When the 2017 draft rolls around in two months, the most emphasis will be placed on the first round. But if you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, you should know by now that depth picks have helped this team soar lately.
Matt Murray and Bryan Rust were third-rounders, for example, while Conor Sheary famously wasn’t drafted at all. Scott Wilson was one of the last players selected in the 2011 draft – only two other picks were made after him.
But the most relevant player right now is Jake Guentzel, who has burst onto the NHL scene this season as Sidney Crosby’s newest running mate. Guentzel was drafted in the third round, 77th overall in 2013. I’d like to tell you that we had Guentzel ranked in our Draft Preview top-100 that year, but we did not.
Guentzel had a very good draft year with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers, putting up 73 points in 60 games for a poor squad, but he was also listed at 5-foot-10 and 157 pounds when he was selected by the Penguins. He did not have size, but he did have skill and smarts – something that, in retrospect, holds significant value.
Guentzel honed his skills at the University of Nebraska-Omaha for the next three seasons before turning pro in the spring of 2016. He immediately made an impact in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, notching 14 points in 10 playoff games after getting his feet wet with some late regular season contests.
This season, he once again tore up the ‘A’ before getting his first NHL crack in late November. And here we are, with the now 5-foot-11, 180-pound Guentzel leading the NHL post-season in goals and even stopping one against the Caps in a Game 1 win Thursday night.
If you hate the Penguins, you may put forth the argument that it’s easy to find players to mesh with Crosby, the best player of his generation. If you cheer for the Penguins, you realize that chemistry is a funny thing and easier said than done.
What I would suggest is that Pittsburgh has figured out a particular strategy in which the Pens have parlayed their early draft luck (Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, etc.) into a sweet core that can be supplemented by the right players – such as Guentzel, Sheary and Rust.
And there seems to be more coming. Daniel Sprong was the first player Pittsburgh selected in 2015 (second round, 46th overall) and he has already done duty with the big squad, though injuries have also held him back. Sprong is not a complete player yet – he needs to work on the defensive side of the game – but he is a creative and prodigious scorer. Perhaps he’s only a complementary player at the NHL level, but if the right winger is complementing Evgeni Malkin – well, you can make a lot of hay doing that.
The fact Pittsburgh won a Cup early in the Crosby-Malkin era and then again seven years later is a testament to how the team’s brass has handled talent and managed development. Heck, the Pens could win it all again this season – would that surprise anybody?
Chicago is another team that had luck replenishing on the run, though two straight first-round exits have put a damper on things. But recall that the Blackhawks drafted Teuvo Teravainen 18th overall in 2012. I can guarantee you Chicago didn’t have him 18th on their draft board, but thanks to other teams passing up the slight Finnish kid, the Hawks got a talent who ended up being a key contributor to a Cup title. Yes, they ended up trading him to Carolina due to a cap crunch, but his name is etched into history with the Hawks; it was worth it. Nick Schmaltz is another more recent example of a player Chicago was able to get value from by placing him in a good situation. In fact, they’ll need even more from him next season as they try to rebound in the West.
One day, the Crosbys, Malkins, Toews and Kanes are all going to retire. Pittsburgh and Chicago won’t be the same because future Hall of Famers tend not to slip in the draft much these days. But in identifying prospects that can help fill a role or need, these teams have stayed relevant for years, keeping their championship windows open for enviable stretches. It’s not easy to do, but it gives your team a big advantage if you can pull it off.