For the Pittsburgh Penguins, the annual NHL Entry Draft often feels like a chore rather than an event with massive implications. Part of that could be because only four Penguins draft picks since 2015 have reached the NHL, and two of them made their debuts with different teams. There’s no exact way of blaming a stat like that, but former general manager Jim Rutherford didn’t have the highest draft pedigree during his Pittsburgh tenure.
Now, it’s Ron Hextall’s turn to take a swing at a Penguins draft, and he’s sure had his work cut out for him. Heading into the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, the Penguins only had five picks. That may not seem awful, but you have to delve into the details to see how much of a challenge it will be.
For the fifth time in seven years, the Penguins were without a first-round draft pick and didn’t select until 58th overall in the second round. The Penguins wouldn’t be back on the clock again for almost 100 picks. Round five, 154th overall, would be their second selection. Then no more picks until the last round, where the Penguins had three selections in the final 30 of the entire draft.
The Penguins have one of the worst prospect pools in the league and picking with those five selections is not an easy way to make it stronger. Some moving up and trades were expected, but none happened. Here is how Hextall and the Penguins selected in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
Round 2 (58th overall): Tristan Broz
A 6-foot center out of the USHL, Broz played with the Fargo Force. An appropriate team name as Broz can be described as a force on the ice. Hungry for the puck at all times, he is capable of playing a full 200-foot game and is described by eliteprospects.com as a “shark sniffing out blood in the water.” During the 2020-21 season with the Force, he played in 54 games scoring 19 goals and 32 assists for 51 points, just under a point per game.
According to Penguins Director of Player Personnel Chris Pryor, since the USHL had a full season, the team had a good feel for how talented a player Broz is. A full season means plenty of footage and viewing opportunities to see what is good and what can be tinkered with growing in the Penguins system.
Pittsburgh fans love a good Sidney Crosby connection, and there is a small one between the captain and Broz. When he was 14, he spent a season playing hockey with Shattuck St. Mary’s where Crosby, and many other NHLers, famously called home for a time during their high school days.
Broz has committed to playing NCAA hockey with the University of Minnesota, so his jump to the NHL is still some time away, but he gives Pens fans a reason to watch some college hockey this upcoming season.
Round 5 (154th Overall): Isaac Belliveau
96 picks later, the Penguins were back on the clock. The first of three straight defensemen taken by Pittsburgh, Belliveau fit the description of the kind of players Hextall and Bryan Burke were aiming for: Size and skill. Standing at 6-foot-2, he was selected from the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL.
Do you want another Crosby connection? Belliveau played parts of three seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic, where Crosby played during his junior career in the QMJHL. Belliveau played with Rimouski at the start of the 2020-21 season and was sent to Gatineau after 16 games.
In 37 games between Rimouski and Gatineau, he scored five goals and 12 assists for 17 points. However, as a defenseman, Pryor says that Belliveau has a little edge to his game and can play both sides of the puck. As he matures, his game should, too.
According to Pryor, the Penguins wanted to draft with size without compromising skill, and Belliveau checked many of the boxes the team was looking for. The scouting staff in Pittsburgh believe he can make it to the NHL one day.
Round 7 (194th Overall): Ryan McCleary
Strap in, it was a busy closing round for the Penguins. With their first pick in the seventh round, Pittsburgh took McCleary of the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL. At 6-feet, 154 pounds, he doesn’t quite fit the bill of size that the Penguins were shooting for. But what he lacks in size, he makes up for in potential.
Still not 18-years-old, McCleary is one of the youngest players from the entire draft, and the Penguins saw that as an opportunity. There is still plenty of time to grow and develop into a top-tier player. He may seem like more of a project pick, but there are still possibilities for his future.
McCleary has a hockey bloodline, as well. Trent played 192 games in the NHL as a forward for the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, and Ottawa Senators.
Round 7 (215th Overall): Daniel Laatsch
The last defender taken by the Penguins, he is another player fitting the bill of big and skilled. Standing at 6-foot-5, Pittsburgh took Laatsch from the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. An Altoona native (Wisconsin, not Pennsylvania), he brings the size but has to reel in his skill.
A left-handed defender, he will have his opportunity to grow as a player when he joins the University of Wisconsin. Laatsch suiting up for the Badgers will be a must-see for Pens fans when he faces off against Golden Gopher Broz.
Round 7 (218th Overall): Kirill Tankov
With their final pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, the Penguins select their first player from outside North America. Tankov is from Russia and was a pick that came out of left field since he was not ranked on any scouting service. He will likely continue to play in Russia for a few years to develop, with Pryor saying there is no rush to bring him to North America.
When discussing the selection, Pryor noted that the Penguins recently hired Russian scout Alexander Khavanov. He is the one behind this selection. Kavanov had a good feeling about Tankov and the Penguins took the opportunity.
A versatile forward, Tankov can play center and wing, Khavanov will continue to watch him grow and develop on the ice. A winger who has that sort of versatile ability can be a useful asset for the team.
Right away in his first draft with the Penguins, you can see the sharp differences between Rutherford and Hextall. Where Rutherford made a lot of choices from European countries like Finland or Sweden, Hextall zoned in on North American players. Admittedly, this draft was of particular obscurity. Teams weren’t able to perform traditional scouting tactics and couldn’t really travel to see the players in person, so things were going to be hard from the beginning.
With that being said, however, there is a heightened chance that late-round picks could turn out to be diamonds in the rough. For now, no one should be counted out.
Sometimes it’s hard to get excited about the Draft, especially as a Penguins fan and there’s rarely a first-round pick to rally around. As mentioned before, only four Pens selections have played in NHL games, two of which not with Pittsburgh. Surely, that number is bound to change with the evolution of Sam Poulin and Nathan Lagare in the Penguins’ system.
Pryor preached patience with each of the selections made this year and to rely on the development staff that they can turn these prospects into NHL-caliber players. Only time will tell if any of the five selections will breakthrough. The names may not be notable right now, but they are worth keeping an eye on as they progress in their development and journey to the NHL.