Tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins will take their first major step to repeat as Stanley Cup champions when the 2016 NHL Draft gets underway. And if there is any team that knows what young players can do, it’s the Penguins.
But, this youth comes with some big consequences.
Not only does Pittsburgh lack depth in its minor league system, but, for the fourth-straight season, the Penguins are without a first round pick.
Fortunately, the lack of first-round draft picks hasn’t hurt them — yet. But soon, the Penguins will need to stop mortgaging their future as players like Sidney Crosby get older.
Right now, the Penguins are in very good shape. But, in tonight’s draft, the organization and general manager Jim Rutherford (the 2016 GM of the year) must look to build up the team’s reserves and find some key players for another potential deep run.
At this moment, there’s no desperate scramble to find the Penguins’ next elite center; Oskar Sundqvist is the most likely candidate if the need arises to replace fourth-line center Matt Cullen. (This time next year, however, there will be concern when Nick Bonino’s contract expires; and the season after, Eric Fehr will be in a similar situation with his contract.)
So, Rutherford will need to keep this position in the back of his mind and, if the right player is available at the right time, draft a player with the needed levels of intensity and athleticism to keep up with the roster.
In the not too distant past, the wing position seemed like one of Pittsburgh’s biggest sore spots. However, with the superb play of Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Scott Wilson (before he was injured), this is definitely a position the Penguins don’t need to worry about. Carl Hagelin is signed for three more years, and 2015 second round pick Daniel Sprong, although delayed because of injury, will get another crack at playing in the pros.
It seems safe to say Rutherford won’t go after a winger in the early stages of the draft.
During Ray Shero’s time as general manager in Pittsburgh, he tended to draft defensemen very early in the draft. Fans may not like it, but don’t be surprised if Rutherford does the same. With both Ben Lovejoy and Justin Schultz most likely opting to test the free agent market, Rutherford may look to draft a defenseman as a replacement.
A name that may spark some interest is 18-year-old defenseman Luke Green out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Playing in 61 games this past season and tallying 35 points (10 G, 25 A), this offensive-minded defenseman plays right into Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan’s style of play. Green’s very good puck handling skills and his impressive skating ability offers another dimension to the Penguins’ offense.
And, sure, the goaltending situation Pittsburgh is in right now is a good problem to have, but it’s likely that either Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray is on his way out within the next year. And backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff is an unrestricted free agent. For Triple-A affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, goaltender Tristan Jarry made 33 appearances and did a commendable job in net. However, he shouldn’t be the first candidate for the backup position.
Still, it’s not likely Rutherford will draft a netminder. Instead, look for him to make a move on the market to bring in a solid backup to either Fleury or Murray.
With only five picks in this draft, Pittsburgh will need to maneuver some tight waters. Recently, rumors have flown that Rutherford may look to acquire a first-round pick for Fleury. But, right now, there’s nothing to back this up.
Tonight, all the Penguins’ organization is focused on is setting the foundation for another season that ends with hoisting another Stanley Cup.
The 2016 NHL Entry Draft starts at 7 p.m. EDT. It will be broadcast on NBCSN. A live-stream can be found here.
Image credit: Alexander Laney