July 22, 2005, the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise received a much-needed boost on the ice and, far more importantly, a franchise cornerstone to guide the franchise as Mario Lemieux once did. After the locked-out 2004-05 season, the NHL held a lottery which included all teams, and young phenom Sidney Crosby, who was anointed by no less than Wayne Gretzky as the next great player, was the top prize. The hockey gods smiled upon the Penguins.
But, what if…
What if that ping pong ball bounced for Anaheim Ducks, who won the second pick? Imagine if the Penguins had the second overall pick and had to idly stand-by while Anaheim handed “Sid the Kid” a jersey with number 87.
There are still jokes and snickers across the hockey world. The Penguins fates and fortunes were too good to be true. They needed a new arena, the city of Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania were not getting it done, and the Penguins on-ice product had been abysmal for several years.
In 2005, despite a roster which still included Mario Lemieux, gone were other talented players, such as Marty Straka, and Alexei Kovalev. 2003 first overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury was not yet NHL ready, and 2004 second overall pick Evgeni Malkin had yet played hide-and-seek in an airport closet to escape from his Russian hockey contract.
2005 Draft Redo
If the Penguins picked second, they would have likely had Bobby Ryan, Benoit Pouliot, (current Penguin) Jack Johnson and Anze Kopitar on their shortlist. A review of 2005 NHL draft rankings had a mixture of those players in the top six, though Kopitar was not selected until No. 11, by the L.A. Kings.
Since Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick had drafted a franchise goalie, and a top-flight center, and had defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, it’s likely Patrick would have snagged a winger (Ryan).
Ryan struggled to establish himself in the NHL and wasn’t a full-time contributor until 2008. It would have been a precipitous fall for the Penguins unless the had the foresight to snag Kopitar, the top-rated European draft prospect.
What About Malkin?
The Penguins selected Jordan Staal with the second overall pick in 2006, ahead of Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard. So, that choice would have stood regardless of Crosby’s presence. On the real timeline with Crosby, the Penguins were an emerging playoff team in 2006-07. However, without Crosby, Evgeni Malkin would have been the number one center.
To this day, the question has never been answered: Would Evgeni Malkin excel with the captaincy and the responsibility of being the franchise leader? Malkin was never the lead dog in Russia, either. Could he have won the Calder Trophy and been the same force if the team success hinged on his production?
Malkin can be hard on himself. The Penguins would not have handed him the captaincy as early (or ever) as they did Crosby. Though the guess from here is Malkin, with help from team leadership, would have produced at the same or greater clip as a number one center.
Without Crosby, the great Colby Armstrong would have had a much different career. Perhaps the Penguins would have kept Ryan Malone, because of his chemistry with Malkin. Malone would have been the signature winger.
However, without Crosby in 2006-07, the Penguins would have again drafted near the top 10. Crosby’s 120 points (36g, 84a) led the team. The Penguins, led by rookie centers Malkin and Staal, likely would have struggled and missed the playoffs but not by much. In the mid-first round, the Penguins would have chosen from a deep crop of defensemen including Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Ian Cole.
The Penguins new general manager, Ray Shero, selected Angelo Esposito in the first round, 20th overall. Esposito could have been the Penguins target, anyway. Esposito had a high grade but slid to the Penguins. The other forwards available, in the middle of the first round, were Lars Eller, Colton Gilles, and Alex Cherepanov.
The Penguins likelihood of failure in the draft, unless they took a defenseman, would have been high.
In this alternate reality, the Ducks would have built around Crosby, Perry, and Getzlaf and probably would have won a Stanley Cup. Or three.
Jordan Staal would have been immediately counted on as a top-six center, and the Penguins would not have been an offensive juggernaut. The possibilities are too endless to imagine, but the probabilities lean towards the Penguins searching for centers and wingers in the draft. Based on where they selected and would have selected, the odds the Penguins became a contender are slim.
The Penguins and Staal would have learned he is a middling second line center. The howls and disgust from fans as Jonathan Toews, who was selected immediately after Staal, would still be the topic of talk show callers today. The team would have been a playoff team with Fleury in goal, Gonchar and Letang on the blue line, Malkin and the assortment of forwards up front but little more than an also-ran.
The Penguins third, fourth and fifth Stanley Cups seem a long shot without that ping pong ball that bounced their way. Instead, the Ducks would be the dynasty, and that would have created an epic rivalry with the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. But none of that would matter to Penguins fans.
In fact, the Penguins great surge in popularity would not have happened, and perhaps nor would the momentum they used to bargain for a sufficient new arena deal, either. Would the Pittsburgh Penguins even exist? Or would they be on a pond in Kansas City?
One little ping pong ball.