As long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup, the team is considered a threat to win the Stanley Cup. With the results of the draft lottery giving the first-overall pick to one of the eight teams that lose in the play-in round, the Penguins have an opportunity to extend their championship window. That’s only possible if they lose to the Montreal Canadiens and win the NHL Draft Lottery for the first-overall pick. Winning the lottery will ease the team’s transition into a post-Crosby and Malkin era as well.
They will have a 12.5% chance at drafting first overall in the upcoming draft. It’s fair to assume they will select Alexis Lafrenière as he has been projected as the first-overall pick for some time.
Penguins History of Great First-Overall Picks
The Penguins were in danger of folding when the team decided to tank for Mario Lemieux in the 1983-84 season. The team had three six-game losing streaks in the last 21 games to have a worse record than the New Jersey Devils and draft Lemieux. As a Penguin, he scored 690 goals and 1,723 points in 915 games. He captained the team to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1990-91 and 1991-92.
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He won the Calder Trophy in 1984-85, three Hart Memorial Trophies, six Art Ross Trophies and the Conn Smythe Trophy twice. After his first retirement in 1997, Lemieux saved the team from folding for the second time by becoming a majority owner of the franchise. He returned from retirement during the 2000-01 season and became the first player-owner in league history.
The next first-overall pick for the franchise came in the 2003 NHL draft when the Penguins drafted Marc Andre-Fleury. They traded Mikael Samuelsson, the third-overall pick and the 55th-overall pick to the Florida Panthers for the first-overall pick and the 73rd-overall pick. (from ‘HOCKEY; Penguins Trade Up to Pick Goalie No. 1,’ The New York Times, 05/22/2003) He became the third goalie to be drafted with the first-overall pick in NHL history.
Fleury started for the Penguins when the team lost in the 2007-08 Stanley Cup Final and when they won in 2008-09. He won two more Cups as the backup in 2015-16 and played 15 playoff games before Matt Murray returned from injury in 2016-17.
After the 2004-05 lockout, the Penguins won the NHL lottery for the first-overall draft pick to select a generational talent in Crosby. He currently has 462 goals and 1,263 points in 984 games. His 15-season tenure with the Penguins has resulted in the captain leading the team to three Stanley Cups. He has made eight All-Star appearances, won the Conn Smythe Trophy twice, the Hart Memorial Trophy twice, the Art Ross Trophy twice and the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy twice.
If the Penguins win the lottery for the upcoming NHL draft, Lafrenière will be the fourth player in franchise history to be selected with the first-overall pick. He will have to follow the footsteps of three players who have had successful careers with the team.
What Lafrenière Brings to Pittsburgh
The Penguins are ranked 30th in prospect pools by The Hockey Writers. Since the team has been in win-now mode for some time, general manager Jim Rutherford has not focused on drafting in the earlier rounds as other teams have. Their 2019 first-round selection of Samuel Poulin was the first the team made in five years.
If Lafrenière goes first overall in this year’s draft, he will be the first French Canadian since Fleury to do so. It will only be fitting if the Penguins are the team to make that happen. Lafrenière is the first first-overall pick of the QMJHL Rimouski Oceanic since Crosby. He dominated with 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games this season. He led Canada to gold at the World Junior Championship with 4 goals and 10 points in 5 games and was named the tournament’s MVP.
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THW’s Josh Bell describes Lafrenière as an all-round, elite player with an offensive gift. His strengths come from his hockey sense, offensive ability, shot, skating and creativity, while he has no true weaknesses. His skating and shooting tendencies were questionable entering this season but he has improved on both aspects.
Where Lafrenière Fits
Although Lafrenière helps in a post-Crosby and Malkin era, he will be useful in the current era as well. Bell believes Lafrenière can play in the NHL immediately and even in the top six for some teams. There’s no better top six in the NHL for Lafrenière to join next season than the Penguins.
First Line: Lafrenière – Crosby – Zucker
Since the team added Jason Zucker, he has been a great fit with Crosby so far. He has 6 goals and 12 points in 15 games with the Penguins. He can play both left and right wing, which allows Lafrenière to play on Crosby’s left side.
The trio can dominate together and the experience of playing with the Penguins’ captain allows for Lafrenière to learn and develop rapidly while playing with one of the game’s best players. Playing him on the team’s first line allows Jake Guentzal and Bryan Rust to flank Malkin on the second line.
Second Line: Lafrenière – Malkin – Rust
If the experiment with Crosby doesn’t work out for the potential first-overall pick, the Penguins are lucky to have Malkin as a backup plan. Adding an all-around talent to his line has always been beneficial for the Penguins. James Neal and Phil Kessel had career years while playing with the Russian center. It’s only fair to assume with the skill set Lafrenière brings, at some point he will achieve similar results. Adding Rust to the mix, a player who continues to get better, will only help the French Canadian’s game.
Third Line: Lafrenière – McCann – Hornqvist
If Lafrenière is not ready to play on the top two lines immediately, head coach Mike Sullivan can add another lethal line for the Penguins. Similar to the HBK line, which was made up of Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin that posted a combined 56 points in the 2015-16 Stanely Cup playoffs and the Jordan Staal third line from 2008-09, Lafrenière on the third line would add depth scoring, which makes it difficult for teams to defend against. Since joining the team, Jared McCann is slowly developing into a reliable depth offensive player for the Penguins and his game will only improve with the future first-overall pick on his line.
Penguins Window Open Much Longer
Adding Lafrenière extends the Crosby and Malkin era a lot longer and keeps the championship window open. Gaining a player on a rookie contract with the ability to play in the team’s top six makes Rutherford’s job easier as he does not have to pay a player a large sum for the same skill set. Lafrenière creates a future for the post-Crosby-Malkin era. Instead of having to worry about rebuilding for years after the two retire, the team can build around him.
Crosby and Malkin will be mentors to Lafrenière, similar to how Lemeiux mentored Crosby in his rookie season. With both players in their 30’s, it is hard to fathom life for the Penguins without their two-headed dragon, but Lafrenière will ease the pain during that transition.
Lafrenière Will Ease Rutherford’s Troubles
The Penguins winning the first-overall pick will change the team’s direction for the next 10 seasons. Instead of having to rebuild or retool soon, the team can continue to be in win-now mode with Lafrenière. It will be the fourth first-overall pick in franchise history and brings an all-around talent with the potential to play on the same level as Malkin and Crosby. Lafrenière could fit in on any line in the top nine for the Penguins in his first few seasons. He provides a future for the team when their two franchise players retire.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.