Over the last decade-plus, the Pittsburgh Penguins have treated their first-round draft pick like a colonoscopy appointment.
They know they should make it. They know it’s important for their long-term health. Ultimately, they decide to worry about it next year.
Five times in the past six drafts, the Penguins traded away their top choice as part of a win-now philosophy. The one time they kept the pick, they chose winger Kasperi Kapanen and, within about a year, included him in the Phil Kessel deal.
Could this year be different? Could it be the year the Penguins turn down the trade offers, walk to the podium at GM Place in Vancouver on Friday and actually add a high-end player to their shallow prospect pool with the 21st overall selection?
Let general manager Jim Rutherford explain.
“We’ll keep all the options open, but my preference is to keep the pick,” Rutherford said last week. “At some point in time, we’ve got to start to build up our prospects. Because of our approach over the last few years, we aren’t as strong there as we’d like to be. This gives us a chance to get a real good player, probably a couple of real good players, in this draft.
“There’s other ways of doing it. There’s other ways of improving your team without (trading) that pick.”
Rutherford first started talking about this year’s draft class before the trade deadline last season. He considered it deep and wanted to do what he could to hold onto his first-round pick while navigating trade waters.
He succeeded, acquiring forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann and defenseman Erik Gudbranson by other means.
This gave a jolt of adrenaline to Penguins head scout Patrik Allvin and his staff. Allvin said he too considers this draft pool to be strong.
“There’s a lot of good players. It’s just about getting them in the right order,” Allvin said. “Historically, most of the players in the league are drafted from the top 60 in the draft. Whenever you have a chance to keep a first-round pick, that’s big for the organization moving forward.”
To try to quantify how deep this class is, it might make sense to use NHL.com’s mock draft as a guide. The league’s website suggested three players the Penguins might take.
Defenseman Thomas Harley is a 6-foot-3, do-everything defenseman who played 25 minutes a game as a 17-year-old in the OHL last season. Cameron York is a wildly productive offensive defenseman who was the driving force for the U.S. National Team Development Program. Bobby Brink is an undersized goal-scoring whiz who was among the top scorers in the USHL last season before reaching his 18th birthday.
Most years, players of that pedigree are gone by the time the 21st selection rolls around.
With that in mind, Allvin would be content to sit tight at 21 and wait to make a selection. If Rutherford starts wheeling and dealing, though, the scouting staff will be ready for that, too.
“I guess he could,” Allvin said. “I think that’s part of the excitement. You never really know. We’ve got to be prepared and have a couple of different scenarios. If a player’s still available, maybe you can move down. Maybe you could move up.”
Moving down is a possibility that seems to make a lot of sense for the Penguins. Given the state of their prospect depth, two second-round picks in a deep draft could be more valuable than one in the 21st slot.
“If you’re able to feel comfortable rating a player in the first round and he ends up sliding out of there, that’s when you get really excited in the second round,” Allvin said.