The NHL draft is where general managers from every team expect that their homework was done properly and the player they select becomes a good one. Especially if this is a first round pick, because they hold more value, and wasting it on someone who never steps up to the NHL is devastating.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, like many other teams, had their fair share of bad first overall picks. Some of those first overall picks never made the NHL while others became franchise players, such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Teams dream of drafting players who waste no time hitting their potential and these two made their mark in the NHL almost immediately.
But imagine the Penguins drafted another player in a draft where they took a player who never reached their expectations. The state of the entire franchise would have changed and perhaps they would have never ended up drafting Crosby or Malkin. In a perfect world, a general manager would like every first round pick to become an elite or even a franchise player, but this is all a fantasy and teams often draft players who never even make it to the big leagues.
It is interesting who the Penguins could have taken in some of these drafts. Some of the players drafted lower than the player they actually took became superstars. One could only imagine how well that superstar would have done on the Pens during their time at the bottom of the standings. In the end, the Penguins did draft some key players who helped them win the Stanley Cup twice in the last decade and surely they do not regret acquiring these players from the NHL draft.
20 Bryan McCabe (1993)
Original Pick: Stefan Bergkvist
In 1993, the Penguins had the last pick of the NHL draft due to the fact that they had just come off an incredible season. With this pick they took the Swedish defender Stefan Bergkvist. Unfortunately, he only played in 7 career NHL games and never made an impact for the Pens.
A defender who would have made a major impact for the Penguins was Bryan McCabe. McCabe was drafted 14 spots lower than Bergkvist and he had a lengthy NHL career, participating in more than 1135 games. In that span, he collected 528 points and at that time, Bryan could have helped solidify a Pens defense that featured the likes of Sergei Zubov. In the end, the New York Islanders had the luxury of taking him in the second round.
19 Patrik Elias (1994)
Original Pick: Chris Wells
The Penguins had another late first round pick in 1994 and they used it to take a promising young center named Chris Wells. Wells showed potential by putting up 108 points in 69 games in his draft year with the Seattle Thunderbirds. This never reflected on his NHL career as he only mustered up 9 goals in his short 195 game career.
The Penguins could have fared much better if they were somehow able to take a gamble on winger Patrik Elias who was drafted an entire round later by the New Jersey Devils. Elias had an unbelievable career, hitting 1000-career points and winning two Stanley Cups. Imagine him playing on a team that bolstered Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis. This was already a deadly combination, adding Elias would make teams fear the Penguins' offense even more.
18 Aleksey Morozov (1995)
Original Pick: Aleksey Morozov
The Penguins did well when they drafted Aleksey Morozov in the 1995 draft. He put up some solid numbers in his last three seasons as a Pens most notably, his 50-point season in the 2003-04 season.
This was not bad for a player drafted late in the first round as the players drafted in the second round didn’t fare much better than Alexei. The problem was that he left to play in Russia after the 2003-04 season. This is a shame as he left right as he was entering his prime. It wouldn’t be crazy to predict that he could put up a 60 to 70-point season in his early 30s. Unfortunately for him, Pittsburgh was going through a rebuild at that time and the team was clearly not winning enough games for his liking.
17 Daniel Briere (1996)
Original Pick: Craig Hillier
Pittsburgh had high hopes for young goaltender Craig Hillier from the Ottawa 67's. After putting up three straight seasons with 20+ wins in the OHL, the Pens had no problem picking Craig 23rd overall in the 1996 draft.
Everything seemed great at the time but he was never able to live up to expectations, hence his zero career NHL starts. His career didn’t last long and he stopped playing after 2004. A better pick for the Pens that year would have been Daniel Briere, who was drafted right after Hillier. Briere had a great career while achieving a career high 95 points in the 2006-07 season. He would have fit nicely in the Penguins top-nine at the time and we can only speculate how well he would have done wearing the black and gold.
16 Brenden Morrow (1997)
Original Pick: Robert Dome
In 1997, the Penguins had a first round pick around the middle of the pack and with that pick they drafted winger Robert Dome, who showed some nice potential playing for the Pens AHL team, putting up 38 points in 51 games. Unfortunately, this never reflected on his NHL career as he only played a total of 53 games throughout his career, recording 14 points during that span.
A better winger in that draft was Brenden Morrow. He was only drafted a few picks down from Robert and his career speaks for itself. He led the Stars for years and put up two 30 goal seasons. If the Pens had drafted him, they would have had a much more suitable winger for their future top-six, instead of a prospect that was unable to transfer his skills to NHL level.
15 Scott Gomez (1998)
Original Pick: Milan Kraft
The 1998 draft featured the likes of many future superstars such as Vincent Lecavalier. The Pens used their 23rd pick on Czech forward Milan Kraft. He was not necessarily a bad player. In fact, he put up a 40-point season before he left to play in the Czech league. The problem was simply the fact that he didn’t stick around to hit his prime in the NHL.
Another center who went only 4 picks lower than Kraft was Scott Gomez. Scott won the Calder in his first NHL season, putting up 19 goals and 51 assists for a total of 70 points. The Penguins could have used this rush of offense in their top-six at the time. Gomez could have solidified a top-six that featured Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang.
