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For Penguins, NHL draft remains about assets

| Saturday, June 21, 2014, 9:20 p.m.
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The Hurricanes' Jordan Staal skates with the puck during their game against the Blue Jackets on March 29, 2014 in Raleigh, N.C.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Penguins selected defenseman Olli Maatta with the 22nd overall pick in the first round of the NHL Draft on June 22, 2012, at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Penguins defenseman Simon Despres skates during development camp on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Jason Botterill would waste a lot of time if he listened to opinions about the Penguins' drafts under his former boss, Ray Shero.

“I've heard positive narratives and negative narratives,” said Botterill, associate general manager under new general manager Jim Rutherford. “I know this: You can't hold the 2014 staff accountable for the 2007 draft. I'm excited for what we produced in 2012, but a true evaluation won't come for another eight years.”

If the 2012 NHL Entry Draft that produced this past season's rookie sensation, defenseman Olli Maatta, is still an open book, most of the other seven under Shero cannot be fairly evaluated either because the Penguins rarely picked when the can't-miss talent was available, independent scout Kyle Woodlief said.

Shero's highest pick was center Jordan Staal at No. 2 overall in 2006, but he made that selection only a month after taking over for former general manager Craig Patrick. Shero's only other pick inside the top 20 came in 2012, when he moved Staal for a package that included the No. 8 selection.

“There aren't a lot of players picked between 25 and 30 that you can say, ‘We know that guy would be a stud,' ” Woodlief said. “The real studs don't make it out of the top three.”

Day 1 of the 2014 Entry Draft is Friday, and the Penguins are slotted to pick 22nd. Their remaining selections will be made Saturday, and the Penguins are scheduled to pick in Rounds 4-7.

“It's odd from a Pittsburgh perspective,” said Woodlief, who runs the Red Line Report scouting service. “There's like three tiers to this draft: the top four guys; a second one with eight or nine guys; then a third tier of another eight guys. Around 21, it drops off the table. Everyone after that has significant warts.”

Some assessments, including those from Penguins ownership, are down on Shero's draft record. The common criticisms are the absence of a winger to play alongside franchise centers Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and, as Woodlief noted, too many of the “same style players: small, puck-moving defensemen.”

Under Shero, the Penguins made 50 draft picks, and 20 were defensemen. They traded 13 selections and five prospects that were drafted.

Shero viewed prospects as assets, and he was willing to move an asset to improve the Penguins' chances to chase the Stanley Cup. In his eight seasons, the Penguins reached the Cup Final in 2008, won it the next year and played in the Eastern Conference final in 2013 — and they were the only East club not to miss the playoffs.

Of the prospects drafted by Shero, 27 remain in the system. Botterill said there are “six or seven forwards” likely to play as rookies next season in the AHL.

Those results were a good enough reason for ownership to keep the 13 amateur scouts that Shero left behind. Another was that the bulk of draft preparation had been completed by May 16, when Shero was fired.

Even with Shero in charge, Botterill said, “changes” had been implemented in how the Penguins were drafting. He declined to provide specifics other than confirming the addition of “different scouts and changes with how they work in their coverage areas and zones.”

One change came this past season when assistant director Randy Sexton was promoted to co-director alongside Jay Heinbuck. Sexton, a former general manager with Florida, was needed in the new role because the job had become too difficult for one person, Botterill said.

“Randy's done a great job of managing the amateur staff,” Botterill said. “He's run efficient meetings and made sure voices are being heard.”

Voices were heard two years ago regarding Maatta, Sexton said. Having selected Derrick Pouliot earlier in Round 1, Shero expressed “some concern about taking another defenseman,” Sexton said.

“Our scouts were persuasive about taking Olli because there was a significant drop between him and the next guy on our list,” Sexton said.

That next guy was a winger. Sexton would not identify that prospect, but he is not in the NHL. A similar situation occurred when the Penguins opted to select defenseman Scott Harrington in Round 2 of the 2011 Entry Draft, Botterill said.

“It's our job as scouts to provide with the most accurate and current information, let the GM make the call,” Sexton said.

Rutherford said he is not set on making the final call on picks at this draft. He will have been on the job for only three weeks, and picking a coach took priority over all other team matters.

“I'll decide on where we stand in terms of taking the best player available or going for a certain position, but it will depend on how strong I feel about the possible selection,” Rutherford said, noting that while general manager with Carolina he “usually leaned heavily on the scouting staff.”

No matter the picks made this weekend, Botterill is not counting on a quick progression like the one from Maatta, who jumped to the NHL as a 19-year-old. Botterill also will not pay much attention to external or internal opinions about this Penguins' draft class or their previous ones.

“It's about providing NHL assets,” Botterill said. “And when it comes to draft (classes), it sometimes can take eight or nine years.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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