The Pittsburgh Penguins have not drafted a regular NHL player since 2015 and calling Daniel Sprong or Dominik Simon regular NHL contributors seems to stretch the term just a little.
Since then, some bad luck and bad drafting have left the Penguins with a subpar minor league system and more expensive players in the lineup.
The math is inexact but for a franchise to miss on draft picks costs millions of thousands in salary cap space. A player on an entry-level contract costs less than $900,000. A veteran generally costs more, even for fourth-line duty. The higher in the lineup an ELC player is slotted, the more salary cap savings a team can recoup. That goes double for defensemen.
For example, a player on an entry-level deal slotted on the second line saves a team about $3 million or more. A defenseman can save millions even on the third pairing.
Among the forwards, the Penguins have not put a draft pick in the top nine since Jake Guentzel (2013, third round), 2012 pick Teddy Blueger (second round), and Bryan Rust (2010, third round). Each made their NHL debut several seasons later but was on an entry-level contract.
Defenseman Olli Maatta was a 2012 first-round pick and contributed several solid years before injuries and illness decreased his effectiveness.
The Penguins have recouped some value via trades.
2014 first-rounder Kasperi Kapanen was the centerpiece of the trade to acquire Phil Kessel. 2015 second-round pick Daniel Sprong was a near washout but brought Marcus Pettersson in return. Pettersson played on a qualifying offer for a year before signing the hefty contract with a $4.025 million AAV.
2016 second-rounder Filip Gustavsson was an essential part of the Derrick Brassard acquisition. He’s played 27 NHL games but doesn’t appear to be starting goalie material.
Beyond having some trade value, the most recent Penguins’ pick to play more than 200 games with the team is 2015 fifth-rounder Dominik Simon, who had two tours with the team after an ill-fated COVID season with the Calgary Flames. Simon returned on a two-way contract last summer before being traded to Anaheim at the NHL trade deadline.
It’s been seven years since the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted an NHL regular who actually played for the Penguins. Seven?! A few forwards could make NHL debuts soon, but the only defenseman prospect is PO Joseph. After him, none.
Sad Recap of Pittsburgh Penguins Drafts
2016: Second-round pick Kasper Bjorkqvist made his NHL debut this season. He appears to be ticketed for NHL depth roles or fill-in fourth-line duty. Third-rounder Connor Hall never played professionally. He plays for the University of New Brunswick after five years in the OHL. Fourth-rounder Ryan Jones never played for the organization and is bouncing around the AHL. Fifth-round pick Niclas Almari is a career minor leaguer who returned to Sweden after splitting the last five seasons between the WBS Penguins and the Swedish Elite League.
2017: Complete washout. Second-round pick Zachary Lauzon suffered concussion issues in juniors. His career ended in 2018. Third-round pick Clayton Phillips didn’t impress in his first rookie camp. He spent two years at the Univ. of Minnesota before sitting out a year to finish his college career with Penn State. He played one professional game with the WBS Penguins at the end of this season but isn’t an NHL prospect. The Penguins have not yet signed him. They have until August. Fifth-round picks Jan Drozg, and Linus Olund flashed a bit of talent but did not stick. Olund is back in Sweden, and Drozg is an AHL depth player.
2018: Second-round pick Calen Addison and a mid-first-round pick were the Penguins’ trade cost for Jason Zucker. At 22, he has gone back and forth from Minnesota to the AHL and played 18 NHL games. Fellow second-round pick Filip Hallander made his NHL debut this season and could be a fourth-line type player. Fifth-rounder Justin Almeida was demoted to the ECHL this season.
2019: As Dave Molinari noted, many of the 21st overall picks in the NHL Draft over the last decade made their NHL debut within a couple of seasons. However, in his first pro season, first-round pick Sam Poulin was stuck in the AHL and scratched at mid-season. He moved to center after not producing on the wing. He had a second-half rebound, and his future is still being written, though he does not project as a top-six talent in the NHL. Third-rounder Nathan Legare was also a healthy scratch at mid-season, and the kid with the booming wrist shot had only 16 points (7-9-16) in 57 games.
Fifth-round pick Judd Caufield is a middle-line player at North Dakota after three seasons. He had 20 points (11-9-20) in 39 games this season.
Seventh-rounder Valterri Puustinen has been the surprise of the class. This season, he made his NHL debut. Puustinen also scored 42 points (20-22-42) in 73 AHL games. However, his size may limit his future. He’s only 5-foot-9, 183 pounds.
2020: Too soon. None of the picks have made their professional debut. 2020 second-round pick Joel Blomqvist platooned for Team Finland at the World Juniors. Third-rounder Calle Clang was traded as part of the Rickard Rakell deal. 2020 fourth-rounder Lukas Svejkovsky has silky mitts but a tiny 5-foot-9, 170-pound frame. Fifth-rounder Ravis Ansons could be a player. He continued to progress in the QMJHL but remains inconsistent. Here’s our in-depth scouting report, including a video breakdown of Ravis Ansons.
*Correction: Blomqvist is Finnish. The original post noted Swedish.
2021: No player of the class, which included a second, fifth, and three seventh-rounders, has yet distinguished themselves as a legitimate prospect. Center Tristan Broz (second round) had only 11 points in his freshman season at the U of Minnesota. Seventh-rounder Kirill Tankov (center) is playing in the Russian junior league but also played two games for Team Russia at the World Juniors.
Pittsburgh Penguins Needs
It’s not fair to criticize Penguins GM Ron Hextall or staff for the Penguins’ dry bed of prospects. The 2021 class was challenging to project because of COVID-shortened seasons and outright stoppages by junior leagues for two years running.
For 2021, the Penguins get a pass. Hextall has essentially cleaned house, too. The scouting department has been significantly overhauled since it took over, too.
However, other teams are finding talent where the Penguins have not. Most of that is on the previous regime of Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin, who now helm the Vancouver Canucks.
The Penguins need multiple second and third-line wingers. A center under 35 years old surely wouldn’t hurt. A defenseman or three couldn’t hurt either. The Penguins have made good use of college free agents such as Zach Aston-Reese and seemed excited about goalie Filip Lindberg last summer.
While other teams are finding some value and saving salary cap dollars by getting NHL players in the draft, the Penguins have scored none. With a first-rounder, fourth through seventh picks (for now), and a deep pool, the Penguins should–should–get some NHL talent in this draft.
The post-Crosby era is drawing closer. The Penguins can’t afford to miss as badly as they have. The Pittsburgh Penguins, not the WBS Penguins, need the draft to produce some talent. The ability to sign free agents or retain players depends on it.