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Pittsburgh Penguins’ draft history: Laying the foundation for championships (2002 - 2007)

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How did the Pittsburgh Penguins win three Stanley Cups in the salary cap era? You can look to the NHL draft and we will in this series

2005 National Hockey League Draft Photo By Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With the upcoming NHL draft in a couple of weeks, what better time to look back at the past then now? The Pittsburgh Penguins have built the NHL’s top team in terms of playoff wins and Stanley Cups in the salary cap era. A lot of that success can be traced back to the draft day decisions. This week, a multi-part look at how the modern day Penguins were built.

2002

2001-02 was a painful season for the Pens, they had traded Jaromir Jagr for $5 million and three young players and didn’t qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1990. As such, this was the first of several “rebuilding year drafts” that are segmented in part one today.

(graphics via hockeydb)

Ryan Whitney was the major piece, and as it turned out used at the perfect time of his value to be traded for Chris Kunitz prior to Whitney’s ankle ending his career.

Early second round pick Ondrej Nemec was a huge miss (Jarret Stoll, Trevor Daley and Duncan Keith were all drafted later in the second round) but the Pens did manage to find shootout guru Erik Christensen in the third.

And buried way in the eight round - a round that doesn’t even exist anymore! - future Game 7 hero Max Talbot was selected out of obscurity to go on to do great things.

Draft grade: B- Whitney was the best pick available in a fairly weak draft, the other ten picks only yielded two NHL players of note (Christensen and Talbot) but what a momentous player Talbot turned out to be.

2003

In full rebuild mode, the Pens traded their third overall pick up to number one to ensure they could get the player they wanted.

Marc-Andre Fleury would go on to become the franchise’s most accomplished goalie ever and then the next four picks all set the tone of “hard-working, blue collar players”. Two of which panned out with Daniel Carcillo and future two-time ECHL all-star (not a big deal) Paul Bissonnette.

Down in the ninth round the Pens found a diamond in the rough with Matt Moulson, but didn’t reap any rewards as he didn’t sign with them and left the organization before he really even joined it as a free agent after his NCAA career.

Still, this was the Fleury draft big time, and it would set the tone in net for about the next 15 years and give a struggling franchise a big time injection of athleticism and a positive attitude.

Fleury stands with Penguins reps Photo by Elsa/Getty Images/NHLI

Grade: B+ A little bit of regret though that with the high second round pick the Pens whiffed on all the talent that 2003 had to offer in one of the deepest years ever (with players like Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber and David Backes all taken later in the second round).

2004

The Pens were the worst team in the NHL in 2003-04, but the lottery draft was not kind to them as Washington won and took over the first pick. Oh, darn, Pittsburgh “settles” for a franchise center-piece and future MVP at pick number two.

Malkin obviously was a game-changer and difference-maker in so many ways, and huge reason why Pittsburgh would go on to such tremendous success. Getting him (a better pick than some year’s number one overall) is a charmed amount of good fortune.

2004 NHL Draft Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Johannes Salmonsson continued a nasty trend under then-GM Craig Patrick of failing to draft/develop in the second round. Under Patrick’s drafts from 1990-2005 he went 1 for 13 in terms of finding an NHL contributor in the second round (with only 1994’s Richard Park making an impact). Alex Goligoski, however, made that be 2 for 14 at least as he eventually developed into a good player.

Beyond that, 2004 didn’t have a lot. Pittsburgh took a lot of long-range shots late, only one panned out in Tyler Kennedy. Kennedy ended up being a useful role player for the ‘09 Cup, which was a necessary addition to the organization here.

Grade: A Hard to be too critical when a draft yields a future hall of famer, a top-four defenseman and a valuable third liner for a championship team

2005

Jackpot! After the NHL locked out their players and cancelled the entire season, they instituted a 30-team lottery with the grand prize being Sidney Crosby. In a day to forever alter the franchise, the Pens got lucky and the whole league has been jealous and/or bitter ever since.

Crosby went on to become the best player of his generation.

2005 National Hockey League Draft Portraits Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images for NHL

The Pens also found Kris Letang, who developed to become one of the handful of top defensemen in the league as well.

None of their other picks really panned out, but no one cares.

Grade: A+ the draft of a lifetime

2006

The times were a’ changin’ as this was the first draft Ray Shero presided over as GM after the team moved on from Patrick.

Shero’s first big move was to take Jordan Staal over Phil Kessel, Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom. It was a luxury the Pens could afford to take the only player ready to play draft+1 as well as have the qualities of a checking/third line center.

The other picks, per Shero policy, were mostly defensemen. Brian Strait it sure feels has played more than 187 career games.

Grade: B- Patrick was gone, but the Pens’ tradition of whiffing mightily with high second round picks continued.

2007

Poor Angelo Esposito (more on him later) seemed to peak hockey-wise at about 16 years old when he was anointed an early potential #1 overall pick. It didn’t quite come to be and injuries derailed him further, appearing in no NHL games - a rarity in this day and age for a first rounder.

Beyond that the Pens draft was uneventful - the best player in this class by far was Jake Muzzin, a player that like Moulson before him elected not to even sign with the Pens.

Grade: D- pretty poor draft, some of the risks they took on high upside boom/bust players like Esposito and Keven Veilleux made sense, but they all busted.

And then the day the strategy changed...

We cut Part I of this series here for a reason, and that reason is what happened on February 26, 2008 to cause a huge sea change in how the Pittsburgh Penguins operate, and a shifting of gears to which they still really haven’t changed throughout these last 11 years.

Find out what that was and why next time on our look back on the Pens’ recent draft history.