The Pittsburgh Penguins have found some major contributors in the NHL draft beyond the first round.
While watching Bryan Rust score two more big goals in another big game on Saturday night in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-0 win over the Washington Capitals, I started to think back to how successful the organization has been at developing prospects and turning them into contributing NHL players.
It is something they do not always seem to get a lot of credit for, especially outside of Pittsburgh given how many picks they trade away.
That development is always a necessity for teams, but it becomes even more important when you have a trio of superstars (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) on your roster that take a significant portion of your allotted salary cap space. You have to find players that can complement those stars, and the draft is always a good way to build that pipeline. The Penguins have had some incredible success in that area when you consider 1) how often they have traded their first-round picks, and 2) how often the first round picks they have made did not really pan out.
They have needed to hit some home runs in the middle rounds, and they have done exactly that. Specifically during the four-year window between 2010 and 2013 where they found and developed Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Tristan Jarry, Matt Murray, Oskar Sundqvist, and Tom Kuhnhackl between the second-and fourth rounds. Every single one of them won at least one Stanley Cup with the Penguins. Several of them (Guentzel, Rust, Murray) were significant contributors. A couple of them (Guentzel and Rust) are still key building blocks for the current team.
For now, let’s focus on the two that are still making major contributions to this team. Guentzel and Rust.
The Penguins selected Rust in the third-round (No. 80 overall) of the 2010 draft, and landed Guentzel in the third-round (No. 77 overall) of the 2013 draft (with the pick they acquired in the Joe Morrow for Brenden Morrow trade).
By now, it is pretty common knowledge that players picked in that range do not even have a 50 percent success rate when it comes to even playing a single game in the NHL.
When it comes to being an NHL regular it drops down to about 20-25 percent.
For the Penguins to get two top-line players, two regular contributors, and two players as productive as those two are it is far and away better than what most teams get with those picks.
Some numbers to consider:
- Between 2010 and 2013 there were 240 players selected in the third-and fourth-rounds of those drafts.
- Only 117 of those players have played one game in the NHL (48 percent).
- Only 62 of those players have played in at least 100 games in the NHL (25 percent).
- Only 46 of those players have played in at least 200 games in the NHL (19 percent).
- Of those 46 players, five of them were drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins: Guentzel, Rust, Murray, Sundqvist, and Kuhnhackl.
- No other team in the NHL produced more than three players with 200 games or more in those rounds, while only two (Florida and Edmonton) had more than two players.
In other words, the Penguins did better in those two rounds than any other team in the league. Not only in terms of quantity, but also quality.
While most of Sundqvist’s play has come for another team (he only actually played 28 games for the Penguins before being traded) the other four played significant roles for the Penguins.
Murray was obviously the starting goalie on a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion, while Kuhnhackl helped fill out a fourth-line role.
It is the development and production of Guentzel and Rust that separates the Penguins in these years because almost no other players taken in those rounds has matched their current level of production. If you look at every player taken in the third-and fourth-rounds of those four drafts, Guentzel and Rust are first and third respectively in goals per game.
Here is how the top-10 shakes out. Not only are Guentzel and Rust at the top, there really are not many players even close to them.
There are obviously several factors and variables that go into developing a player picked at this point in the draft.
Scouting is a part of it and being able to identify the player.
Player development is a part of it and being able to bring them up through your system. All five players focussed on here spent a decent amount of time playing in Wilkes-Barrre/Scranton over multiple seasons before making their NHL debut.
There is also a luck element, which would could be any number of things. The right player falling to you, a player that for whatever snuck under the radar, or just simply trying to develop wingers when you have two Hall of Fame centers already on the roster in the prime of their careers. The Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin factor no doubt plays a role in some of the production here for players like Guentzel and Rust, but that is honestly only part of it.
Has that helped their production somewhat? Of course it has. But probably not to the degree that outside voices or opinions will believe. There have been a lot of wingers over the years that have spent significant time alongside Crosby and Malkin and not scored goals the way these two players have. There is still something to be said for being able to finish and take advantage of that situation. Plus, there are a lot of other teams that have elite centers that have not developed players in these spots quite like the Penguins have here.
It is a big part of why the Penguins have been able to sustain so much success over the past 15 seasons. It is not easy to build a team this consistently good, even with a few future Hall Of Famers on the roster and in the organization. You still need to have a pipeline of talent that can produce and complement them. The Penguins have been able to sustain that.