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Pittsburgh Penguins’ draft history: Burn the boats (2014 - present)

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It hasn’t been pretty as of late

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

Welcome to part three of our look back at the recent draft history of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last week we had the earlier additions:

Today’s edition focuses on 2014-present, which are all the drafts that current general manager Jim Rutherford has run for the Pens.

We’re calling this one “burn the boats” because there has been no fall back, no other course besides gunning for maximum current and sacrificing the future. As we’ll see, the Pens strategy has pretty much conceded (and guaranteed) that there will be a significant drop-off after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leave their peaks and stop driving the team to greatness. For Malkin, unfortunately, we got a peak of that a bit in 2019.

That is the price to pay for being the only team in the salary cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. A high cost, but certainly one worth the results on the ice.

2014

Rutherford took over only weeks before this draft, so it has a bit of Ray Shero’s fingerprints on it too. The second round pick was traded for Douglas Murray the year prior (whoops). Likewise more middle-round picks were fairly wasted on Lee Stempniak and another for Marcel Goc.

Kapanen ended up being a great pick, though Pittsburgh would trade him 13 months later as a part of the Phil Kessel deal. But even for a solid pick at 22 overall, it took Kapanen draft+5 seasons (2018-19) before he was a full-time NHLer; justifying the idea to trade the future for the present since Kessel was a big reason why the two Cups were won.

Beyond that, this draft doesn’t look very special. Lafferty and Angello took a long development route and had mildly successful AHL rookie seasons in 2018-19, but neither seems to have a high NHL ceiling now draft+6 seasons in.

Grade: B-. A solid first round selection is enough to be a good grade.

2015

The first round pick was traded for David Perron, who would later become Carl Hagelin; another key cog in the later Cup years, a fine asset usage of turning potential futures into certain immediate additions. Drawing out the string isn’t as fun since Hagelin was traded for Tanner Pearson who was quickly flipped for Erik Gudbranson; tying the Penguins to two more years of a $4 million cap hit on a very limited third pair defenseman, but that’s another story for a non-draft related day.

Daniel Sprong turned out to be a great draft add, despite a tumultuous pro career that ended up with a bungled waiver situation and an early trade out of town. The next pick was for a then-almost 21 year old Dominik Simon, starting what’s been a very fruitful Rutherford tradition of taking over-age players later in the draft and seeing them develop into NHL assets quickly.

Grade: B+. Judging in the sense the first rounder turned into Hagelin, and two other NHL level players were found deeper in the draft then one can usually expect to find NHL caliber players, this ended up being a very useful draft for Pittsburgh.

2016

This year’s first rounder was another part of the Kessel bounty, and since it ended up the final pick of the round, that’s always the sign of a successful trade.

The rest of the board is scattered; the Pens traded their 2nd rounder a year prior for Daniel Winnik (whoops) but still ended up with two 2nds; thanks to Rutherford dealing Brandon Sutter and also another piece of the Kessel trade.

From there, they drafted (and later would soon trade in the Derick Brassard deal) a top goalie prospect in Filip Gustavsson. Gustavsson didn’t have a very good statistical season for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in 2018-19, but he’s also still exceptionally young so the jury is still out.

Bjorkqvist is turning pro for 2019-20, and there’s a lot of excitement about what he could be. That’s good because the picks of Hall and Jones won’t yield pro players and there’s a bit of optimism about Niclas Almari even though he seems like a longer-range player still.

Grade: incomplete, but it’s not looking good. The Pens pretty much need Bjorkqvist to be “more Rust than Kuhnhackl” to salvage the development portion of the draft. But this draft did at least help bring in Kessel who helped bring back Lord Stanley just before this draft, so who cares?

2017

The Penguins’ won a second straight Stanley Cup — and Rutherford managed to keep his first round pick heading into the night of the draft.

From there, the story takes a dark turn.

Rutherford flipped his first rounder (31st overall) plus the then-slow developing Oskar Sundqvist to St. Louis for enforcer Ryan Reaves and the 51st overall pick. In and of itself, though the optics of what can be easily misconstrued as “trading a 1st for Reaves”, it’s not terrible draft value in the NHL to drop from 31st to 51st. In fact, research shows NHL teams generally find similar value.

The issue was compounded when the Pens reached for a defensive defenseman at 51, whose career unfortunately was derailed by injury. Clayton Phillips was an interesting prospect but his career has taken twists and turns too; he enrolled a semester earlier at the University of Minnesota and didn’t perform great, and now after a sophomore season the coach has left and he is transferring. We’ll see what the future holds, but it doesn’t seem great.

Grade: incomplete, trending to an F. Rutherford added a player in a style the coach didn’t want to use and soon had to trade him, then spoiled th rest of the draft. Barring some late-round, very low percentage player developing in the years to come, this one was a debacle for the Pens and a time they really squandered their draft capital.

2018

With a new head scout Patrik Allvin in charge, the Pens’ 2018 draft looks a lot different than earlier years. Past low ceiling defensive draftees (Lauzon, Hall, Jones, etc) are out, and the first pick was used on a high-upside boom or bust offensive defenseman in Calen Addison.

The team then traded up for Filip Hallander, a skilled offensive forward. In the fifth they nabbed another over-age player in the super-productive junior scorer Justin Almeida.

But, then there’s all that’s missing. Rutherford used his 1st and 4th rounder this year in the ill-fated Brassard trade (though he did add a 3rd used to trade up for Hallander). The Pens traded their 4th rounder a year earlier for insurance in the form of veteran Mark Streit, and Pittsburgh swapped a 3rd for a 5th to upgrade and get Riley Sheahan.

Grade: Incomplete, but trending up. At only draft+1 it’s impossible to grade, but there’s hope that out of these four picks a couple could be viable NHL contributors one day still in the future.

Overall Rutherford’s drafting record will be remembered so far not for draft day, but for trades. Some of these have worked out and done a lot of good. Rutherford’s style and boldness is how the Pens got Kessel and Hagelin, and that’s a big reason they won two more Cups in the Crosby era.

Some of the trades didn’t work out, adding Reaves was a vanity item at best, an ill-fitting player for a coach’s “just play” philosophy at worst. Brassard should have worked out better than he did, the Pens had the poor timing of acquiring him as he was falling off, which couldn’t have been expected or foreseen.

And there’s still the future to come, Rutherford likes his picks this year (including a first rounder) but with it likely to take years to develop, the question he has to ask himself at this point is should he even bother? He’s long since burned the boats and at this point might as well keep going for broke and trying to make more Kessel/Hagelin type of trades, and less Reaves/Brassard ones in order to ensure future chances for success with the aging NHL core of stars that are still left.