Ray Shero and the Draft: Be Serious

The surprising issue of the week comes to us from Dave Molinari. It should be noted the Pensblog said he was on fire earlier this week and that has to be the biggest understatement of the year. He is literally running the city of Pittsburgh, at least when it comes to sports, and that’s even with the Pirates still playing above .500 baseball, Mike Wallace losing his mind, and Jerry Sandusky on trial.

It all started with this column that reviewed Ray Shero’s drafting history in the first 6 years he’s been in Pittsburgh. Basically it concludes that after taking Jordan Staal with the 2nd overall pick in the 2006 draft (more on that later), none of the other players Shero has drafted in that time frame have truly “stuck” at the NHL level. That’s true, but I don’t think Molinari intended for his article to spin out of control nor assert that Shero is clueless at the draft, further there is a lot of hope to go along with the article that Shero’s long-term plan could finally be coming to life.

Let’s start with the draft class of 2006. These are players who have been in the league for possibly as many as 6 years. Do you know how many have been named All Stars? A whopping total of 4: Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathon Toews, Phil Kessel, and Claude Giroux. Do you know why those four have made All Star Teams? They all score a lot of points, something that Staal has never been expected to do. All of these players were drafted after Staal, and although he hasn’t played in an All-Star Game I honestly believe that he’s the best of the bunch. If fortunes had been reversed and the Pens had taken Toews at 2, then Staal would have gone to the Blackhawks at number 3. In that case he would have been the captain lifting the Cup in 2010 and Toews would have likely evolved into the two-way player that Jordan has been. Backstrom and Kessel aren’t worth talking about, I mean Kessel did have cancer and the Maple Leafs overpaid for him in one of the worst deals of all time, but that’s about all I can say about him. Backstrom has always been second fiddle in Washington so yeah. You could argue about Giroux, but at this point the case is entirely moot. Despite what NBC would lead you to believe, Giroux has never been nominated for an individual award, Staal did get a Selke nod a couple years ago but he didn’t win it. Giroux might be made captain of the Flyers for next year but Staal has won the Cup. Pick your poison but there is no important way in which Giroux has actually established himself as that good of a player, hell even this year when he was “so good” it would have taken him 91 games at least to produce the same point total that Evgeni Malkin reached in 75. Chew on that.

Do you want to know whom else the Pens drafted in the 2006 draft, in the second and third rounds nonetheless? Carl Sneep and Brian Strait. In other words, two of the major contributors to the Penguins’ organizational depth on defense and two guys who will be contending for an NHL roster spot this year.

2007, onward then. Shero used the Penguins’ number 20 overall pick to acquire Angelo Esposito, who in the previous year, had been considered the consensus number one overall. Some issues started to emerge with Esposito’s ethic and stuff like that and he ended up falling to the Penguins at 20. He didn’t stick around long though because he was used as bait to execute the “Hossa Trade” which also brought a little known role player named Pascal Dupuis (he did something of minor note, which is record a 17 game point streak over the last 17 games of the regular season this year, the longest streak in the league since Sidney Crosby went on a 25 game streak in the 2010-2011 season) to Pittsburgh. For what its worth, Esposito has still yet to play a single game in the NHL. Maybe Shero drafted poorly with that pick but he certainly did all right in the big scheme of things. Other picks from that year: Robert Bortuzzo (again competing with the aforementioned Sneep and Strait for a roster spot this year), Keven Veilleux, a behemoth 6’5” forward with some offensive upside, and 6th round pick Dustin Jeffrey. Despite serious health issues Jeffrey still made NHL.com’s list of the 30 best players from the 2007 draft. If Jeffrey can ever get healthy and stay healthy (and maybe make the permanent switch to wing) he will easily become a full time member of the Penguins.

The 2008 draft was a bit of a let down for the Penguins. They traded away their first 3 picks, took someone in the 4th round that has yet to attend an NHL training camp, and then took a pair of goalies. The first was Alexander Pechurskiy who famously came on in relief in an emergency call up game during the 2009-2010 season, and Patrick Kileen who has been working his way through the system before settling in as Brad Thiessen’s backup in Wilkes-Barre this past season. If he continues on his pace, who knows he might make the NHL club someday.