14 Martin Havlat (1999)
Original Pick: Konstantin Koltsov
The Penguins had a tendency of drafting players who left to play in the KHL. Koltsov is another one of those players. Drafted 18th overall, the Pens hoped that he would become a decent top-six winger but things didn’t turn out as expected. He had only one average season where he put up 29 points in 82 games and afterwards, he decided that the KHL was best for his skills.
Eight picks later, there was a better Czech winger named Martin Havlat. If the Pens took him instead, they would have had a player that was able to put up more than 70 points in a single season and had the ability to score at a point per game pace early on in his career. A real boost to the Pens offence at that time.
13 Niklas Kronwall (2000)
Original Pick: Brooks Orpik
There is no doubt that the Penguins made a good choice drafting Brooks Orpik in the 2000 draft. He played a big role in the 2009 Stanley Cup and to this day, his services still help his team win. He was not there to score goals or make plays. Instead, he could block shots, hit and provide an overall solid defensive game for his goalie.
But, 11 picks lower was Niklas Kronwall, who in his prime was regarded as an incredible defenseman. He also helped his team win a Stanley Cup in 2008. Throughout his career, he was able to block shots, hit and finish the season with 30 to 50 points. Something Brooks didn’t have the luxury of doing, but overall if the Pens had taken Kronwall or Orpik, they would have had a solid defender helping them reach the Stanley Cup finals.
12 Derek Roy (2001)
Original Pick: Colby Armstrong
In the 2001 draft, the Pens had their eye on Saskatoon native Colby Armstrong. Colby had put up a point per game pace in his draft year and the Pens felt reassured taking him 21st overall. His rookie year was quite impressive in the NHL, he put up 40 points in 47 games but he will always best be known as the player involved in a trade that brought the Pens Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis.
If the Penguins wanted a more skilled forward, Derek Roy was their answer. He acquired 524 points in his 738 career NHL games, putting up some incredible seasons with 70 to 80 points. The Pens did not have a first line center and Roy could have been the answer to their troubles.
11 Ryan Whitney (2002)
Original Pick: Ryan Whitney
The Pens had a relatively high pick in the 2002 draft and they used it to pick Boston native Ryan Whitney. The Penguins couldn’t have picked a much better defenseman in that draft. Ryan served as a great defender for the Penguins. In his four seasons before he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks, he put up a career high 59 points in the 2006-07 season.
Whitney was on par with the other two defensemen drafted in front of him; Joni Pitkanen and Jay Bouwmeester. The fact that his career dropped after he left the Pens is a bit irrelevant as his time playing with the black and gold was spectacular. It is a shame that he was traded right before the Penguins won the Stanley Cup because he played a solid two-way game for them.
10 Marc-Andre Fleury (2003)
Original Pick: Marc-Andre Fleury
The Penguins were in dire need of a goalie in 2003 and that is why they took Marc-Andre Fleury first overall. This was definitely not a bad choice as he put up some solid seasons throughout his lengthy career as a Penguin. He also played a stellar game in the Penguins Stanley Cup in 2009.
With all criticism aside of his current state with the organization, Fleury faced a heavy workload and he started more than 60 games a season for more than 4 years in a row. He collected a career high 42 wins in the 2011-12 season and the Pens were confident that this was their franchise goaltender. Times change and goalies age. With the emergence of Matt Murray, Fleury is on his way out but there is no doubt that his services are greatly appreciated by the Penguins organization. Without him, there would probably be no Stanley Cup in this era.
9 Evgeni Malkin (2004)
Original Pick: Evgeni Malkin
The 2004 NHL draft featured two of the best Russian players of recent times and the Penguins were lucky enough to snag one of them, Evgeni Malkin. Malkin is often overshadowed by Sidney Crosby but he is one of the best centers in the NHL as well.
With three 100+ point seasons in his career, Malkin is a pure goal scorer and has the ability to set up unbelievable plays as well. Currently, he has 321 goals and 501 assists in 699 career NHL games and this is an incredible accomplishment so early on into his career. At only 30 years of age, Evgeni still has much more to show and is still scoring at a point per game pace. Surely, the Pens do not regret taking this amazing Russian center first overall.
8 Sidney Crosby (2005)
Original Pick: Sidney Crosby
One of the biggest draft accomplishments for the Penguins was drafting franchise center Sidney Crosby. There is no doubt the Penguins were going to take anyone else. With 168 points in 62 games in the QMJHL, the Pens were stunned by his level of skill. Surely, they were more than happy with his performance up until now.
With 102 points in his rookie year and 120 points in the next season, Crosby was making his mark as the best player since Wayne Gretzky. Even with all his injuries, Crosby was able to hit 1000 points in just under 760 career NHL games. An incredible feat that only a handful of players can accomplish so quickly. Crosby is paying out dividends for the Penguins and he is one of the best first overall picks.
