Summer 2017 saw a philosophical shift for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though they were celebrating a second straight Stanley Cup championship — becoming the only team in the salary cap era to go back-to-back, the head boss was displeased about some aspects on the ice.
General manager Jim Rutherford changed his mindset and outlook due to a perception of how opponents were chipping away at his champions. Other teams couldn’t beat the Pens, so they were resorting to drag them into the gutter to injure or take the Pens’ important players to the penalty box. That’s a strategy we’ve seen before, notably by teams like Washington and Philadelphia. The Pens’ big boss was fed up and wanted to protect his stars. In that vein, it’s understandable.
From the Post-Gazette the day of the infamous draft day trade that saw Pittsburgh trade out of pick 31 down to pick 51 and get enforcer Ryan Reaves and also give up youngster Oskar Sundqvist.
“Teams played us even harder than they usually do,” Rutherford said. “We recognize that Oskar [Sundqvist is] a good young player, but we also recognize that we’re getting a little bit tired of getting beat up game after game.”
“When you want to get the guy that’s the best at doing what he does, then you have to pay a price,” Rutherford said. “Regardless of what we paid, we’re very happy to have him.”
It was telling that Rutherford referred to Reaves as a “safe” option as an enforcer and called him defensively responsible, too. He is not the same player as Sestito, and that’s why he can fit on the Penguins’ fourth line. Coach Mike Sullivan also said Reaves is “a good player” who “can really skate,” and he would know best because he places such a high value players who skate well.
Unfortunately, this trade didn’t work out. Though Sullivan was publicly accepting of the trade, he did not play Reaves as a normal player. Reaves only played a 6:58 average with the Pens and was occasionally a healthy scratch. He was not “safe” or “defensively responsible” or “a good player”. Reaves was the last of a dying breed — a super tough guy who was by far the best enforcer in the league, and because of that found few players willing to accept a fight. And in this day and age, NHL players have to accept that fight.
This change of mood to the famous “push back” as Rutherford put it, flew in the face of what made the Pens’ back-to-back champs in the first place. Because their philosophy under Mike Sullivan was “just play” and tough out the abuse and beat the opposition on the scoreboard. Defenseman Ben Lovejoy summed it up perfectly in a pre-game NBC interview in 2016 with basically the Sullivan pep talk still in mind coming out of the locker room:
“Since Christmas teams have been trying to combat our speed by punching us in the mouth. We’ve been taking it, and we’re going to keep on taking it and force them to turn with our speed.”
And yet, the Pens abandoned their speed and tried to add muscle in Reaves. By Rutherford’s own admission, Pittsburgh was no long just going to “take it”, they wanted to push back.
That story loomed over the next few seasons on the ice in the NHL level, and also altered their 2017 draft. Which has to be pointed out, since the Pens did swap their late-first rounder to St. Louis for Reaves for a mid-second. That specter still looms in assessing this 2017 draft.
To compound the ill-fated Reaves trade, the Pens used their first pick in the draft (51st overall) to select defenseman Zach Lauzon out of Quebec. Lauzon at 6’1, 190 was a physical defensive-minded player. He projected to be, at best, probably a second or third pairing player in the NHL with a limited upside. Lauzon was named the QMJHL’s defensive defenseman of the season in his draft year, so it wasn’t like he was bad at what he did well, but again the issue was more his best case scenario wasn’t that of a impact player.
To make matters worse, Lauzon ended up getting a major concussion and never was able to recover as a player. He never was able to turn pro. That’s not Pittsburgh’s fault on draft day, but still serves to be a tough result. The Pens would have needed their 51st pick to pan out to justify a bad trade. It didn’t.
At 93rd overall (the last pick of the third round), the Pens did go with a high-end projection pick selection a smooth-skating 5’10 offensive-minded defenseman out of the USHL in Clayton Phillips. After finding paydirt in the third round in 2013 in a small kid out of Minnesota in Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh dipped back into that same well here, since that’s basically what Phillips is/was. A project that still hasn’t come close to developing, but still an intriguing talent and skill-set.
Phillips has had a rocky start, the plan in 2017-18 (his draft+1 year) was to stay in the USHL, but he was committed to the traditional powerhouse University of Minnesota for 2018-19. But things didn’t go as planned at Minnesota, and they pushed to get Phillips in the NCAA early, he joined the collegiate ranks at the start of the second semester of the 2017-18 season to help bolster their ranks. Yet he only played 11 games and a had a limited role (scoring exactly 0 points), burning his freshman season at the tender age of 18, and venerable coach Don Lucia left the program.
Phillips stayed at Minnesota for his sophomore season in 2018-19, but didn’t find his way and transfered to Penn State for 2019-20 playing his junior year recording just 9 points (2G+7A) in 29 games as a 20-year old. He’s scheduled to play his senior season at State College next year, and seems to really need more development time in the NCAA level. But will he go to free agency in the summer 2021? Or sign with the Pens before then? Many questions, and few answers right now, but Phillips still looks light years away from being an NHL contributor.
Jan Drozg and Linus Olund
At the tail end of the fifth round, Pittsburgh selected two fairly similar forwards in Drozg (152nd overall) and Olund (155th overall). Both were playing out of Sweden in their draft seasons, and seen as upside-type skill players. Drozg turned pro in 2019-20 and played almost as much in the ECHL (24 games) than AHL (32 games). Olund played 61 games in the AHL in 2018-19, recording just 15 points in 61 games and then being “loaned” under mutual decision by team and player back to Sweden. Neither at this point have any sort of NHL future.
In the last pick of the sixth round, the Pens stayed in Europe taking Finnish defenseman Paljarovi. Not much has come of that, at 21 years old in 2019-20 Paljarovi played way more in the second-tier Finnish league (24 games) than the first division SM-liiga (5 games) and scored 0 points in both. It doesn’t feel like he has much of a future in North America at this point, par for the course at the end of the sixth round.
In the “Mr. Irrelevant” pick at 217st and last in the draft, the Pens took defender Will Reilly out of Toronto, who was headed to RPI in the NCAA. Reilly just signed with Pittsburgh after a successful career that culminated with him captaining RPI and scoring 22 points (8G+14A) in 34 games in 2019-20 as a senior. Reilly has good size, two-way ability and is right-handed.
The 2017 draft for the Pens will be ultimately be remembered (if it’s remembered at all) for the ill-fated Reaves trade followed by the unfortunate career trajectory of Lauzon due to his concussions. Ironically enough, at this point in 2020, the best prospect that Pittsburgh has right now is probably Reilly who was the final pick by the team and the whole 2017 draft. And even then, Reilly’s NHL future looks probably limited and far-off at best. Phillips still looms as a potential decent prospect, yet unknown if and when he’ll arrive as a pro and even with Pittsburgh.
The NHL draft is tough for contending teams, and banners do hang forever. That’s what has come out of 2017 for the Pens, not any sort of draft picks. The Pens’ lost their second round pick that year as a result of the Ron Hainsey trade. Hainsey manned a first-pairing role all the way to the Stanley Cup, before departing that summer as a free agent. That transaction to add Hainsey for a pick will probably be the most meaningful use for the Pens in the 2017 draft. And that will always be in the rafters as a very pleasant reminder, even if the rest of the event isn’t going to amount to all that much.