Much was made of the Pittsburgh Penguins having a first-round choice in the NHL Draft last month.
Understandably so, since it was just their second No. 1 in eight years.
But history suggests that it was almost as significant that they didn’t have a pick in the third round.
For while the Penguins have a grim array of selections in Round 2 who disappointed — anyone remember Mark Major, Marc Hussey, Brian Gaffaney, Alexander Zevakhin and Ondrej Nemec, for starters? — they have plucked some major contributors out of the third.
Indeed, if projecting how teenaged hockey players will develop is an imprecise science — and it most certainly is — the Penguins have managed an alchemy of sorts in the third round, routinely turning what were widely regarded as base-metal prospects into something akin to gold.
Consider that, barring a makeover by Mike Sullivan and his staff during training camp next month, 60 percent of the five-man unit that is the Pittsburgh Penguins’ No. 1 line and top defense pairing will consist of players claimed in Round 3.
They would be wingers Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, who flank Sidney Crosby on the top line, and Kris Letang, who works alongside Brian Dumoulin on the first defense pairing.
What makes that so striking is that, while the exact criteria used to label someone an “NHL player” varies, it’s generally considered that only 20 to 25 percent of third-round selections meet the standard.
But of the 18 third-rounders the Penguins have taken since claiming Erik Christensen there in 2002, all but six have made it to the NHL. And because four of those exceptions are their most recent choices in Round 3, it’s premature to assume that none will make it to this level.
The group that got to the league includes Christensen, Daniel Carcillo (2003), Jonathan Filewich (2003), Nick Johnson (2004), Kris Letang (2005), Brian Strait (2006), Robert Bortuzzo (2007), Ben Hanowski (2009), Bryan Rust (2010), Oskar Sundqvist (2012), Matt Murray (2012) and Jake Guentzel (2013).
All appeared in more than 100 NHL games except Hanowski (16) and Filewich (5).
The ones who never reached the NHL are Brian Gifford (2004), Casey Pierro-Zabotel (2007), Connor Hall (2016), Clayton Phillips (2017), Nathan Legare (2019) and Calle Clang (2020). Of those, Legare is still considered a prospect with the Penguins and Clang, sent to Anaheim in the Rakell trade in March, is expected to play for the Ducks in 2022-23.
Per the standard set by QuantHockey.com, 130 third-round draft choices qualify as “current” NHLers, although 25 of them do not have a point in the league and only 37 have reached triple-digits in career points.
Boston’s Brad Marchand is the leader among active third-rounders, with 795 points, but the three prominent Pittsburgh Penguins are fairly high on that list.
Letang is third, with 650, while Guentzel (341) is 11th and Rust (270) is tied for 13th. All will move up a spot if future Hall of Fame defenseman Zdeno Chara opts to retire, a decision he still is considering.
Regardless of whether those rankings change, Ron Hextall’s personnel moves this offseason — which include re-signing Letang and Rust, along with Evgeni Malkin and Rakell, trading for Jeff Petry and Ty Smith and snagging Jan Rutta as a free agent — seem to have rekindled optimism about the franchise’s short-term future in some quarters.
But if precedent holds, Hextall’s most significant acquisition might not skate a shift for them this season. Won’t even be in the organization this winter.
After all, Hextall didn’t just add Smith when he sent John Marino to New Jersey. He also got a third-round choice in the 2023 draft.