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What to do with their first round pick is the Penguins’ first important off-season decision

Can they weaponize one of the few assets they have?

2018 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, there’s plenty of time to play the blame game and speculate on which star player should or could be traded for the Pittsburgh Penguins. And while that’s always going to draw lots of attention and strong reactions, it’s of course not really the smartest way to attack the problem.

When the idea is to create a championship caliber team, stars are needed, but as a key talking point of the offseason so far has been, the supporting cast of what a team puts around its star players is a crucial decision.

The Pens have little salary cap space, and it could be concerning if recent rumors of a lower-than-expected increase for next season happens. They also have little to trade or use in the NHL as far as 18-22 year old assets, courtesy of trading so many draft picks in recent years. To an extent, that’s a cost of doing business as a contender and sacrificing the future for the immediate was a large reason Pittsburgh won two Stanley Cups back-to-back in 2016 and 2017.

But the Pens do have an asset that could help — a 2019 first round pick.

In recent years around the draft around the NHL, Mike Hoffman has been traded for draft picks. Toronto upgraded their goaltending by getting Frederik Andersen a few years ago. Back further, Calgary got Dougie Hamilton for a first, second, and third round pick. Edmonton used a first and a second round pick to add Griffin Reinhart. Buffalo used a first to add Robin Lehner and David Legwand.

And, of course, the very same Pens once took a first rounder and prospect to add Ryan Reaves and a second rounder. Then again, they also used a past first round pick in Kasperi Kapanen and a future first round pick as the main ammunition to land Phil Kessel.

Some of these ideas worked. Some of them did not. But it certainly represented an opportunity to use that draft capital to make upgrades to the NHL team.

Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford has been openly fond of this draft class though, so the alternative is to keep the pick and add to the almost non-existent young talent in the organization doesn’t seem like a bad one either.

“It’s a very good draft,” Rutherford said after the trade deadline. “It was important this year to keep that pick.”

Then again, this will be Rutherford’s sixth draft in Pittsburgh. He’s traded the pick four previous times, and only made one selection in the first round (the aforementioned Kapanen who was traded a year later).

The urge to upgrade has always been stronger than the want to keep the pick. That could be the case this year, especially since with limited cap space it will represent one of a few opportunities to actually upgrade the team for 2019-20.

What Happened: A look at what Pittsburgh has done with first round picks under Rutherford

2014: The Pens select Kapanen 22nd overall, and he stays in Finland for the 2014-15 season. Pittsburgh trades Kapanen on July 1, 2015 as part of the Kessel deal. Kapanen splits time between AHL and NHL for three seasons before becoming a full-time player for the Maple Leafs in 2018-19, where he scores 20 goals and 44 points in an impressive season.

2015: On January 2, 2015 the Penguins trade their first round pick to Edmonton for David Perron. Perron plays 86 games in Pittsburgh, scoring just 16 goals and 38 points and he is traded on January 16, 2016 for Carl Hagelin. Hagelin helps the Pens win two Stanley Cups, but gets flipped for Tanner Pearson who is soon after traded for Erik Gudbranson.

2016: Pittsburgh’s first round pick is included (lottery protected) in the trade with Toronto for Kessel on July 1, 2015.

2017: In the most controversial move, the Penguins trade this pick on draft day (31st overall) to St. Louis for Ryan Reaves and the 51st overall pick. Pittsburgh also includes Oskar Sundqvist in the deal. Reaves goes on to not get regular playing time and is included (mostly for salary balancing purposes) in a trade in February 2018 so the Penguins can acquire Derick Brassard.

2018: On February 23, 2018 the Pens send this pick (along with Reaves, Ian Cole, prospect FIlip Gustavssson, a third round pick, and a fourth round pick) out to acquire Brassard, a third round pick and two minor league players. Brassard ends up not embracing or playing well in a third line role and is also traded within a year (along with Riley Sheahan, a second, and third round pick) for the Pens to acquire forwards Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad.

2019: ?

Overall, having Kessel, Bjugstad, McCann, and Gudbranson to show for the last five draft picks is a very simplistic and incomplete way to look at the situation since other assets were also involved, but it’s not a totally untrue outlook to take from a macro-view.

Certainly the early trades to land Kessel and Hagelin helped propel Pittsburgh to championships and are worthy of a lot of praise for the management. These decisions ended up paying off as wonderfully as possible and are exactly the dream of best-case scenarios to occur when dealing a high draft pick.

Those trades though were done by 2015. As the narrative has been surrounding this management team, recent trades have gone sour. Adding ill-fitting players in recent attempts like Reaves and Brassard — as well as spinning Hagelin’s expiring contract and possibility for salary cap space into an expensive $4 million third pair defenseman in Gudbranson — has been a major reason why Pittsburgh has come up empty in the last few playoffs as it has failed to maximize the opportunity to improve.

This isn’t totally on management, sometimes the best laid plans don’t work out, which was the case in the well-meaning addition of Brassard. However, the misses here still stand out and are going to justifiably draw heat, especially when the big draft day trade brings in an enforcer that the coach doesn’t want to use.

If the Pens can’t find a great fit, the smart play would be to draft a player next month and at least hold onto what they’ve got for now. But if they can find a key move to add to their team now, they’ve never been shy to deal this pick before, and now that the window is another year closer to being closed, now is not the time to stop.

As always, identifying the right piece (i.e., find a Hagelin and not a Perron, find a McCann and not a Reaves) will be the critical difference in wasting the opportunity or making the most of it. In a few weeks, we’ll be able to see what direction Rutherford goes.