NHL teams build their teams in many different ways. Some construct their clubs via free agency while others do it through trades. However, the main way teams create a roster is through the NHL Draft. Most years have maybe one or two players make the roster, but some years the general manager gets it right and selects a cornerstone or two for the franchise. The Last Word on Hockey is doing the best draft class for each team with the exception of the Seattle Kraken. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ best draft class.
Pittsburgh Penguins Best Draft Class: 2005
When combing through the Penguins draft history, the recurring factor has been consistency. That consistency, though, is somewhat bizarre. They historically drafted many players who barely (or never) played in the NHL, mixed in with some of the biggest superstars to ever play the game. Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Recchi, and Markus Naslund rank among the most hallowed names in hockey. Having said that, there appears to be a drop off after the stars. With every Crosby comes a Joe Vitale.
So, selecting one single draft as the best Pittsburgh Penguins draft class is a challenge. The Penguins experienced some top-heavy drafts where they nabbed an absolutely spectacular player or two. The majority of the Penguins’ drafts have provided them hefty quantities of NHL regulars, but not many exist in the elite echelon. Despite this, there are still quite a few drafts worth considering.
So, without further ado, I am proud to introduce you to the Penguins’ 2005 draft.
Sidney Crosby, First Round, 1st Overall
Pittsburgh simply would not be the franchise it is today with Sidney Crosby. Yes, the same could be said of the franchise’s other two 1st overall selections (Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003, and Lemieux in 1984). At the end of the day, Sid has captained the team to three Stanley Cups and remains a dominant force to this day. In 1039 career games, Crosby owns 486 goals, 839 assists, and 1325 points. He posts dominant advanced metrics as well, with a career Corsi-for relative percentage of 14.1.
Crosby has never scored less than a point-per-game in any given season, even ones plagued by injury. He experienced major concussion issues in his early-to-mid-20’s, but for the last eight seasons his health hasn’t been a concern. At 34 years old, the centre still shows no signs of slowing down, coming off a 62-point campaign in 55 games played. Couple all of that with 191 career playoff points in 174 playoff contests, three Stanley Cup rings, two Hart trophies, three Ted Lindsay awards, two Rocket Richard trophies, two Art Ross trophies, eight All-Star nominations, and two Conn Smythe trophies, and it’s clear the man has done it all. A no-brainer 1st overall selection both at the time and in hindsight.
Kris Letang, Third Round, 62nd Overall
Two rounds after “Sid the Kid”, Pittsburgh nabbed franchise defenceman Kris Letang. The Pittsburgh Penguins best draft class produced the face of their franchise and captain, and then the face of their blue line, for three of their five total Cup championships. Letang has collected 582 points over 863 career games, all with Pittsburgh. He potted 45 points over 55 games last year, at 33 years old. Clearly, he and Crosby both are warding off the process of aging, and doing it well. He also is a two-time All Star, with consistently positive advanced metrics too. Pittsburgh’s defence has centered around Letang for the last 15 years, and will continue to do so.
Joe Vitale, Seventh Round, 195th Overall
Joe Vitale displays a bit of the fall-off mentioned earlier in the article. Pittsburgh collects a stud or two pretty regularly, but alongside a large batch of less notable names. Vitale played 234 NHL games; 234 more than four other players drafted this same year. Pittsburgh got Crosby and Letang in 2005, but also four players who never cracked the NHL. Vitale scored 11 goals and 33 assists for 44 career points. He didn’t reach the NHL until 2010-11, and thus did not win a Cup with the two names above in 2008-09. He also left in 2013-14, so missed their next two Cups as well. In fact, his last appearance came in 2015-16, in just one game with the Arizona Coyotes. Though he appeared in six different seasons, he only factored in as a lineup regular in three. Sure, it pales in comparison to Letang or Crosby, but Vitale got to live the dream of an NHL forward for half a decade. That’s nothing to scoff at.
As previously mentioned, Pittsburgh collected quite a few impressive players through the draft. Its no wonder they won five Stanley Cups with the superstars they picked up, as the elite players came within just a few years of one another. The summer before Crosby and Letang came to town was nearly as impactful. At 2nd overall, Pittsburgh drafted Evgeni Malkin, and at 61st they selected Alex Goligoski. Those two each own over 900 career games, though Goligoski’s came largely after leaving the Penguins after 2009-10. Malkin earned three Cups with the team, while Goligoski possesses just the one from 2008-09. Later in the draft, they also nabbed Tyler Kennedy at 99th overall; he suited up for 527 games and was part of that same Cup team as Goligoski and Malkin (and Crosby and Letang). The main reason 2004 wasn’t as impactful as 2005 was because the Pens owned 12 selections in 2004. Eight of them never played a single NHL game.
Another key contributor to the Penguins’ franchise came just a year before Malkin. Taken 1st overall this time was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He had tremendous success with Pittsburgh, going 536-375-216-68 in 691 games with the franchise. His three Cup rings speak for themselves (even if Matt Murray started most of the games for the latter two). Fleury went on to help establish the Vegas Golden Knights through their expansion draft, leading them to the Cup Finals in their inaugural season. Besides Fleury, Pittsburgh took Daniel Carcillo, Paul Bissonnette, and Matt Moulson this year, who all played between 200 and 650 NHL games.
Pittsburgh owned three first-round selections in 1984. At 16th overall, they picked Roger Belanger; he only played 44 games in the NHL. Ahead of him at 9th overall, they picked Doug Bodger; the defenceman wracked up 1071 career games, in which he amassed 528 points and 1007 penalty minutes. After those two, Pittsburgh drafted seven players, one of which (Arto Javanainen) played 14 games while the rest never cracked the league.
But, that third first-round pick was the 1st overall selection. With that pick, the Penguins drafted the man who now owns the team. Mario Lemieux scored 1723 points in just 915 games. He remains arguably the only player in history who can be even remotely compared to Wayne Gretzky. “Super Mario” still won three Hart trophies, two Stanley Cups, six Ross trophies, two Conn Smythe awards, four Ted Lindsay awards, the Calder trophy, nine All-Star nominations, and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Only Gretzky ever eclipsed the 200-point mark in a single season, but Lemieux topped out at 199. The next best? Steve Yzerman, who once scored 155 points in a single season. It’s more than clear that Gretzky and Lemieux were cut from a different cloth.
Best of the Rest
In 1988, Pittsburgh drafted Mark Recchi, who scored 1533 points across a spectacular 1652-game career. In 1990, the Pens took Jaromir Jagr, the Czech sensation who scored 1921 points over a 1733-game career; he famously played in 24 NHL seasons for nine separate franchises, but only won the Cup in his first two seasons. In 1991, the club drafted Markus Naslund who played 1117 games and scored 869 points.
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