The modern NHL has taught us that first-round picks are as valuable as gold, but the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t see it that way. Instead, they’ve seen their first-round picks as important trade chips to acquire veteran talent either at the NHL Trade Deadline or during the offseason.
The Penguins may not have won a Stanley Cup every season they’ve traded their first-round pick, but Jim Rutherford has done an incredible job at putting them in a position to compete year-after-year. Even prior to Rutherford joining the team in 2014, the Penguins haven’t been scared to sacrifice first-round talent in order to give themselves a chance at a Stanley Cup. Let’s look back at a few key trades that include the team shipping away their first-round draft pick.
The Marian Hossa Trade
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis
Atlanta Trashers acquire: Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and 2008 first-round pick
Who Was the First-Round Pick? Daultan Leveille (29th overall) – 0 NHL Games Played
Although Rutherford wasn’t the general manager of the Penguins at this time, this is where the trade history of their first-round pick begins in relation to their recent success. At the time of this trade, Hossa was already a six-time 30-goal scorer in the NHL and was the most sought-after player at the trade deadline.
When this trade was made, Dupuis could have been seen as a thrown-in with Hossa for roster reasons, but instead he turned into a key player for the Penguins for almost a decade. Dupuis compiled double-digit goal seasons in five straight years after the trade to Pittsburgh, even scoring 25 goals in the 2011-12 campaign.
Related: Revisiting the Brent Burns Trade
As mentioned before, Hossa was the key piece in this trade and the first veteran player to be acquired in exchange for their first-round pick. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin about to hit their prime, the Penguins understood that Hossa’s already-established skillsets would be better utilized than a first-round pick. More times than not, that late-round draft pick doesn’t even turn into an NHL player, so the Penguins understood that Hossa could be that key piece to help get Crosby his first championship.
Hossa scored 26 points in a 20-game playoff run with the Penguins and helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1992. Although Hossa and the Penguins would ultimately lose in six games to the Detroit Red Wings and fall short of a championship, this trade was the first of many that involved dealing their first-round pick to improve their team in the short-term.
The Next Two Trades: Jarome Iginla & David Perron
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Jarome Iginla
Calgary Flames acquire: Kenny Agostino, Ben Hanowski and 2013 first-round pick
Who Was the First-Round Pick? Morgan Klimchuk (28th overall) – 1 NHL Games Played, 0 points
After playing with the Calgary Flames since 1996, Iginla was traded to the Penguins to pursue a Stanley Cup. In a shortened season, it felt like anything could happen and any team had a chance at the Cup. Iginla proved to be a great addition to the Penguins team that already had firepower in Crosby and Malkin.
At 35 years old, having yet to win a Stanley Cup, Iginla gave everything he had during his short stint in Pittsburgh. Finishing with 12 points in 15 playoff games, he was fourth on the team in playoff scoring. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh’s luck ran out when they lost in the Eastern Conference Final to Boston, ultimately halting Iginla’s chances at winning the Stanley Cup.
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: David Perron
Edmonton Oilers acquire: Rob Klinkhammer and 2015 first-round pick
Who Was the First-Round Pick? Mathew Barzal (16th overall) – 234 NHL Games, 59 goals, 207 points
The Penguins kept the trend going of trading their first-round pick in exchange for another team’s former first-round pick. When you think about it, that’s just smart business. Why hold onto a draft pick that may turn into a serviceable NHL player in five years, when you can acquire a former first-round pick that’s a proven 20-goal scorer?
With this trade, we finally enter the Rutherford Era, which is a wonderful few years for Penguins fans. As we look back at these trades, there’s not a single player so far that the Penguins have regretted trading or trading for. The players in recent trades have only played half a season with Pittsburgh, but Perron was an exception.
Related: Worst Trades in Oilers’ History
Rutherford did an incredible job with this trade because he was able to test-drive Perron for one year and then trade that asset later. Perron wasn’t the dynamic scorer like Iginla or Hossa had been for the Penguins, so after one year, Rutherford traded Perron for Carl Hagelin. The speedy winger, Hagelin would end up being a great addition to the Stanley Cup-winning teams in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The Phil Kessel Trade
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Phil Kessel, Tim Erixon, Tyler Biggs, 2016 conditional second-round pick
Toronto Maple Leafs acquire: Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling, 2016 conditional first-round pick, 2016 third-round pick
Who Was the First-Round Pick? Sam Steel (30th Overall) – 87 NHL Games Played, 12 Goals, 33 Points
Rutherford deserves a statue outside of PPG Paints Arena because of this trade. Kessel was a player that was never going to work out in Toronto long-term. He has unbelievable skill, but he’s not the type of player that should be the leader of a team. Instead, Kessel’s role is better utilized as the third or fourth piece for a championship team and that’s exactly what happened when he was traded to Pittsburgh.