2009 was of course the Cup year. Picking last in every round the Penguins still managed to secure two more defensive assets in Simon Despres and Phillip Samuelsson. Despres is probably the odds on favorite to win a permanent roster spot next year with his combination of size and puck skills, but it certainly isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Samuelsson will benefit from the opportunity to play at the AHL level, which he didn’t get much of a chance to do this past season with the likes of Strait, Sneep, Bortuzzo, and Despres clogging up all the roster spots.

2010 was perhaps the first year the Penguins seriously addressed some offensive needs. In the first round they selected Beau Bennett, a college hockey player who has struggled to stay healthy, but is finally set to begin his professional career this year and represents the best chance the Pens have at finding a scorer within the organization. Their fourth round pick, Tom Kuhnhackl is another promising player with a real NHL skill set.

PS-Love the song, I didn’t even watch the video because I was too busy rocking out. Sorry if it sucks.

2011 saw a return to emphasis on defense with Joe Morrow and Scott Harrington coming to Pittsburgh in the first and second rounds respectively. Both are considered to be real NHL players, both can likely push the envelope for the other guys mentioned above for an NHL roster spot even this year. Dominik Uher, a fifth round pick from the Czech Republic has already signed a contract with the Penguins and will be playing in either Wilkes-Barre or Wheeling (or wherever Wheeling moves to…) next year. Again he’s Czech, he’s a winger and he’s huge, let’s hope he can channel a little Double-J at some point down the road.

Also, speaking of Morrow and Uher…

Molinari does raise some interesting points. The first is that the Pens aren’t drafting goalies. To this I say, “who cares?” MAF is only 27, he’s locked up until 2016, and I would be shocked to see him go anywhere in free agency. The market for goalies is so volatile, consider this: three years ago, coincidently after MAF stood on his head to help the Pens win the Cup, teams were spending as much as they could on goalies. The very next year, after Anti Niemi became the most meh goalie to win the Cup in decades, nobody was willing to pay even market value for a goalie. 2011 brought about Tim Thomas and as evidenced by our cross-state rivals, goalie contracts went through the roof again. What do you think will happen in light of Jonathon Quick’s unreal play this year? If I’m honest, the Pens have already shown where the market is going. The contract they worked out with Tomas Vokoun is more than what Washington paid him last year under the auspices that he would be the starter. That isn’t the case in Pittsburgh. So yes, prices are good now, but again, MAF won’t be on the market until 2016, if the Cup winning goalie ends up being Craig Anderson in 2015, I fully expect him to sign a contract through retirement with the Penguins. If at that point the Penguins wanted to focus on looking for a long-term solution at goalie I’d be all about it. However, at this point there is absolutely no reason to spend a high pick on a goalie that will leave as soon as his contract runs out.

The other interesting point that Molinari raises is that the Penguins are, undoubtedly, somewhat ethnocentric. The Penguins have as many European players on their current NHL roster (Malkin, Michalek, Vokoun) as they do in all of their system (Pechurskiy [Russian], Kuhnhackl [German], and Uher). I understand that Shero is an American GM, Bylsma is an American coach, and that they build the team to play north south, just like you’re taught in North America, but as Evgeni Malkin could point out, sometimes you just need a little European flair in your game.

What does it all mean? I have no idea, I didn’t even give more than a cursory glance at Bob McKenzie’s prospects list that I tweeted yesterday. I have no idea what the Pens will target. Personally I would hope for offense, but then again it’s easy for the Penguins to address offense in free agency. When you can promise the opportunity to play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, you don’t need to load up on offensive prospects, you can just say, “hey we will pay you such an amount of dollars if you come play with the league’s reigning MVP,” it’s a system that sells itself. This is probably why Shero has attacked defense so intensively in his time in Pittsburgh, you need depth there because you likely won’t get the same discount from a defenseman as you would from a forward when you present them with such an opportunity (I don’t think I need to elaborate the case in point).

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