The winds of change will blow through the NHL this week with the Vegas Golden Knights taking 30 ~NHL-caliber players in Wednesday’s Expansion Draft, then Friday and Saturday’s Entry Draft will add the next generation of hockey players to the professional leagues of North America.
Typically the week leading up to the Entry Draft is an unexciting time, particularly in Pittsburgh of late (who will pick last [31st] in the first round for the second year in a row). The NHL Awards Ceremony is taking place in Las Vegas on Wednesday, and Sidney Crosby is the only Penguin up for any awards (the Hart Memorial Trophy to the MVP of the regular season, and the Ted Lindsay Award to the best player as voted by the NHLPA). If Crosby were to win the Hart and Lindsay he would be the first player in NHL history to win the three MVP awards in one season* (to go with the Conn Smythe trophy he won last week). He’s not the odds-on favorite for the Hart (Connor McDavid, the Art Ross winner, is) so it’ll be a bit of surprise if he comes away with both, but should he do so it would be the most hardware Crosby’s picked up in his illustrious career; twice, in 2014 and 2007, he’s won three trophies.
Of course this year with the Expansion Draft things are a bit different. The Golden Knights already have their options laid before them, and they have until Wednesday afternoon to select one player from each of the current NHL franchises. It was confirmed just after the Stanley Cup Final ended that Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had opted to waive his limited no-movement clause earlier in the season with the explicit purpose of being Vegas’ selection from Pittsburgh in the Draft. There are some rumblings that Fleury may not be taken, particularly in light of the other goaltenders made available League-wide, though it should be noted that Las Vegas is under no obligation to take just three goaltenders, nor are they required to keep any of them. It would be unlikely to see Fleury not be taken, and with Fleury’s interest in being a #1 goaltender, it stands to reason that Fleury will be gone from Pittsburgh by September one way or another. Vegas drafting him would make that inevitability simpler for Jim Rutherford.
For posterity’s sake, here is the list of players Pittsburgh deigned to not protect:
Forwards: Josh Archibald, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Jean-Sebastien Dea, Carl Hagelin, Tom Kuhnhackl, Chris Kunitz, Kevin Porter, Bryan Rust, Tom Sestito, Oskar Sundqvist, Dominik Uher, Garrett Wilson, Scott Wilson
Defensemen: Ian Cole, Frank Corrado, Trevor Daley, Tim Erixon, Cameron Gaunce, Ron Hainsey, Stuart Percy, Derrick Pouliot, Chad Ruhwedel, Mark Streit, David Warsofsky
Goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury
Of those, Cole, Hagelin, Kuhnhackl, Rust, and Scott Wilson are the only ones signed through at least next season, so if Vegas didn’t take Fleury, they would be the biggest losses. Cole has turned into a very effective top-six defenseman in his time in Pittsburgh, playing top-four minutes at times with Kris Letang out of the lineup. Hagelin wasn’t the same this season, hampered by a concussion in February and a broken fibula in March, but slotted back into the Penguins lineup for the latter half of the Cup Final and began looking more like his tenacious, speedy self by the time the series ended. Kuhnhackl was a healthy scratch from Game 7 against Washington onwards and was less used (10:39 vs. 12:12) and less productive (0.28 points/game vs. 0.36 points/game) overall in his second NHL season. Rust had a less productive postseason compared to last year but improved quite a bit in a minute more per game during the regular season. Wilson met his goal/month quota like clockwork and otherwise improved productivity-wise from last season. Losing Cole would likely hurt the most from a talent perspective, but again it is expected that the Golden Knights will select Fleury.
As for the Entry Draft, two of Pittsburgh’s Metropolitan Division rivals, the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers, are in position to select franchise cornerstone players in center Nolan Patrick and forward Nico Hischier with the first and second picks, respectively. Patrick was injured for much of this season, but still has the skill and leadership to be a future captain and All-Star. Hischier has also dealt with injuries but is lauded for his playmaking, acceleration, and puck-and-stick-handling abilities. Dallas, with the third overall pick, could end up taking left-handed defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who has the toolset to be the defensive leader for the Stars for years to come. By the time Pittsburgh’s selection rolls around at 31, there’s no knowing who may be available, but MyNHLDraft.com has them taking two-way power forward Maxime Comtois.
The bottom of the first round isn’t as bereft of talent as some might expect; players like Justin Williams (28th in 2000), Scott Gomez (27th in 1998), former Penguin Brendan Morrow (25th in 1997), Corey Perry (28th in 2003), Cam Ward (25th in 2002), and Cory Schneider (26th in 2004) are some of the more recent examples of big-name NHLers who have been available in the last five picks of the draft. There are also some up-and-coming young NHLers and prospects of note too: Tanner Pearson (30th in 2012), Shea Theodore (26th in 2013), Ryan Hartman (30th in 2013), Josh Ho-Sang (28th in 2014), David Pastrnak (25th in 2015), and Anthony Beauvillier (28th in 2015) figure to play key roles in their teams for the foreseeable future. If Pittsburgh can find a useful player at the end of the first round, it will make winning the Cup all the more sweet.
* I don’t know that for sure, but a cursory glance at the recent history of Smythe, Hart, and Lindsay/Pearson winners suggests I’m not wrong.
Of the following, whose number(s) will the Pittsburgh Penguins retire?
- #87 - Sidney Crosby (28%, 55 Votes)
- #71 - Evgeni Malkin (23%, 45 Votes)
- #68 - Jaromir Jagr (22%, 42 Votes)
- #29 - Marc-Andre Fleury (8%, 16 Votes)
- #58 - Kris Letang (5%, 10 Votes)
- #10 - Ron Francis (3%, 6 Votes)
- #9 - Pascal Dupuis (3%, 5 Votes)
- #77 - Paul Coffey (2%, 4 Votes)
- #14 - Chris Kunitz (2%, 3 Votes)
- #17 - Rick Kehoe (2%, 3 Votes)
- #22 - Rick Tocchet (2%, 3 Votes)
- #19 - Jean Pronovost (1%, 1 Votes)
- #44 - Brooks Orpik (0%, 0 Votes)
- #25 - Kevin Stevens (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 60