaco's firing.
'I never talked to Mr. DeBartolo (team owner Edward J. DeBartolo) since I signed my contract,' said Lemieux, who signed a reported $12-million, five-year contract in August. 'I never talked to anybody to make this happen. It was Mr. DeBartolo's decision only.'
Lemieux was enthusiastic about Patrick taking over the team.
'I think he's got a lot of respect from everybody around the league, and I'm sure he is going to have a lot of respect in this room,' said Lemieux. 'From what you hear from players who have been with him, I think it was a good change, a good choice.
'The attitude's going to change.'
Lemieux would not comment on his relationship with Esposito, who was removed by DeBartolo as the negotiator when Lemieux's contract talks stalled last summer.
Defenseman Paul Coffey said the Penguins play had been affected by constant rumors of Ubriaco's imminent firing.
'If you're a player and say it didn't affect you, you'd be a little bit of a liar,' said Coffey. 'Uncertainty definitely affects a team.
'There were players here who weren't happy with certain things. There were times on the ice where some guys didn't know where to go. Whether that was Gene's fault or our fault, it doesn't really matter at this point.'
The Penguins were preseason favorites to capture the Patrick Division.
Left winger Kevin Stevens said, 'It's tough to see anybody lose his job, but I don't think anybody on this team' undercut Ubriaco.
Players complained about Ubriaco's constant line shuffling and no apparent defensive system, but with Patrick's appointment they seemingly will have no one else to blame for their slow start.
'I think there's a lot more pressure now,' said right winger Rob Brown. 'Now we have to go out and win hockey games.
'We hope to be a better team. Right now, we're a fifth-place team. We hope to be a first-place team. If it takes the firing of Ubriaco to get there, we'll be a better team.'
'At least we don't have any excuses not to win hockey games,' said defenseman Phil Borque.