MONTREAL — The Pittsburgh Penguins have been looking to add a physical presence to their blue line for quite a while.
Owen Pickering, their first-round choice in the 2022 NHL Draft, just might be the guy to provide it.
Probably not in the immediate future, though.
Pickering, the 21st player selected in Round 1 at the Bell Centre Thursday night, currently carries just 180 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame.
He insisted shortly after his selection was announced by Kris Letang that he has the desire and the mentality to develop into a physical force, but acknowledged that that aspect of his game is very much a work-in-progress.
“The thing I would like to work on is physical strength,” Pickering said. “I feel like that’s … the natural path for me, just kind of filling out.”
Indeed, he is literally growing into his job; Pickering said he was just 5-foot-7 in his bantam draft year. He’s added quite a few inches since those days, although not as many pounds as might have been expected.
“He’s grown a lot over the past couple of years,” said Nick Pryor, the Penguins’ director of amateur scouting.
Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a total surprise to people who know Pickering’s background.
“There are some tall genes on my dad’s side,” he said. “Kind of 6-7, 6-9. I don’t think I’ll be that tall.”
Regardless of where his height settles, he was adamant that he has the mental makeup required to play a physical game when he gets to the NHL.
“There’s no lack of competitiveness,” Pickering said. “It’s maybe a little bit difficult sometimes, being 180 pounds.”
Pickering, who was ranked the 21st-best prospect among North American skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, had nine goals and 24 assists in 62 games with Swift Current of the Western Hockey League last season.
“The strengths of my game are skating and hockey sense, as far as puck skills,” he said.
Indeed, he is mobile and has shown offensive potential — he’s been described by some scouts as a “one-man breakout” at times — but, in addition to not being as physical as his size suggests he could be, has lacked consistency.
It probably is not realistic to believe that he will contend for a spot on the major-league roster this fall, although Pickering suggested that he will report to training camp with that objective.
“I wouldn’t put a timeframe on (reaching the NHL),” he said. “But my mentality, as soon as I was drafted to a team before this, was to try to make that team in the fall. Then, if I don’t make it, I go back to Swift (Current) and try to make it the next year.”
It’s pretty clear, though, that the Penguins view him as far from a finished product, in any sense.
“With all defensemen, it just takes time,” Pryor said.
Pickering said he had spoken with Penguins scouts and officials several times before the draft, but did not know whether that suggested that they were seriously interested in him or simply one of the clubs doing its “due diligence” on the available prospects.
Pryor, though, said the Penguins were surprised that he still was available — not exactly an original thought, to be sure — and that they claimed him simply because he was the top unclaimed prospect on their list.
Pickering’s stock rose steadily in 2021-22, culminating in him being selected in the opening round of the draft.
“If you had told me a year ago that I’d be in this position,” he said. “I’d probably have told you that you were a little crazy.”