The Pittsburgh Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin but they can’t score every night. The reason why the Penguins have had so much success over the past decade is because of their depth. Although the team hasn’t had many high draft selections, they have been able to balance their lineup by hitting the jackpot with mid-range picks.
Every team is going to get lucky once in a while and draft a mid-range player with first-round talent. However, doing it year after year isn’t luck, it’s skill. Although most of the players we’re going to talk about have played under current general manager Jim Rutherford, former general manager Ray Shero deserves a ton of credit for drafting most of them.
The First Steal of the Current Era: Kris Letang
Kris Letang: 2005 Draft Class, 3rd Round, 62nd Overall (808 NHL Games Played, 127 Goals, 537 Points)
If you surveyed NHL fans, I’d imagine most of them would think that Letang was a first-round pick. His skating alone should have made him a high draft pick, but instead, he fell to 62nd overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Not only do the Penguins get an A+ for drafting Crosby first-overall, but the ability to steal Letang so late in this draft was brilliant.
From the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, at one point or another, six of the top 14 players in scoring have played with the Penguins. Although they only drafted two of them (Letang and Crosby), it shows how dialled-in the Penguins’ front office has been in the last 15 years. Letang has yet to win a Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, but he’s a six-time All-Star with three Stanley Cup championships and will most likely be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame when his career is over.
The Early 2010s: Bryan Rust and Matt Murray
Bryan Rust: 2010 Draft Class, 3rd Round, 80th Overall (308 NHL Games Played, 78 Goals, 170 Points)
After being drafted in 2010, it took Rust roughly five years to crack the Penguins full-time and he hasn’t looked back. The Notre Dame alum played all four years of college before becoming a professional. Although that’s not the typical path of an NHL player, Rust was worth the wait.
As a speedy winger with a ton of skill, Rust has fit in well playing alongside either Malkin or Crosby. Finishing his first career season as a point-per-game player, with 56 points in 55 games, Rust has not been shy in big-game moments. Known as Mr. Elimination for scoring game-winning goals in do-or-die games, Rust was clutch during the playoffs in his first two seasons and a huge reason why the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
Matt Murray: 2012 Draft Class, 3rd Round, 83rd Overall (201 NHL Games Played, 118-53-20 Record, 2.65 GAA, .914 SV%)
After a decade of great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins found his successor just in time. Selected in one of the deepest goaltender drafts of the past 20 years that included Joonas Korpisalo, Frederik Andersen, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck, Murray is the only player to lead his team to a Stanley Cup, and he did it twice.
Murray’s stats weren’t exactly great with the Soo Greyhounds when the Penguins drafted him. With a 4.08 goals-against average (GAA) and .876 save percentage (SV%), he split time with Jack Campbell, and it was unsure what type of goaltender he was going to become. With great height at 6-foot-4, his game got significantly better during his last year in junior, and he kept that momentum going in the American Hockey League. Flash forward a few seasons, and Murray was the starting goaltender for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.
Drafting and developing a future superstar is hard to do, but to do it year after year is almost impossible. The ability to see the future takes skill and Murray was the tenth goaltender selected in his draft class. I’m sure the Penguins didn’t envision a future that included Murray backing the team to two straight Stanley Cup championships so soon, but that’s what happened in 2016 and 2017.
2013: Jake Guentzel & Tristan Jarry
Tristan Jarry: 2013 Draft Class, 2nd Round, 44th overall (62 NHL Games Played, 34-20-4 Record, 2.61 GAA, .914 SV%)
If you compare goaltenders by statistics alone, Jarry and Murray are identical. When you look back at this selection, it’s crazy to think that the Penguins drafted Jarry one year after Murray, especially while Fleury was still in his prime. Then again, the Penguins’ executive team deserves a ton of credit for predicting the future with these mid-range picks, as they not only grabbed one starting goaltender in 2012 (Murray) but another one in Jarry in 2013.
Although it was shocking that the Penguins selected Jarry with their first pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, it’s even more shocking that he fell to the 44th selection. With a 1.61 GAA and .936 SV%, Jarry was unbelievable during his draft year and only improved afterwards, leading his team to a Memorial Cup. After spending a few seasons between the NHL and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, he has now established himself as a starting goaltender in the NHL, and he and Murray make up one of the best tandems in the league.
Jake Guentzel: 2013 Draft Class, 3rd Round, 77th Overall (243 NHL Games Played, 98 goals, 200 points)
When TSN released their Top 50 NHL player ranking earlier this year, Guentzel was 35th. For a player who was selected 77th overall, that’s great value, which is exactly what the Penguins have been delivering over the past decade. It doesn’t matter whether or not they have a first-round pick. The Penguins have found first-round talent late in the draft.
After jumping into the NHL midway through the 2016-17 season, Guentzel provided an offensive spark for the Penguins, especially during their playoff run. Finishing first in goals, he played a huge part in the Penguins’ Stanley Cup victory in his rookie season. Although Guentzel has the benefit of playing on Crosby’s wing on most nights, his speed and forechecking ability has been a great complement to his linemate.
When it comes to third-round talent, you’re not going to find a much better player than Guentzel. Listed at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, it’s not surprising that it took 77 picks for him to be selected. Many teams still over-valued size, which I’m sure they now regret. For a franchise that selected Letang, Murray, Rust and Jarry outside of the first round, it’s no surprise that Guentzel turned into a magnificent winger.
More Notable Mid-Range Draftees They Traded
The Penguins have a bundle of talent they’ve drafted and developed who are currently on the roster, but there are also a few others they’ve traded away. The 2007 NHL Entry Draft was another great year for the Penguins but they traded away two notable names before they could establish themselves in Pittsburgh.
Robert Bortuzzo (3rd Round, 78th overall) turned into a steady NHL defenseman when he was traded to the St. Louis Blues after playing 113 games in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Jake Muzzin (5th Round, 141st overall) was unsigned by Pittsburgh after they drafted him, and is now a two-time Stanley Cup champion and a top-pairing defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Although we’ve yet to see a player drafted after 2015 in Pittsburgh’s lineup, most of these players took a minimum of three to five years to make the NHL. Based on the Penguins’ drafting track record, it will be no surprise if many high draft picks end up becoming full-time NHLers sooner than later.