The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t much for prospects or draft picks these days. Not when keeping the Stanley Cup window open in the Sidney Crosby era means moving futures for immediate NHL help.
It’s an approach the Penguins unabashedly embraced last week. Just days after selecting a league-low four picks in the 2015 Draft, the Penguins swung a deal for Toronto winger Phil Kessel on the first day of free agency. The best player in the deal went to Pittsburgh, but the greatest number of assets went the other way. That’s been the trade calculus in Pittsburgh for what’s going on a decade and under two management groups.
Getting that top-six wing was the offseason priority all along, and the Penguins struck big in the deal for Kessel. And they got him in just the same way this team has always gotten its forwards over the last decade — by trading one of their bevy of defense prospects.
The Penguins became famous for having one of the best groups of young defensemen in the NHL. Under former GM Ray Shero, the group expanded at seemingly every draft, the players always there to supplement a trade or make the team’s future seem brighter.
Following the deal that brought Kessel to Pittsburgh, one of the team’s few remaining defense assets is gone in Scott Harrington. He joins Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Spaling and a pair of draft picks in going to Toronto.
(It should be noted the Penguins got a defenseman back in the deal in journeyman Tim Erixon.)
That latest move has left what was already a thinning group even more shallow.
Penguins Notable Defense Draft Picks, 2004-2015
- 2004 – Alex Goligoski (3rd round, 61st overall). Traded for James Neal (then traded for Patric Hornqvist), Matt Niskanen (UFA)
- 2005 – Kris Letang (3rd round, 62nd overall)
- 2006 – Brian Strait (3rd round, 65th overall). Lost on waivers (NYI)
- 2007 – Robert Bortuzzo (3rd round, 78th overall). Traded for Ian Cole
- 2009 – Simon Despres (1st round, 30th overall). Traded for Ben Lovejoy
- 2009 – Philip Samuelsson (3rd round, 61st overall). Traded for Rob Klinkhammer (then traded as part of David Perron deal)
- 2011 – Joe Morrow (1st round, 23rd overall). Traded for Brenden Morrow (UFA)
- 2011 – Scott Harrington (2nd round, 54th overall). Traded in package for Phil Kessel
- 2012 – Derrick Pouliot (1st round, 8th overall)
- 2012 – Olli Maatta (1st round, 22nd overall)
- 2012 – Brian Dumoulin (acquired in Jordan Staal trade)
In three drafts from 2009-12, the Penguins used five of their seven first- and second-round selections on defensemen. The only forwards in that group? Beau Bennett in 2010 and Teddy Blueger in the second round of the 2012 draft, following the first-round selections of Pouliot and Maatta.
Of the notable defensemen drafted early by Shero (from 2006 – 2013), just three remain — Pouliot, Maatta and Dumoulin. All were acquired at the 2012 NHL Draft, and each is a safe bet to be an NHL regular as soon as the coming season.
What the Penguins get in Kessel, though, is exactly what they need. They finished 19th in goals-for last season, the first time in Crosby’s career that the team finished in the lesser half of the league in that regard. They averaged a playoffs-low 1.6 goals per game, and outside of an injured David Perron and Patric Hornqvist were unable to provide a semblance of top-six winger talent for Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to work with.
Kessel is on a different level, squarely among the league’s elite goal-scoring forwards and overall point producers in the last five years. It’s quite a resume for a player who spent most of that time with a trash can franchise in Toronto.
But, like so many deals before this one, it comes at the expense of the Pens’ defensive depth. And if you count graduations to the NHL roster, that depth is all but gone.
If Shero was panned for drafting too many defensemen, Rutherford’s tenure might be bagged for the opposite. The team has had just nine draft picks (of a standard 14) in the 2014 and 2015 Drafts, and only one — a seventh-rounder in 2014 — was used on a defenseman.
Fine and good — you deal with what you have. In the last calendar year, however, Rutherford has traded four Shero draft picks in Despres, Bortuzzo, Harrington and Samuelsson. Despres and Bortuzzo returned Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole, at least.
Accounting for the graduations of Dumoulin and Pouliot and the trade of Harrington, Pittsburgh’s top defense prospect, as rated by Hockey’s Future, is now Nick D’Agostino.
These annual youth shipments are not the sort of things teams do with an eye toward long-term excellence. The Penguins have the second-longest playoff streak in the league. Kessel undeniably makes Pittsburgh a more formidable team. Right now, the Crosby-era Cup window is a little wider with him in the fold.
Five years from now, however, this carriage is going to make quite a pumpkin.