As we watch classic Pittsburgh Penguins games to pass the time in this lockdown, sports-less moment, there is a little talked about but potentially franchise-altering moment which occurred in the 2006 NHL Draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins again had the second overall pick and a plethora of prospects to choose.
The Penguins high draft picks were piling up. They plucked Marc Andre-Fleury with the first overall pick in 2003 (they traded up from the third overall pick), Evgeni Malkin with the second overall pick in 2004, and won the open draft lottery to select Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005. However, in 2006, the Penguins had a difficult choice.
With the second overall pick, there were a few worthy prospects. I covered that draft, and somewhere out there in the interweb archives are a few heated debates. Everyone knew the top-10 was stacked, but debates raged in which order.
This writer argued for an 18-year-old Phil Kessel, whom experts considered to be the best offensive talent in the draft, but questions about his attitude dogged him. At the time, I had a syndicated radio show across Canada and a few U.S. markets, including Philadelphia and Nashville. I lost one Canadian affiliate as I railed on the western Canadian demand for hockey players to conform and the anti-US bias because of the wrap on Kessel.
Yeah, I was wrong.
I argued Kessel was the best player in the draft, and I argued a scoring winger was the final piece for the Pittsburgh Penguins. I covered Kessel at the 2006 World Junior Championships as the Team USA radio play-by-play and saw him score a handful of ridiculous goals.
But new Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero had better ideas.
Shero continued former GM Craig Patrick’s blueprint to build a solid foundation by fortifying the middle. Shero selected the tall, lanky, and responsible Jordan Staal with the second pick.
After 14 years, the finer details are fuzzy, but this writer and radio show host spanked the Penguins for using the second overall pick on a player who was at best going to be a third-line center.
But that’s what Shero did. Unabashedly. And, in the short term, the pick worked out. Staal was an essential ingredient in the Pittsburgh Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup championship. His third lines were dominant, and he scored big goals.
In his first training camp, the Penguins expected Staal to gain some experience before they returned him to juniors. Staal performed so well that he earned a nine-game NHL tryout, which is the maximum number of games a prospect can play before the first year of their entry-level contract begins. Staal blew through that, too, and stayed in Pittsburgh for the full NHL season. He scored 29 goals, which remains his career-high.
Shero was partially right when he said Jordan Staal meant Stanley Cups. The Penguins got one Cup, but none followed. Staal wanted to be a top center on his own team, and in 2012, after three Penguins playoff flameouts, Staal rejected a 10-year contract offer from the Penguins.
In the following days, the Penguins traded Staal to Jim Rutherford’s Carolina Hurricanes for a package including a top-10 first-round pick (Derrick Pouliot), Brandon Sutter and Brian Dumoulin.
But what if the Penguins chose a different center in 2006?
The 2006 NHL Draft
Staal wasn’t the top center on every draft board. There was Nicklas Backstrom, the talented but potentially soft Swede, and there was some kid at the University of North Dakota named Jonathan Toews.
The Chicago Blackhawks quickly snagged Toews with the third overall selection.
Even then, Toews was a leader and has only become a better leader with time. He’s revered as one of the best captains in the NHL and, in 2010, was the second-youngest captain to win the Stanley Cup, behind Sidney Crosby. Toews led Chicago to three Stanley Cups from 2010 to 2015.
The Chicago internal scouting reports on Toews appeared in a book about the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup run.
“He forechecks, bumps, takes pucks wide, goes to the net and scoring position with and without the puck, and he generates and finishes equally well. His coaches endorse him enthusiastically and say he works hard on and off ice, learns quickly, is well-liked and respected by his teammates, is a quiet and humble leader, and comes with no baggage.”
External scouting reports rated his skating well and his creativity, too.
We can probably surmise if the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Phil Kessel, they would NOT have won the 2009 Stanley Cup. Kessel was a pain in the bum in Boston, the team which drafted him fifth overall. Though some of the ripples of having Kessel in 2006 are fun to ponder. Would the Penguins have traded for Marian Hossa and eventual locker room cornerstone Pascal Dupuis in 2008, if they had Kessel? Would the Penguins have traded for Chris Kunitz, too?
