It is not very often that the Pittsburgh Penguins have a first-round draft pick. Given their consistent “win-now” approach over the past 15 years that pick has more often than not been used as a trade chip to add pieces to the NHL roster, and on the occasion that it has been kept, they usually very quickly trade that prospect.
It is really difficult to argue with the results of that.
Since 2005 the Penguins have been the most successful organization in the NHL, appearing in five Eastern Conference Finals, four Stanley Cup Finals, winning three of them, and winning more regular season and playoff games than any other team in the league.
Despite the lack of first-round picks, they have still managed to develop impact players (Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Matt Murray) and contributing role players. They have done well for themselves.
There is an argument to be made that the smartest play with this year’s pick (No. 21 overall) is to also trade it one way or another.
That could take on a couple of different looks. It could be traded for immediate NHL help right now, this season (J.T. Miller?). It could be traded back in the first round (or maybe even out of the first round) for additional picks in this year’s draft or next year’s draft.
The counter argument to that is at some point the Penguins need to start looking toward the future, keeping some picks, and trying to re-stock what is a mostly barren farm system.
The problem with that is the No. 21 overall pick probably is not going to make that happen. It is simply not that valuable of a pick, historically speaking. It’s best value might actually be as a trade asset.
I went back over a 10-year stretch of NHL drafts from 2009 to 2017 and looked at every player that was picked No. 20 overall to the end of the first round. The odds of finding an impact player are practically non-existent.
Of the 112 players that were taken in those spots, here is a list of the top-10 players in terms of points per game in the NHL. That is admittedly not the best way to evaluate a player’s overall contribution; but it does at least give us an idea as to who has become something that resembles an impact player).
Couple of big names at the top, yes. But things take a pretty dramatic drop off after that.
Pastrnak is a bonafide superstar.
Kuznetsov is an All-Star.
Boeser and Thomas might still be All-Stars.
Digging a little deeper on some (maybe subjective) classifications out of this group:
Star players: Pastrnak, Kuznetsov
Potential star players: Boeser, Thomas
Top-line forwards: Anthony Mantha, Rickard Rakell, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Konecny, Philip Danault, Rickard Rakell, Brock Nelson
Top-six forwards: Marcus Johansson, Adrian Kempe, Kevin Hayes, Nick Schmaltz, Anthony Beauvillier, Jared McCann
Top-pairing defensemen: Shea Theodore
Top-four defensemen: K’Andre Miller, Brady Skjei, Mike Matheson, Connor Murphy
How many people there really move the needle for you?
With a pick in the 20s you have maybe a 4 percent chance of getting a star, maybe a 15-20 percent chance of getting a first-liner or top-pairing defender, and maybe a 25-percent chance of getting a second-liner or second-pairing defenseman.
The funny thing about this sampling of players is that of the top-20 forwards in points per game, three of them are Rakell, McCann, and Kasperi Kapanen: Players the Penguins currently have, or have recently had over the past year, that were deemed not good enough.
Mike Matheson and Olli Maatta are three of the top-five highest scoring defensemen (and probably among the top-10 overall defensemen).
That is the type of player you are looking at with a pick in the 20s. Realistically it is going to be a player that does not really advance a rebuild in any meaningful way.
Trading it, though, might have some real value.
We just saw this week the No. 19 overall pick and a prospect get moved for Kevin Fiala.
Back in 2019 New York traded the No. 20 overall pick before the draft for Jacob Trouba.
St. Louis traded the No. 27 pick (and another first-round pick) to Philadelphia for Brayden Schenn back in 2017.
Back in 2014 Anaheim sent the No. 24 pick to Vancouver, along with Nick Bonino and Luca Sbisa, for Ryan Kesler.
(I used those trades as examples because they were made after the draft order was already set and the acquiring team knew exactly which draft pick it was getting.)
But even if you do not find a fit for immediate NHL help, trading back in the First Round and accumulating more picks would also be desirable. Historically speaking, there is virtually no difference between the No. 21 and No. 25 or No. 28 or No. 32 overall pick, and if there is a difference, it is marginal. In that case, why not see if you can get yourself an extra pick or two later in the draft or in the future draft? When you are picking at this point in the draft your best chance of finding a future NHL player is simply giving yourself more picks. It is a volume game at this point.
The Penguins do not typically pick in the First Round, and if they want to extract the most possible value out of the pick they have this year they would be better off not using it themselves, or at least trying to push it back a few spots and giving themselves another lottery ticket later.