Yesterday we investigated the early beginnings of the second era of Penguins championships with the foundation picks from 2002-07 highlighted by drafting three future hall of famers in the first round of 2003, 2004 and one of the greatest of all time and certainly the greatest of his time in 2005.
And the team, who in their current young incarnation had only made the playoffs once (bowing out meekly in five games, at that) changed their tone, attitude, direction in a major way on February 26, 2008 by general manager Ray Shero.
“[Team owners] Ron [Burkle] and Mario [Lemieux] told [Shero] to go after the best player available, don’t worry about the money,” Penguins CEO David Morehouse said. “Ray took them at their word and went after Marian Hossa.”
Pittsburgh gave up recent 2007 top-pick Angelo Esposito plus their future 2008 first rounder plus NHL caliber players in Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen. In return they got Hossa and a fourth line player named Pascal Dupuis to balance out the contracts (and probably because Atlanta didn’t want to pay him the remainder of his contract). Most the pieces didn’t turn out well for the poor Thrashers (RIP) but it was a huge price at the time to pay for a pure rental in Hossa.
It was also totally worth it, the result propelled the Pens’ franchise from “young team just happy to be growing and figuring it out” to “instant championship threat”. Pittsburgh would roll through the East the next two years, winning the conference in 2008 and 2009, and of course the Stanley Cup in 2009. They were officially on the map as THE team to beat in the league.
At that moment, the Penguins went from building through the draft, to then trading picks away to sustain their championship. Sacrificing potential future assets for short-term immediate NHL caliber players.
One of the worst and least productive drafts possible in terms of players added, but you can’t think of it like that. The first rounder was traded for Hossa as mentioned. The second went for Hal Gill, who stuck around for the 2008 and 2009 playoff runs, playing a top-four defensive role for Stanley Cup teams. The third rounder went as part of the deal to add Georges Laraque.
Grade: bust. Getting Hossa and Gill out of this draft was really what mattered.
A year after swinging for the fences, Shero’s trades were a lot more modest. He added veteran Bill Guerin for a third round pick, but he already had Tampa’s third round pick for trading Gary Roberts + Ryan Malone’s rights the previous year.
Shero did well to have three picks in the top 63, but the drafting didn’t go so well. There wasn’t a ton of depth in the ‘09 draft class, though to be picky Ryan O’Reilly went a few spots after Simon Despres and the Pens continued their historic bad second round drafting by taking Philip Samuelsson (Tyson Barrie went #64 to Colorado). And none of the latter round low percentage picks ever amounted to anything of note.
Grade: D. Weak draft year, would have been tough to do better, but a bit unlucky and still unfortunate that none of those three picks ended up being particularly useful or ended up resulting in NHL players. Having the extra draft capital to be comfortable in picking up Guerin for a mid-round pick was by far the most important move the Pens made with a draft pick in 2009.
An an effort to win a second championship, Shero traded the second round pick to Florida for defenseman Jordan Leopold and prospect Luca Caputi to Toronto for Alex Ponikarovsky. Neither move really worked, but Shero at least kept his first rounder and indeed most of his draft picks.
With those picks used, it was a mixed bag of results. Beau Bennett’s career was sidetracked to injury, Bryan Rust took draft+6 years to make an impact but was a really great third round pick. Similarly, Tom Kuhnhackl was no more than a fourth liner but ended up being a good energy player in the 2016 playoff run as well.
Grade: C+ Basically whiffing on the first rounder hurt, but Shero was able to at least “plant some seeds” in long-range prospects that ended up panning out in Kuhnhackl and especially Rust
A rare class where every pick at least makes a cameo in the NHL! Shero gutted the middle of his draft, foolishly trading his third rounder to Philly for the rights to Dan Hamhuis (who ended up not signing a contract with Pittsburgh) and the Pens didn’t have earlier picks like the 2009 deal that saw them add backup Mathieu Garon came at the cost of 2011’s fourth rounder.
Still, Shero kept his first rounder and went defense with Joe Morrow and then defense high again with Scott Harrington. It was OK, and really there’s not much better to have imagined with those picks, it’s just kind of “meh” drafting 20+ every year and trying to identify that one impact player among the host of pretty decent enough players.
At the bottom of the draft, ironically are the two players with perhaps the most staying power with grinding energy wingers Josh Archibald and Scott Wilson who both would have ever so small roles in future championship runs.