7 Jonathan Toews (2006)
Original Pick: Jordan Staal
The Penguins had another top 3 pick in 2006 and they used it to take Jordan Staal. Staal was not a bad player by any means. He had four 20-goal seasons in his 6-season tenure with the Penguins. Even after that, they got an incredible return for him. They acquired Brian Dumoulin, Brandon Sutter and a 1st round pick who turned out to be Derrick Pouliot. Two of those players are still on the Penguins roster.
If the Pens had taken Jonathan Toews who went only one pick lower than Jordan, things may have been very different. Toews is an amazing two-way center who has unbelievable skill while handling the puck. On the Pens, he would have been playing as a third line center, behind Sid and Malkin, and his growth may not have been the same. Having a player of his caliber on the bottom six would have made the Pens unstoppable.
6 Max Pacioretty (2007)
Original Pick: Angelo Esposito
In the 2007 draft, the Pens saw incredible potential in Montreal native Angelo Esposito. With a point per game pace in the QMJHL, the Pens were confident in his abilities. Unfortunately, he never hit expectations and failed to even crack the NHL roster once in his entire career.
Two picks lower, an amazing American sniper named Max Pacioretty was taken by Montreal Canadiens. With five 30-goal seasons, he is becoming one of the best snipers in the NHL and one could only imagine what would have happened if the Pens had drafted him. Imagining him in a top six surrounded by Crosby, Malkin and James Neal would surely bring out some surprising results. It is too bad Esposito never turned out but he did play a major role in a trade which allowed the Pens to have some of the key players they have today.
5 Simon Despres (2009)
Original Pick: Simon Despres
The Penguins had the last pick of the 2009 draft and they chose a promising young defender named Simon Despres. With some season-raising eyebrows in the QMJHL, he really looked like a player with a lot of potential.
He has yet to hit his full potential due to injuries but the Pens could not have taken a better defender in the first round considering how late their pick was. Simon had a career high 17 points in 59 games in the 2014-15 season. Unfortunately, he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in 2015 to bring back Ben Lovejoy. A really surprising trade since Despres still had a lot to show and Lovejoy was in a decline. One could only imagine how he would be playing right now for the Pens.
4 Kevin Hayes (2010)
Original Pick: Beau Bennett
The 2010 NHL draft featured some many young superstars who now lead their team today. The Pens took Beau Bennett 20th overall and were relatively satisfied with their pick. Bennett put up some decent stats in the minors and scouts felt confident that his play would excel at NHL level. Sadly, they were wrong.
Bennett never met expectations and his highest point total is 14 points so far. To make matters worse, he also has never been healthy for an entire season. If the Pens wanted a more suitable winger, they should have taken Kevin Hayes, who went a few picks below Beau. Hayes is excelling at NHL level and has currently hit 40 points or more in two out of three NHL seasons. His play continues to grow and one could only imagine the impact he’d have as a Pens top six winger.
3 Rickard Rakell (2011)
Original Pick: Joe Morrow
In the 2011 draft, the Pens saw potential in a young promising defensemen named Joe Morrow. Morrow put up some incredible stats with his WHL team and many thought he would become a very powerful offensive d-man. Unfortunately, this never fell through and Morrow was limited to just 65 career NHL games, thus far, and spends a majority of his playing time in the AHL affiliate teams.
The Pens had secured a decent defender in the second round with Scott Harrington and therefore, a more suitable pick would have been forward Rickard Rakell. Rickard is proving to become a dominant sniper in the NHL, having already notched two 20-goal seasons at just 23 years of age. This would have been perfect for a Penguins 3rd center. He probably would not have grown as well but it would be much better than drafting a defender who never saw playing time in the Pens lineup.
2 Jacob Trouba (2012)
Original Picks: Derrick Pouliot (8th overall), Olli Maata (22nd overall)
2012 was a great draft year for the Pens as they had two first overall picks. With these picks, they took two promising young defenders, Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maata. Maata has been playing consistently for the Pens. He has breached the top-four and has earned himself a lengthy contract. On the other hand, Pouliot is struggling a little bit at the NHL level and his playing time has been hindered.
The Pens missed out on Jacob Trouba, who was drafted right after Pouliot. Trouba is showing much more potential and has put up four back-to-back 20 point seasons with the Winnipeg Jets. The future might change this but as of right now, Trouba is looking a lot more promising than Pouliot. This may change as Pouliot gains more NHL experience and the Pens can only hope that he can become the top-four defender that they want him to be.
1 David Pastrnak (2014)
Original Pick: Kasperi Kapanen
The Pens had no first round picks for a while due to some trading to help push playoff performance. The last first round pick they had was in 2014 and they chose Finnish winger Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen is by no means a bad player and it is thanks to him that the Penguins were able to acquire Phil Kessel in a trade but what if they didn’t have to trade for Phil at all?
David Pastrnak was a player selected a few picks after Kapanen and he is surpassing expectations, especially in the current season where he is nearing the 30-goal mark at just 20 years of age. With 105 points in 153 games, David is performing beyond expectations and is someone the Pens missed out on. Kapanen has just 9 games of NHL experience thus far, but he is scoring at a point per game pace in the AHL. All in all, the Pens managed to acquire Phil Kessel due to Kapanen being bundled in a trade to the Leafs so there is really no loss here.