The Pittsburgh Penguins have signed free agent center Thomas Di Pauli to a two-year entry-level contract, adding an asset to an organization that does not have a deep prospect pipeline right now. But here's the thing: the Pens are staying in the NHL's top echelon without a traditional building strategy and Di Pauli is part of that.
Lately, the Penguins haven't drafted early or often. In two of the past four drafts, their first selection has been a goaltender (Filip Gustavsson this summer and Tristan Jarry in 2013). But when you already have two of the world's best centers on your roster in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, your priorities kinda change.
Obviously one of the reasons the Penguins don't have a deep prospect pool is because they've been going for the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh ranked 27th overall in our latest Future Watch issue, but they also won the Cup, so mission accomplished. You trade picks and prospects to get Phil Kessel, who in turn nearly earns himself the Conn Smythe Trophy.
But it's also interesting to see the value Pittsburgh has received later in the draft. In 2010, they took Beau Bennett 20th overall. Injuries have torpedoed his consistency so far, but the next two selections were Bryan Rust (80th) and Tom Kuhnhackl (110th). When you've already got a raft of veteran forwards, as Pittsburgh has in recent years, you can be patient. Rust and Kuhnhackl ended up being solid contributors to the championship, as did college free agent Conor Sheary. None were rushed to the NHL.
Another side of success is that Pittsburgh is an attractive destination for free agents. Di Pauli, who was originally drafted by Washington but never signed, was a top scorer for Notre Dame this past season. Any team could have signed him, but the maximum dollar amount is spelled out in the CBA, so it's a level playing field in that regard. But I can't help speculate that playing for the defending Cup champs, on the same team as Sid and Geno, wasn't a factor.
Di Pauli may see time with Pittsburgh this season, but even if he's in the AHL the whole time, that's fine. The Penguins are going to be really good again and since Matt Cullen signed on for one more rodeo, the roster will be tight. But the Pens can be patient with Di Pauli and history has shown that's a good route to success.
But you need the framework to be good now and have options for the future. Pittsburgh can do it because of what the Penguins have already built.