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2019 NHL Draft: The Penguins desperately need to find the next Robert Thomas

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Even then, the odds are very high the 2019 Pittsburgh first round pick won’t beat the clock to help the current core.

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

As written about last week, the best use of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first round pick in 2019 (21st overall) is probably trading it for an immediate NHL asset who can bolster the club’s chances in 2019-20. We’re deep enough into the franchise’s life-cycle that the here and now is much more important than a few years down the road that it will take for a later first round pick to develop.

However, the one thing known about general manager Jim Rutherford is that for better or worse he typically says what he means and means what he says. And Rutherford doesn’t just like this year’s draft class, he seems to love it.

“It’s a very good draft,” Rutherford said back in February at the trade deadline when explaining why he didn’t trade the first rounder. “It was important this year to keep that pick.”

Assuming that Pittsburgh does keep the pick, let’s dive into what to expect and how long the turnaround time might be until prospect becomes NHL contributor. Basically, the Pens need to try to identify and select a Robert Thomas or Filip Chytil. Thomas especially stands out right now, being as he’s playing 14 minutes a night and has scored five points in 16 games so far this spring for the St. Louis Blues, a Western Conference Finalist.

Check out this look at the bottom end of the first round from 2017 from hockeydb. At just the draft+2 season, several players have found their way into NHL lineups, which has to be a positive and encouraging development for Pittsburgh.

All of those players are obviously still young but from Thomas and Chytil to Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan Poehling, Henri Jokiharju and Eeli Tolvanen, that’s a seriously impressive list to choose from as far as youngsters making accelerated NHL impacts. Others may get to the NHL soon, but that’s beyond the scope for what we’re looking for right now, since immediacy is a factor for an aging team in Pittsburgh.

Picking at this point in the draft, if 2019 can be as deep as 2017 proved to be, would give an opportunity for the 21st overall pick to at least make an NHL debut by this point in 2020-21.

Let’s also point out how all of these appearances have been in limited roles as development ramps up. You’re not likely to find a superstar or instant impact player even under the best of circumstances, which again is why a trade makes a lot of sense.

Keeping the pick is also not without risk and the chance that the player drafted would be the wrong one who wouldn’t be NHL ready in two years (or...maybe ever). At this point it’s all fun to dream about making that right choice and while all the above names still are very promising prospects, young prospects fail to reach potential all the time in hockey.

Immediacy is an issue too. Let’s check in on the lower end of the first round from 2018 to see what the NHL impact was in draft+1 season for the current batch of players.

This chart sort of reinforces the reality of the benefits of the Pens trading the pick. The 21st overall pick is almost certain to make absolutely no NHL impact as a player in 2019-20. That’s the sort of fact that most people can understand, but seeing it laid out above really drives that point home.

And while Rutherford and fans may dream of a year like 2017 where there are plenty of tremendous young players in the 20-30 range ready to step up and make big strides quickly, there’s also got to be some reservation that it doesn’t always work out like that. Just check out 2016, now in draft+3 and the lower end of the first round has been relatively soft compared to 2017.

A lot of those players are still very highly regarded and may accomplish great things in the future at the NHL level. But for a contending team like Pittsburgh the above is not a pretty picture for a draft class that’s had three seasons to develop into NHL players. Few of these guys have, and none of them really make all that big of a difference just yet. It’s still early in their careers, but keep in mind that draft+3 for the current 2019 draft class extends us to the 2021-22 season.

That thought is worth holding onto —there’s a chance even by playoffs 2022 that this 2019 first round pick may not be in the lineup at all, or if so, just on the fringes of playing. 2022 is a big year, since it’s the last year of the contracts for Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel. By then it’s window closed as we know it for this core.

If the range of players in the 20-30 zone of the 2019 draft class turn out like the talent pool from 2016 in that same area, that would be an unfortunate development for the Pens, who almost certainly have to be hoping that their 2019 draftee can have a quick enough turnaround to help contribute in the NHL before too long.

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With all that in mind, what is the takeaway from this exercise down recent memory lane? By this point, the 2019 first round draft pick is probably not going to make that much of a difference for the Malkin/Letang remaining days of their current deals, if they make it to th NHL at all by then. However, at 21 there likely is a player that in two or three years could be a Thomas, Chytil, Poehling type that could be an impressive young player. Identifying just who that is will be a very difficult challenge and is easier said than done.

Still, all things considered, the Pens have come this far trading their first round pick pretty quickly every year since they took Olli Maatta in 2012. By now they might as well go into “burn the boats” mode and try to find a trade to bring in immediate NHL help rather than try to play the long odds a near-instant developing player will be taken by them at 21st overall.