Who Penguins Will Pick First Isn’t Only Draft Question
The Pittsburgh Penguins are scheduled to have a first-round choice for just the third time in eight years when the NHL Draft is held June 28-29 in Nashville.
For an organization that is nearly bankrupt of high-quality prospects, using that pick wisely will be of paramount importance.
Especially when, barring a trade, it will be the Penguins’ earliest choice since they claimed Derrick Pouliot with the eighth overall selection in 2012 after acquiring the pick from Carolina in the trade that sent Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes. (Staal, coincidentally enough, is the Penguins’ most recent first-rounder after a season in which they failed to qualify for the playoffs.)
At least for now, the Penguins have the 14th pick in this year’s draft, although the draft lottery May 8 could lead to a shuffling of the draft order.
Of course, who will be responsible for deciding which teenager is worthy of having the Penguins make such an investment isn’t clear, since that responsibility falls to the general manager, and the Penguins haven’t had one of those since Ron Hextall was fired eight days ago.
Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Penguins, doesn’t make a habit of conducting executive searches in public, but there’s been no indication that the hunt for Hextall’s replacement has progressed beyond the stage at which candidates are being identified.
Regardless of who ends up with decision-making duties — FSG has floated the possibility of assembling a less-than-traditional front-office structure — that individual presumably will be relying on guidance from the amateur scouting staff that was in place under Hextall.
The wrinkle there is that several members of that staff have strong ties to Hextall — director of amateur scouting Nick Pryor, for example, is the son of Chris Pryor, the assistant GM who was fired at the time as Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke — and certainly would seem to have reason for concern about having a role with the organization in the future.
Indeed, that applies to many people on the pro and amateur scouting staffs; it’s only reasonable that a GM have the ability to select the individuals charged with evaluating personnel the Penguins might be interested in acquiring via the draft, trades or free agency.
But if some amateur scouts are convinced that the morning after the draft, they’ll find a note slipped under their hotel door informing them that they no longer are employed, how likely are they to, say, lobby hard for a player they believe has been underrated by others and has slipped down the draft order?
The issue is not professionalism, because scouting at any level demands a major commitment to the craft, but passion.
The Penguins presumably have at least a preliminary list ranking the prospects available this summer, and whoever ends up running their draft table should be able to rely on that, and to tweak it as deemed necessary.
That person might even make significant revisions to the rankings, depending on the level of knowledge about this year’s talent that was gained in the position held before joining the Penguins.
Of course, all of that assumes the Pittsburgh Penguins — who already have traded away their second-, third- and fourth-round picks this year, although they also added one from New Jersey in the John Marino trade — decide to hold onto their No. 1 selection.
It’s fair to wonder if they will since, when meeting with reporters after the front-office firings April 14, FSG executive Dave Beeston said these Penguins are “completely capable” of contending for additional championships.
That would seem to be an unduly optimistic assessment of a team that was the oldest in the NHL in 2022-23, that will have significant salary-cap constraints and that snapped a streak of four consecutive first-round losses in the playoffs by failing to qualify for the current postseason at all.
With so few top-shelf prospects on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ organizational depth chart, a first-round draft choice is one of the rare major assets that could be offered to a prospective trading partner.
Which would be one way to address the questions surrounding what will become of this No. 1 pick.