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Pens' Letang takes Class of 2005 up a level

| Monday, June 29, 2009

Without the other kid selected by the Penguins in the 2005 entry draft, Sid the Kid might not have become the youngest captain in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup.

Crosby, their 21-year-old captain and goal-scoring leader in 2009 playoffs, was the first overall pick in 2005. Selecting him was the no-brain choice of this hockey generation for then-Penguins general manager Craig Patrick.

"That's true," Penguins goalie coach Gilles Meloche said, "but we got one hell of a bargain with that third-round pick."

Without that pick — a slick, right-handed shooting defenseman named Kris Letang - the Penguins would not have won the Stanley Cup earlier this month, Meloche said. And they certainly wouldn't be such a popular pick to contend for future championships.

"The Penguins came out of the 2005 draft with two cornerstone players," International Scouting Services' Mike Oke said. "I'm not talking about high-end players. I'm talking about two guys you'll build around for a decade."

Keep that in mind four years from today when analyzing the Penguins' 2009 draft class, which includes four defensemen who hope to one day join Letang at Consol Energy Center.

That under-construction new arena is where Letang figures to spend a lot of time over the next several seasons. The Penguins have identified signing him to a long-term contract as a top priority this offseason.

Letang, 22, will count $835,000 against the cap next season, the last of his three-year entry-level deal. With 18 goals and 52 points already on his NHL resume — not counting four goals and 13 points this past postseason — Letang likely will command an annual salary of at least $3 million on his next contract.

That thought of signing a big-money contract with the Penguins brought a sheepish smile to Letang's face this weekend at the NHL entry draft at Bell Center in his hometown Montreal.

Another thought constantly popped into his head as he watched the proceedings.

"I was at home for mine, watching on TV and following it on the computer," he said of the 2005 draft. "Now, seeing this and how much excitement it brings for the players and the families, maybe I should have come.

"Nobody could tell me if I would go at the end of the first round, the last round or not at all. I had no feeling about it. So, when I was drafted, I just moved on quick. It wasn't real emotional. I started thinking about how long it would take me to play for the Penguins about five minutes after they picked me."

Letang, now 6-foot and 201 pounds, has grown in height and packed on almost two-dozen pounds of muscle over the past four years — making him a tougher defensive player than many scouts anticipated from watching him dominate offensively from the blueline in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

His teammate with Val d'Or, late Vancouver prospect Luc Bourdon, was the highest-profile player on that squad. He was chosen fifth overall by the Canucks.

"No disrespect to Luc, but every time I watched Val d'Or play that year, I came away liking Kris better," Red Line Report chief scout Kyle Woodlief said. "The only thing that kept Kris from going higher was nobody really knew how the new rules would affect a defenseman like him."

As former Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher said Saturday after wrapping his first draft as Minnesota's general manger, "this NHL ended up being perfect for a skilled player like Kris."

Letang ended up being perfect for the Penguins. His fast maturation, along with that of young defenseman Alex Goligoski, allowed them in late February to trade Ryan Whitney — once considered the heir-apparent to Sergei Gonchar as the franchise's No. 1 defenseman — to acquire winger Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi.

Kunitz proved a physical complement to Crosby on the top line, and Tangradi is the franchise's best power-forward prospect in almost 15 years.

So, even though only two players from their 2005 class have played for them to date, the Penguins can consider that a vintage year.

"In theory you can do better than getting Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang in the same draft," Oke said. "But in reality, not by much."

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