The Rutherford move was strategic and, as you can see, had a very important condition. If Pittsburgh missed the 2016 playoffs, Toronto would receive the Penguins’ 2017 first-round pick and Pittsburgh would receive Toronto’s 2017 second-round pick in return. That’s so important because if for whatever reason the Penguins had a terrible season, they could have kept the pick. Although we’ve seen that first-round picks don’t really matter with Pittsburgh, holding onto that pick would have been huge because they could have in turn traded it or drafted at a great position.
Obviously the opposite happened with the acquisition of Kessel. As the third superstar alongside Crosby and Malkin, Kessel was in a perfect situation. In his first two seasons with the Penguins, he showed the world what he could do on a good NHL team and arguably should have won a Conn Smythe Trophy for his play in the 2015-16 playoffs, leading all Penguins in scoring. Kessel was amazing during his run with the Penguins and was a huge reason why the team won back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.
The Last Three Trades: Reaves, Brassard and Zucker
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Ryan Reaves and second-round pick
St. Louis Blues acquire: Oskar Sundqvist and 2017 first-round pick
Who Was the First-Round Pick? Klim Kostin (31st Overall) – 4 NHL Games Played, 1 goal, 1 point
Looking to acquire some grit and strength, the Penguins traded a first-round pick, along with Sundqvist for Reaves. In terms of trade grades, Rutherford probably deserves an “F” for this one. Sundqvist has turned into a steady NHL player for the Blues with back-to-back, double-digit goal seasons, while Reaves was gone after only 58 games.
He has been a great addition to the Vegas Golden Knights and probably should have been given a longer look in Pittsburgh, but giving up a first-round pick hasn’t come back to haunt Rutherford and the Penguins.
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Derick Brassard, Vincent Dunn and 2018 third-round pick
Ottawa Senators acquire: Filip Gustavvson, Ian Cole, 2019 third-round pick and 2018 first-round pick
Who Was the First-Round Pick? K’Andre Miller (22nd Overall), 0 NHL Games Played
At the time of this trade, Brassard was one of the most highly touted players at the NHL Trade Deadline. Like he’s done a number of times already, Rutherford was going to find a way to win this sweepstakes. In terms of pieces, Rutherford gave up a lot for Brassard but in reality, it wasn’t much. Gustavvson may end up becoming an NHL goaltender but if he does, it probably won’t be for another three or four seasons. Meanwhile, Cole could be easily replaced on defense. Although Brassard didn’t live up to potential with Pittsburgh, it didn’t hurt the future of the Penguins by taking a chance at the deadline.
Pittsburgh Penguins acquire: Jason Zucker
Minnesota Wild acquire: Calen Addison, Alex Galchenyuk, 2020 conditional first-round pick
Who Was the First-Round Pick? To Be Determined
The last trade of our journey is the most recent acquisition of Jason Zucker. Although Zucker had three years left on his contract, it wasn’t a shock that the 28-year-old was sent to Pittsburgh. (from ‘Not everyone is fully on board with Jason Zucker’s trade to Penguins,’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 02/11/2020) Similar to the Kessel deal, Rutherford was smart with this trade, putting a condition on the pick. If Pittsburgh makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they wouldn’t have to give up their first-round pick in 2020, but instead in 2021.
After the NHL lottery system made it so that one of the losing qualifying-round teams will receive the first-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, it’s extra important that Pittsburgh put a condition on their pick. The last thing Rutherford wanted was to be like the San Jose Sharks who didn’t make the playoffs and still had to give their high draft pick to the Ottawa Senators. Although we’ve only seen a small sample size of Zucker thus far, he’s fitting in perfectly in Pittsburgh right now and will most likely be another player traded for a first-round pick that has success with the Penguins.
The Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs since 2006 and although you can look at Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and solid goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray over the years as the reason, a lot of the success has been through the trade market and not being afraid of trading draft picks. The Penguins are one of the winningest NHL franchises over the past 15 years and it wouldn’t be a surprise if that continues for another 15 years with this great strategy of trading draft picks for quality NHL talent.