Ironically, would drafting Kessel in 2006 have meant no 2016, 2017 Stanley Cups (because the relationship would have soured years ago and there wouldn’t have been a 2015 trade), too? *Cue the ominous organ music.
The fallout from the Pittsburgh Penguins 2009 Cup
Would the 2009 Penguins have hoisted the Stanley Cup with Jonathan Toews instead? Would the 2008 Penguins have raised the chalice, and could the Penguins have won additional Cups following 2009? Or, would Toews’ relegation to a third-line role have impeded his leadership and his growth, so the Penguins never won a Cup?
Staal was part of the unique chemistry of the team, which created youthful energy and an urgent sense of destiny. He also one of the boys who liked to hang out on the South Side. That crew had a key to the backdoor of at least one bar and spent more than a few passing hours holding court, like players of the old days.
Staal had bigger ambitions than being a third-line center, and those superseded Stanley Cup chances. His game changed as he wanted to be an offensive center. In 2012 he rejected a 10-year contract offer from the Penguins, which forced Shero and Rutherford to hook up on a blockbuster-lite trade.
We know how the Staal-to-the-Penguins story ends. The Penguins won the ’09 championship then floundered. The team became frustrated and petulant. The young team energy which abounded in bars on the Southside matured but didn’t translate into success. Instead, that energy soured. Staal’s game changed.
The team dominated easier games in the regular season, but without their edge, hungry teams pummeled them in the playoffs. Staal had a career year in 2011-12 as he scored 25 goals and 25 assists, but his grinding third-line game was no longer, and the undisciplined Penguins lost in Round One to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins with Staal didn’t even come close to a Cup in the three years following 2009. Staal wanted to be a primary figure at the top of a lineup, and his play reflected his desire, for better and worse.
In the summer of 2012, the Pittsburgh Penguins traded Staal to Carolina for a hefty package. The Penguins acquired the No. 8 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft but whiffed when they chose defenseman Derrick Pouliot over Filip Forsberg, one of the best wingers in the 2012 NHL Draft. However, the Penguins did snare then-prospect defenseman Dumoulin and Brandon Sutter.
The Toews What-Ifs
Toews stats in Chicago before 2012 aren’t comparable to Staal’s in Pittsburgh (or Carolina), because Toews was the primary center and thus given the choice cut ice time and power opportunities. However, since Staal became a top-dog in Carolina, he has only one 20-goal season. Toews had seven straight 20-goal campaigns and had 18 goals before the pandemic suspension.
Toews clearly became a much better player.
One step back, two steps forward?
If the Penguins drafted Toews, they might not have won the 2009 Stanley Cup. The chemistry cocktail between Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy was a significant reason the Penguins were victorious. But by drafting Toews, the Penguins may have been better suited to win more Cups over the decade.
If the Penguins drafted Toews, perhaps there would have been less of the fearless exuberance which helped the Penguins but then turned to expectation and frustration. There would have been more leadership. Maybe Toews would have been a balancing ingredient in the Crosby-Malkin show, led by the increasingly inflexible coach, Dan Bylsma.
Perhaps Toews would have accepted the third-line role with aplomb. Despite getting primary roles and opportunities in Chicago, Toews has never scored a point-per-game during a full season in Chicago. He did have 48 points (23g, 25a) in 47 games during the strike-shortened 2012-13 season. The center also approached the point-per-game mark a couple of times, including 81 points (35g, 46a) in 82 games when he carried the hapless 2018-19 Chicago team, which missed the playoffs.
Toews is a great player because he plays a complete game, not because he’s an offensive star. He would have been the same kind of dominating third-line center as Staal in 2009, but with better offensive skills, more leadership, and maybe he would have accepted a long-term deal to stick around?
In the what-if section, it’s plausible to say the Penguins would be better off if they drafted Toews. It’s entirely plausible the team would have won the 2009 Stanley Cup anyway, or won shortly afterward. However, with Toews, it’s easier to wonder if they could have won more over the following decade, too.
What a ponderance. And, what a turning point in the history of several teams.