A big difference between hockey and other sports is the draft/developing process. In a sport like football most fans watch players develop right before their eyes every Saturday in the fall at major universities. By the time the draft rolls around, they've played for 3-4 years and the top prospects are all but household names for fans. Then the following fall they're in the NFL, well the sidelines at least. To a lesser effect in basketball we see them play fairly frequently and explode in March for the big dance. Even though they're young, they're usually 19-21 years old at the time of drafting. They too join the NBA ranks for the most part right after being drafted.
For the "average" fan in the US there isn't much, if any, of a chance to see the prospects play live, save perhaps a college game (maybe the Beanpot or Frozen Four) and absolutely no Canadian junior or European action comes on television stateside. On top of that, players are usually 18-19 when drafted and are, usually, years and years away from making it to the top level.
So it's only natural that you have to give things 4-5 years before looking to judge a NHL draft class. Today let's look at the 2004 draft and tomorrow we'll check out 2005. So take the jump and let's see how it shook out for the Pens.
If you don't remember (and I envy you for that), the Penguins suffered the NHL's worst record in 2003-04 and were the favorites to win the draft lottery for the rights to the #1 pick in the summer of 2004. But Washington, seeded 3rd in the draft lottery, got lucky and won the right to jump Chicago and Pittsburgh and select Alexander Ovechkin first overall. Pittsburgh was bounced down to #2, but still got to choose
2nd overall Evgeni Malkin (C, Magnitogorsk [Russian Superleague] -- ranked 2nd European skater by CSS)
#71 / Center / Pittsburgh Penguins
Jul 31, 1986
|2008 - Evgeni Malkin||82||35||78||113||17||80||14||2||4||0||290||12.1|
--Malkin would obviously become the ultimate consolation prize. This year all he did was win the scoring title in the regular season, led the playoffs in scoring and won the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP. "Geno" is coming out of his shell off the ice too, improving his English and showing his personality more and more every year. Next year he begins his five year, $43.5 million dollar contract. Life is good for Malkin and the Pens.
Best possible pick!
31st overall, Johannes Salmonsson (C/LW, Djurgardens IF [SEL] - ranked 20th best Euro skater)
--For the first pick of the second round, the Penguins took a chance on Salmonsson -- a very speedy forward but one that already came with injury baggage. Salmonsson had significiant upside, he made the top Swedish league as a 17/18 year old which is very rare and indicates a level of talent and promise. Salmonsson, however, continued to get hurt, and even though he did come over to play a season in the WHL, he went right back to Europe afterwards and never put it altogether.
Since this draft took place before the lockout, the Penguins should still own his NHL rights but that seems to be only on paper. Salmonsson seems content to play in Sweden and Pittsburgh almost certainly doesn't have him on their radar. When you go "high risk / high reward" it just doesn't work out, and it didn't this time.
Other players picked in the same neighborhood/pre-draft rankings: Dave Bolland (CHI - 32nd overall), Blake Comeau (NYI - 47th overall), David Booth (FLA- 53rd overall)
67th overall, Nick Johnson (RW, Cushing Academy [Dartmouth] - ranked 75th North American skater)
--Johnson makes the perfect case why you have to wait a while before looking to grade hockey prospects. Johnson played four years at Dartmouth and only turned pro in time for the 2008-09 season, which he split between Wheeling (ECHL) and Wilkes-Barre (AHL). Still, as the season went on he continued to grow as a player and scored 10 point (4 goals, 6 assists) in 12 playoff games for WB/S. Johnson's game and size reminds one of a young Ryan Malone type player, right down to the college route he took. Malone, however, made the jump to the NHL his next season after college in 2003-04, in part a beneficiary of a weak Penguin team. Johnson won't get that luxury, he'll have to claw his way up.
Johnson is 23 years old, fairly old for a prospect with NHL aspiration, and while there's still some promise, he's still probably 1-2 years away from making the jump to the NHL, if he ever does.
The jury's still out
A realistic other possibility the Pens could have selected here: Andrej Sekera (BUF - 71st)
85th overall, Brian Gifford (C, Moorhead HS [Minnesota] - ranked 130th NA skater)
--This pick was in the middle of the 3rd, Gifford was seen as an offensive center and he went to U on Denver, where he's set to have his senior season in 2009-10. The Penguins still hold his rights, but he hasn't been participating in any of their prospect development camps and his numbers have been pedestrian (tied for 12th on his team in points despite playing all the games) so it seems unlikely Pittsburgh will be bringing Gifford in their organization.
