July 22, 2005 will forever be one of the most important days in Pittsburgh Penguins franchise history. Fresh off the end of the season long lockout, all NHL fans were excited that the league was back. But everyone had their eyes on the prize - a 30 team lottery to determine the draft order, with the winner in position to draft "the next one" Sidney Crosby.
Teams started with 3 lottery balls and got 1 taken away for playoff appearances in recent years, and also if they had earned #1 overall picks, with all teams guaranteed at least 1 chance to win. Only the Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets had 3 chances, with 10 other teams having 2 chances and then 16 teams only had 1 chance.
Those other teams with 3 chances ended up with the #6 (CBJ), #12 (BUF) and #13 (NYR) picks, showing the volatility of the random draft, and the odds that Pittsburgh really had to end up missing out on Crosby.
It's remarkable to think about how the entire landscape of the Pittsburgh Penguins has changed in the last 10 years. The lockout gave the league a salary cap and some revenue sharing, which helped smaller markets compete with the bigger markets. Hockey used to be like baseball, with teams like Pittsburgh spending $20-30 million in payroll, and teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Rangers spending $70-85+ million, sparing no expense to compile the best teams possible.
Building a team
This created an awful vicious cycle for the Pens - as they sold off their best players (except for the old guy who owned the team) of the early 2000's - Jaromir Jagr, Alex Kovalev, Martin Straka, Robert Lang, Darius Kasparaitis - all lost for pennies on the dollar for a team just trying to survive.
With the team having no hope of being competitive, interest in driving to an antiquated arena and paying money to watch your team lose, naturally lost steam. But before other teams pile on about the bandwagon or fair-weather aspect of Penguins fans, they can check the local television ratings. Hockey fans still paid attention in Pittsburgh, they just obviously stopped paying money. Interest in hockey is also proven by the success of the Pittsburgh youth system - with players like Brandon Saad, John Gibson, Vince Trocheck, et al spending their formative years during this downturn in Penguins hockey, but still competed and grew into NHL talent due to the strong youth hockey system of Western PA.
That all changed with a salary cap and Sidney Crosby. The Penguins were also fortunate enough to be bad at the right time- with draft picks that allowed them to take Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin in the two years prior to drafting Crosby, and Jordan Staal in the following season. That nucleus was what took them to the top of the mountain in 2009. For years, teams like the Atlanta Thrashers and Blue Jackets piled up high picks but the talent pool wasn't there. The Pens were lucky they were bad at a good time for it.
Building an arena
The Penguins also badly needed a replacement for the Igloo, which we all know the story. Crosby helped anchor the team in Pittsburgh - his presence gave the market staying power. Which as much as everyone loves to bash and poke fun at Gary Bettman, Pittsburgh Penguins fans never had a bigger supporter or more powerful friend. And as far as people you want in your corner goes, there's no one better in the NHL than to have the full support and backing than Gary Bettman.
As we all know, eventually Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle played the Pennsylvania politics game enough to secure the funding for a new arena. The Penguins were saved and staying in Pittsburgh.
Could it have happened without Crosby? Possibly, but there's no doubt having the face of the league and it's best player helped the cause immensely.
With all the great stuff above - bucking the odds to draft Crosby the momentum that gave to get a new arena, the 2005 NHL Entry draft already worked out better than anyone could have hoped for, or borderline even imagined.
But what if I told you not only did the Penguins get Crosby (obviously the best player from that draft), but they also arguably got the 2nd best player from the 2005 draft as well? Here's the draft sorted by current point total.
Granted, one could make a very good argument that if this draft was conducted today, Anze Kopitar might go #2. Letang would have to be #3 though, which the Penguins drafted with the first pick of the 3rd round.
After hitting the absolute lottery with Crosby, the Penguins somehow managed to draft a legitimate, puck-skating, 25 minute eating #1 defenseman. I've heard of "icing on the cake" but getting Letang to go along with Crosby and all the benefits he brought made it one hell of a super sweet bonus.
The rest is history
From there, we know the rest- Crosby scored 15 goals in the 2009 playoffs and Malkin went crazy with 36 points to help the team win the Stanley Cup in 2009, after Fleury posted a .933 save % in 2008 which helped the team get to the SC Finals in 2008. Injuries and ineffective management caught up to the team and opened the door for Chicago to turn into the dominant team of the past 10 years, but considering where the Penguins where on July 21, 2005, it would be difficult to complain. At all.
The course of the Penguins franchise was altered forever on July 22, 2005. 10 years ago tomorrow. It can all change in an instant, and luckily for the fate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it did in the best way possible.