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A history of discontent: The story of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the NHL Draft

by David Finoli

Stanley Cup flag photo courtesy of Sideline Swap.

When opening up the 2023 Hockey News Draft Preview this Saturday, they had a stat that

calculated the percentage of draft picks in the third round or below in the 2005-2022 drafts that played in 100 or more NHL games in their career. The concept was simple and appealing— it was to see which teams were best at picking the so-called diamonds-in-the-rough in the later rounds.

Draft 412 was expecting the Penguins to be rated quite low, following their recent philosophy of dumping draft picks for the end of season trades that supposedly gave the team a better chance of capturing their sixth Stanley Cup championship.

What we found, however, was stunning.

Sixteen of the 76 team draft picks in that period of time played the minimum 100 NHL games for a 21.1%, third in the league. They include players like Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray and Bryan Rust—four that helped them capture their last two titles in 2016 and 2017.

This fact informs two things. First, during that era, the Pens selected really well late in drafts,

finally fixing their historic woes and helping them win three titles in the Sidney Crosby era.

But secondly, the last player on the list stuck out to Draft 412—Dominik Simon. Simon, drafted seven years ago in 2015, opened our eyes to the return of the historic problems of the organization. It revealed with what few picks they’d had during that stretch, how little NHL talent was found and instead, looked more like the drafts of yore...filled with many saying, “What the heck were they thinking?”

In the entirety of the Pens history, the Crosby era has been their best drafting period by far. Ironically, it started seven years before their legendary star was selected. In 1998, they took defenseman, Rob Scuderi, in the fifth round. A year later, Ryan Malone was a fourth-round choice, and the construction of the greatest era of Penguins hockey was on. The first pick of the 21st century was Brooks Orpik, while Colby Armstrong went number one in 2001. Ryan Whitney was the fifth overall pick in the first round in 2002 with game seven hero in the 2009 Stanley Cup finals, Max Talbot, who was an afterthought at the time, being taken in the eighth round the same year. Marc-Andre Fleury became the highest goalie ever picked as the number one overall choice in 2003 with fellow future Hall of Famer Evgeni Malkin being the second choice in 2004, with Tyler Kennedy going fourth.

Finally, in 2005, the Pens shockingly received the first pick in the entire draft in the NHL's unique lottery after the lockout that saw every team eligible for the number one pick in a lottery that was weighted in the three prior seasons and first overall choices in the previous four years. They of course took Crosby and the championship era--which saw them win three cups and make the playoffs 16 straight seasons--began. It was a vast contrast to how they succeeded in their first thirty drafts. Mostly failures with the occasional lucky day in the sun.

It all began with their first two picks: number two overall pick in 1967, goaltender, Steve Rexe,

and the number 11 choice in that same round, Bob Smith. Who were Steve Rexe and Bob Smith? Exactly. Two players that provided no help whatsoever to the franchise. Welcome to Pittsburgh Penguin draft history.

Gary Swain was taken first a year later and became the first draft pick to make the NHL, scoring one career goal in nine Pens contests. He went on to have a nondescript WHA career but that doesn’t exactly make him a franchise icon.

In 1969, they finally took that first lucky choice when they selected a smallish 5’10” center who

had a successful career at Shawinigan of the Quebec Junior league in the third round, Michel Briere.

While they didn’t expect immediate impact from their selection, he came on strong towards the end of the year and led them to the final four in their third season. He was exceptional in the opening round playoff series against the Oakland Seals, and the future indeed looked bright.

Two years later he was dead after spending eleven months in a coma following a car accident. His name is celebrated in the rafters at PPG Paints Arena next to Mario Lemieux as the only numbers retired by the club...number 21... just like another Pittsburgh hero, Roberto Clemente, who also died tragically,only two years after Briere.

They did have some success in the draft soon after, taking Greg Polis in the first round a year

later and goaltender, Dennis Herron, in 1972. In between there were too many Brian McKenzies and John Stewarts. The next year they took Blaine Stoughton with the seventh overall pick. He scored exactly five goals in his Penguin career. In true franchise luck, during that time period, he went on to score 52 goals for Cincinnati in the WHA, then twice broke that magic plateau with the Hartford Whalers in the NHL. That same year, they did take three players who did play with the team, Wayne Bianchin--who eclipsed over 20 goals twice with the team--Colin Campbell--a solid defender who became the safety czar in the NHL--and Dennis Owchar. A good haul for sure but not one that would make them champions.

In 1974, they got lucky again with the selection of Pierre Larouche from Sorel. Like Briere, he

surprisingly made the team his first season and eventually became the franchise’s first 100-point scorer. They chose his teammate Jacques Cossette in the second. Lightning didn't strike twice as he netted eight goals in his NHL career.

1975 saw them take the poster child for poor Penguin drafts in goalie, Gord Laxton. Their

number one pick played in 17 NHL career contests. Blair Chapman and Greg Malone made 1976 a

successful draft while hoping for their fourth round pick in 1977. Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson became an exciting one three years later as he started for the United States Miracle on Ice squad in 1980. It was a huge deal when he signed with the club following his gold medal performance. Unfortunately, he was not that player for Pittsburgh.

They did select the Bullet, Mike Bullard, first in 1980 and picked up Doug Shedden in the fifth

round that year, but following that up with the likes of Steve Gatzos and Rich Sutter put them in a

similar position as they had been in through most of their of the worst teams in the


Finally, after the great tanking of 1983-84, they received the first pick in the draft and used it on the greatest athlete in Pittsburgh Sports History (according to my book, Pittsburgh’s Greatest Athletes), Mario Lemieux. It was at that point the fortunes of the franchise finally pointed up.

The drafts were solid if unspectacular following that until they plucked Hall of Famer Mark

Recchi in the fourth round in 1988. Two years later, Jaromir Jagr was the undisputed best player available who told teams he would stay in Czechoslovakia if he was picked by them. It was a lie. In reality, he wanted to play with Lemieux and the Penguins, who took him with the fifth choice. Two of the best players of all time together. That same season, the unthinkable happened, they won their first of two Stanley Cups.

While they took three Hall of Famers in six years of drafting, it was a team that was mainly put

together via astute trades by general manager, Craig Patrick. Finally, in 1998, they figured it out. You can in fact build a championship team through the draft. Hopefully, the new management staff that the Fenway Sports Group will be hiring will figure it out soon.

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