Other realistic options: Alex Edler (VAN - 91st overall) Johan Franzen (97th overall)
99th overall, Tyler Kennedy (C, Sault St. Marie Greyhounds - ranked 84th NA skater)
#48 / Center / Pittsburgh Penguins
Jul 15, 1986
|2008 - Tyler Kennedy||67||15||20||35||15||30||0||0||3||1||171||8.8|
--The first pick of the 4th round the Penguins hit one out of the park with the selection of Kennedy. TK played two more seasons in the OHL, followed by one in Wilkes-Barre where he really put himself on the radar with 37 points (12g, 25a) in 40 games in 2006-07. Kennedy made the jump to the NHL the following season and hasn't looked back, establishing himself as a solid 3rd line winger for the Penguins this past season. With the injury to Max Talbot and limited forward depth, Kennedy just might find himself on Malkin's line this fall with a chance to prove himself as a scorer.
Best possible pick!
130th overall, Michal Sersen (D, Rimouski Oceanic - ranked 43rd NA skater)
--As you can tell, Pittsburgh picked three forwards ranked by CSS quite a bit lower than Sersen. At this point with the first pick of the 5th round, getting the 43rd ranked skater in North America is a pretty good value, so the Penguins took a chance. After his career in the QMJHL, Sersen couldn't make the AHL roster so he went back to his native Slovakia. The Penguins recently traded his rights to Tampa Bay for the 5th round pick this year which became defenseman Alex Velischek.
BUST...but the cycle continues since the Pens hit the reset button via trade on this one and now look to develop the young Velischek in the years to come.
The Rest of the draft
The Penguins had five more picks in rounds six through nine, and as you can guess, the pickings were pretty slim...Here's a brief synopsis of where they are now:
164th overall, Moises Gutierrez (RW, Kamloops Blazers) -- Not with the Penguins organization, played 37 games with ECHL Elmira.
194th overall, Chris Peluso (D, Bemidji State) -- A part of Bemidji's wonderful run up to the Frozen Four this year. The Pens still own his rights, but Peluso doesn't seem to be in the plans.
222nd overall, Jordan Morrison (LW, Peterborough Petes) -- Actually played 64 games with ECHL Wheeling and was second on the team with 74 points (26g, 48a). Got 7 callup games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, could he be a player in the future? Jonathan Bombulie doesn't have him even cracking the organizational rankings, so it seems like a longshot
228th overall, David Brown (G, Notre Dame) -- Came into the Pens organization at the same time as John Curry, and Curry excelled while Brown shrunk away. Brown played 24 games with ECHL Wheeling (and 4 with Wilkes-Barre), but I believe has left the organization.
259th overall, Brian Ihnacak (C, Brown University) -- Not with Pittsburgh, split time between to ECHL teams this past year, doesn't seem likely to get past that level.
Diamonds in the rough drafted in Rounds 6-9 -- Patrick Kaleta (176th, BUF), Chris Campoli (227th, NYI), Mark Streit (262nd, MTL), Jannik Hansen (287th, VAN)....Unfair to really say the Penguins would have/should have gotten any of these guys-- if teams had known where to find these diamonds in the rough-- they wouldn't have lasted as long as they did in the first place. Just pointing out who was still available for the purposes of comparison.
So that's the Penguins 2004 draft. As Ken Holland, the Detroit GM, said recently: if a team can get 2 NHL players out of a draft they've done a pretty good job. The Penguins were lucky to get easy one in Malkin, but did well to dig up and develop a player the caliber of Tyler Kennedy in the 4th round. They lost a chance with three picks in between though to mine any more prospects, as only Nick Johnson has any chance to make it to the show.
Can't complain too much when you nab a franchise player and a generational talent, even if it was a no-brainer pick. The fruit of the futile 2003-04 season was Malkin -- and as we'll see later the good fortune in the 2005 draft lottery.
Coming tomorrow -- the 2005 NHL draft where Pittsburgh will draft a kid from Nova Scotia that would change the fate of a franchise.