In light of Sidney Crosby’s return to the ice against the New York Rangers last night, the prevailing assumption is that the Pittsburgh Penguins can now be considered the best team in hockey & odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup in June. (Crosby
finished the game with 2 assists, 1 shot and a +3 in 16:00 of ice time, by the way). Whether or not this is indeed the case is certainly up for debate, but considering the Penguins rattled off 9 wins in a row prior’s to Sid’s second comeback, there’s no denying that there is a wealth of talent in Pittsburgh capable of making a deep run in the playoffs. In keeping with a recent Score Nation trend of looking back to see how things have shaken out the way they have in the current NHL landscape, I thought it would be interesting to check out a few of the more important draft years that helped shape the current version of the Pittsburgh Penguins … as well as a couple of ‘what if’s’ in terms of selections that weren’t made.
Before doing that, let’s not forget how the Penguins got themselves into a position to draft very high for a number of years. After a 13 year stretch where Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs 12 times & won 2 Cups (’91-’92), and after Mario’s amazing comeback from cancer in the 2000-01 season wherein he led the team to the Conference Finals (as part owner of the team, no less), the Penguins bottomed out and began a string of 5 years (minus the lockout) of finishing near or at the Eastern Conference basement. It was akin to the Chicago Bulls in the post-Michael Jordan era; ridiculously terrible teams resulting in incredibly high draft picks, which, used wisely, could help pull the team out of ruin, both financially & hockey-wise.
The first piece of that puzzle was Ryan Whitney, selected with the 5th pick in the 2002 Entry Draft. While Whitney was a vital piece in the Penguins 2008 Cup run which resulted in a loss to the Red Wings, he was sent to the Ducks during the following season for Chris Kunitz, a Cup winner with the Ducks in ’07 & a key contributor to the Penguins ’09 playoff run, in which he scored 14 points. Kunitz remains a key component for the team, currently ranked 3rd in scoring with 46 points in 68 games. Also selected that year was Max Talbot (now of the Flyers), the man who scored the game-winning goal for the Penguins in Game 7 of the ’09 Finals vs. Detroit. And oh yeah, he was taken in the 8th round, 234th overall. Not a bad start to the building process, until you wonder what might have happened if they had selected Alexander Semin (13th overall) instead of Whitney, and/or Duncan Keith (54th) instead of another D-man who never played a game in the NHL named Ondrej Nemec (35th) with their 2nd rounder.
But while the pieces they did wind up with in 2002 were more of the ‘supporting cast’ variety, it was from the ’03-’06 Drafts that the truly foundational players began to arrive, selections that, in hindsight, are near impossible to quibble with (well, until 2006 anyway). With the 1st overall pick in 2003, Marc-Andre Fleury became the Penguins goalie of the future. While he (and the team as a whole) struggled early on, all he’s done since is get better over time, winning 221 games & putting up 22 shutouts in 8 NHL seasons. And of all his career saves, none was bigger than this:
While the rest of the Penguins ’03 Draft class was nothing to write home about, it should be noted that with the 263rd pick, they selected Matt Moulson; he didn’t play one game in Pittsburgh, but, after being picked up by the Islanders 3 years ago, has put up 3 straight 30 goal seasons on Long Island. Talk about filling a scoring need. Also selected by the Penguins that year: both Daniel Carcillo & Paul Bissonnette. Holy truculence!
2004 is where the real fun begins. Pittsburgh had the ‘misfortune’ of earning the second pick in the Draft and missing out on some guy named Alex Ovechkin. But, lo & behold, a gift of
equal greater value was waiting for them with the next pick in the form of Evgeni Malkin, who to date has amassed 502 points in 413 games, and has achieved the distinction of being named runner-up for the Hart Trophy in ’08 and the Art Ross & Conn Smythe trophies in ’09. Not too shabby. He’s also currently tied for the league lead in points, is a favorite to win the Hart, and has entered the conversation as ‘best player in the world’ in Sid’s absence (distancing himself from his fellow countryman in Washington). The ’04 Draft also wielded a return of Alex Goligoski & Tyler Kennedy. The latter remains with the squad, but the former was dealt to the Dallas Stars before the trade deadline last year (more on that momentarily).
And then there was the 2005 Draft, an odd one due to the fact that the previous season had been wiped out by the lockout. The draft order was determined by lottery on July 22, 2005; teams were assigned 1 to 3 balls based on their playoff appearances and first overall draft picks from the past three years (via wikipedia). Everything came up Penguins in the lottery, and they had the great fortune of drafting Sidney Crosby with the first pick, which, concussion issues aside, has worked out pretty well for them. By his second season, he led the NHL with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) to capture the Art Ross Trophy, becoming the youngest player and the only teenager to win a scoring title in any major North American sports league. That same year, he also won the Hart Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the NHLPA’s choice for most outstanding player, becoming the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three awards in one year. When the Penguins won the Cup in ’09, Crosby became the youngest captain in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup. In the 2009–10 season, Crosby scored a career-high 51 goals, tying him with Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league-leader; with 58 assists, he totaled 109 points, second in the NHL. In that same draft, the Penguins selected Kris Letang, who has become a vital part of the team’s defense corps, and who, at 25, only continues to get better. At the same time, his own health issues may prove to be a deterrent in any Cup aspirations the team may have this year. (He’s also on track to represent Canada at the ’14 Olympics in Sochi, if NHL players are allowed to go). Oh, and back to Goligoski for a moment. He, of course, was sent to Dallas for a guy currently killing it as a Pen, Mr. James Neal (31G, 34A so far this year), as well as Matt Niskanen. Both were also selected in the ’05 Draft, 33rd & 28th respectively.
The 2006 Draft brought with it the final key piece for the Penguins in Jordan Stall, selected with the 2nd overall pick (earned due to the fact that the team still finished last in the East with Sid on board, but with Malkin still a year away). While Stall certainly has fit in nicely with the club and provided a much needed two-way game as the 3rd line centre, one can’t help but imagine what may have been had the team gone a different way with that pick. Right behind him came Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backtrom & Phil Kessel; down at the 28th spot came Claude Giroux, and even further down there’s Milan Lucic (50). Again, no slight against Staal, but just imagine any one of those guys lining up with Crosby & Malkin. Sick.
That, in a 1500 word nutshell (and along with a few other shrewd FA signings like Dupuis, Sullivan, Martin & Michalek and yeah, even Cooke), is how the Pittsburgh Penguins were built into the so-called ‘best team in hockey’ & are now (again) considered as Cup favorites; years of futility followed by years of high draft picks, and one very fortuitous bounce of a ping-pong ball. Whether the core guys will stay together long term remains in question, as does the Captain’s ultimate long-term health. Either way, the pieces certainly are there for another Cup (or 2 or 3).
End Notes: I would be remiss in not mentioning the fact that Pittsburgh used 2 former 1st round & 1 former 3 round Draft picks in Colby Armstrong, Eric Christensen & Angelo Esposito (as well as a future 1st rounder which turned out to be Daultan Leveille) to acquire Marian Hossa in 2008. While it didn’t result in a Cup, they did make it to the Finals, and it’s another example of how they were able to build a true contender, if not yet a winner … On another note, many seem to be writing off the Bruins as Cup contenders due to their so-called ‘second hangover.’ As I tweeted yesterday, “Honestly, nothing really matters until the playoffs. As the
#Bruins proved last year, all bets are off once the second season starts. / A team can have a garbage PP, lose the first 2 games of a series (x2) and still pull it off. So tap the brakes on ‘ #Bruins are done’ talk.” End of fan rant. Thanks for letting me vent.