Grade: C+ There was rumors the Pens liked Boone Jenner, maybe taking him here boosts the grade. As it was, just a decent but not great draft.
Fireworks! On draft day (with the draft located in Pittsburgh, no less) Shero trades Jordan Staal for a package including the eight overall pick. He also deals defenseman Zbynek Michalek for the 81st overall pick in a move that went under the radar, but was very, very important.
At #8, with highly ranked pre-draft players like Filip Forsberg and Jacob Trouba and Teuvo Teravainen on the board, Shero went with......Derrick Pouliot. Oof. It was always an “upside” type of projection but ended up being a huge error in a critical pick, Pittsburgh’s only top ten pick from 2007-current.
Beyond that monstrosity, Shero salvaged a decent draft. Olli Maatta slipped and was taken later in the first. That made of Shero’s seven 1st/2nd round picks from 2009-12, a whopping six were defensemen.
Beyond that, Shero took another upside, slow-developer project in Teddy Blueger, which took a long time but eventually ended up netting an NHL caliber player. The Pens took center Oskar Sundqvist with the pick they got from the Michalek deal.
And then, since they had an extra third round pick, they felt comfortable drafting a tall, skinny goalie from Ontario named Matt Murray. Without that Michalek trade, the Pens probably don’t have Matt Murray, which is a crazy little wrinkle/butterfly effect to think about.
No other late-rounders panned out, but a mid-round draft of Blueger, Sundqvist, Murray was a very, very good run.
Grade: B-. On one hand, botching the first pick with Pouliot (when, it’s not hindsight to say many were clamoring for Forsberg from the minute the Pens were on the clock) makes this feel like a failure. However nabbing Maatta + Murray is a very positive draft, just take a look at the above years. This is an unsatisfying draft thanks to Pouliot, but still in the big picture a positive one. Just a shame since it could have been an all-time classic with a better first pick.
Sensing the team needed more bold additions to hearken back to the Hossa days, Shero was aggressive to add Jarome Iginla for his first rounder. The Pens also added Brenden Morrow and that 77th overall pick for former first rounder Joe Morrow plus a fifth round pick. Famously that third rounder ended up being a skinny 150 pound kid from Minnesota that the team liked, which ended up paying off big time.
Drafting a goalie so high always seems dangerous, but Jarry was very accomplished at the junior level and looked the part.
Grade: B+ Finding Jake Guentzel was a true brush of scouting genius to project a small, slightly built kid but seeing past that to magical hockey IQ and soft hands. Obviously no one knew the ceiling back then was a future 40 goal NHLer, but digging that diamond out of the rough is worthy of kudos even if nothing else particularly useful amounted from this year.
So there you have it, all of the Ray Shero drafting years in Pittsburgh are now complete.
What have we learned?
- The common and prevailing narrative around that goes “Shero spent all his draft picks for immediate NHL success” isn’t really true or fair. Shero traded a first rounder for Hossa in 2008 and a first rounder for Iginla in 2013. In between he kept his first all four years between 2009-12, even adding an extra high pick in 2012 when it was clear Staal would not re-sign with the Pens. I must admit, even my common thought and utterance was that Ray Shero was unwise with his spending, however, he really wasn’t all that aggressive (just wait for Part III with Rutherford).
- This also goes to show how tough drafting 20th-30th every year is. It’s really hard to find consistent impact players in this range. Without hindsight it’s very difficult, and while all the decisions on draft day makes sense, most of the players in this range (not just the ones the Pens picked) don’t end up a top-six or all-star type players.
- Defense. Shero really loved defense. It makes sense, being as his trading philosophy over the years (carried onto Jersey where he traded decent Adam Larsson for an MVP in Taylor Hall) shows that defensemen are always in demand and can usually be traded for more. Unfortunately though, Shero wasn’t good enough and had some big misses over the years (Samuelsson over Barrie, Pouliot over Trouba) that added up.
- Seeing payoff from NHL drafts takes a long time. Guys like Rust and Blueger weren’t in the NHL until Shero was long gone from Pittsburgh. Shero drafted Murray but it feels like a way gone era when that happened. Just as Shero succeeded with a lot of pieces that Craig Patrick left him (MAF, Malkin, Crosby, Max Talbot, Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy, Brooks Orpik, etc) Shero’s successor in Rutherford ended up succeeding with a lot of Shero’s fingerprints on the team (Guentzel, Murray, Rust, Maatta, etc).