The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a reasonably successful franchise in their time in the NHL. They have won four Stanley Cups (1991, 1992, 2009, 2016). They’ve won those Stanley Cups on the backs of two generational players. They drafted Mario Lemieux in 1984 and he led them to back to back cup wins after the Pens drafted Jaromir Jagr in 1990 and acquired Ron Francis. The new era Penguins are led by 2005 first overall pick Sidney Crosby, who has led the team now to two Stanley Cup wins with a supporting cast including 2004 pick Evengi Malkin, 2005 pick Kris Letang and 2003 first overall pick Marc- Andre Fleury.
As you can see, the Penguins are a team that has drafted well but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made some huge mistakes. Can you imagine Sergei Fedorov playing with Super Mario? Or Duncan Keith and Jonathon Toews lighting up the league with Sidney Crosby? All of these and more were possible if the Penguins made the right selections. This list is littered with some solid players like Jordan Staal and Rich Sutter. There are a few players who would never even play an NHL game. The Penguins have busts at damn near every position and from every decade. So let’s get it started.
15. 1982 – Rich Sutter
The Pittsburgh Penguins made Rich Sutter their first round pick, 10th overall in 1980. Rich Sutter was by no means an awful “draft bust”. Sutter had a decent career, unfortunately, most of it wasn’t with the Penguins. Sutter only played nine games with the Pens scoring 0 points. He was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1983 along with some picks for three players who wouldn’t achieve much success in the NHL and two draft picks (one of which will appear later on this list).
Sutter retired in 1995 with 315 points n 874 career games. The Penguins would have been much better off selecting Dave Anderychuk. The big center was selected at no.16 in 1982 and was one of the most beloved players on every team he played for. He still holds the record for the most power play goals in NHL history (274). Dave Anderychuk retired after the 2005-06 NHL season with 1,338 points in 1,639 career games and one Stanley Cup win in 2004.
14. 1986 – Zarley Zalapski
Another decent player, Zarley Zalapski had a good NHL career, just not with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He hit career highs with the Penguins in 1990-91 with 48 points in 66 games. It was after that season that the Penguins included him in the blockbuster trade that brought Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson to the team. In 1992-93 Zarley Zalapski scored 65 points in 83 games which stood up as his career highs.
He also played for the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens before ending his NHL career in 1998 with 384 points in 637 games. Zalapski would spend the next 12 years playing in the minors in North America and overseas in Europe. Can you imagine if the Penguins instead selected HHOF member Brian Leetch or even high-scoring forward Vincent Damphousse to play with Super Mario and eventually Jagr?
13. 1970 – Greg Polis
Greg Polis was far from a horrible selection for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He just wasn’t an elite player worth being a 7th overall pick. He hit career highs during the 1972-73 season with 49 points in 78 games. Like all of the picks so far, Polis’s time with the Penguins would be limited as he would only play three full seasons and half of another with the Pens. He joined the Blues in 1974 for half a season and then would go on to play six more seasons with lower and lower point totals every year.
He last played in the NHL in 1979-80, scoring 6 points in 28 games with the Washington Capitals. His career totals overall are just disappointing for a top 10 pick. A total of 343 points in 615 games is not quite what you expect. Now, who was picked at no.8 is exactly what you expect from an elite player in the NHL. The Toronto Maple Leafs lucked out in getting Darryl Sittler at no.8 in 1970. Sittler scored 1,121 points in 1,096 games.
12. 2006 – Jordan Staal
Jordan Staal has been a solid player in his NHL career thus far. His placement on this list is partially due to the failed expectations of Staal and partially due to the quality of players that came after him. Staal was drafted to be a third line center behind Evengi Malkin and Sidney Crosby. He scored 29 goals in his rookie season and helped the Penguins win the cup in 2009. He made elite player money but never really had the stats to back it up, maxing out at 50 points during the 2011-12 NHL season.
The Penguins moved on from their expensive center, sending him to the Hurricanes in 2012 for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and a first round pick. The 2006 draft was chock full of high point producers and strong leaders. The Penguins would have been much better off drafting Jonathon Toews, Nicklas Backstrom or their 2016 playoff hero Phil Kessel. Imagine your top three centers being Crosby, Malkin and Toews!
11. 1983 – Bob Errey
Bob Errey was a goal scoring machine in junior hockey, scoring 53 goals in his final season with the Peterborough Petes. The Penguins made him the no.15 pick that year and rushed him to the NHL…where he had a horrific rookie season. The Penguins started Errey in the minors the following season where he earned a call-up but continued to struggle at the NHL level. He reached career highs during the 1988-89 NHL season with 58 points in 76 games. He was with the Penguins for their two Stanley Cup wins but didn’t play a big part on the team.
He retired after the 1998-99 AHL season, having last played with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Errey retired with 382 points and 1,005 PIMs in 895 career games. In my opinion, the Penguins would have been much better off taking Claude Lemieux, who went 26th overall in 1983. Lemieux retired after the 2008-09 NHL season with 786 points and 1,777 PIMs in 1,215 games.
10. 2001 – Colby Armstrong
The Pittsburgh Penguins made Colby Armstrong their 1st round pick, 21st overall in 2001. Colby Armstrong did not become the scorer that the Penguins expected him to be. Armstrong would play three seasons in the AHL before making his NHL debut during the 2005-06 NHL season, where he would score career highs with 40 points in 47 games riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby. It would be all downhill from here, unfortunately.
He was traded at the trade deadline during the 2007-08 NHL season to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Angelo Esposito (who you will see later) in a package for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. Colby Armstrong retired with 209 points in 476 games and now works for Sportsnet. Can you imagine if the Penguins just selected Patrick Sharp instead in 2001? His rocket shot would have paired well with Sidney Crosby’s playmaking abilities. Jason Pominville and Craig Anderson were also available at no.21.
9. 1976 – Blair Chapman
Here we go way back to 1976, The Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Blair Chapman second overall. Blair Chapman was an elite scorer with the Saskatoon Blades, scoring 157 points in 69 games. The Penguins made him the no.2 pick, while the Edmonton Oilers picked him no.1 in the WHA draft. Chapman decided to play with the Penguins but his goal scoring ability fell off the face of the earth. He topped out with 44 points in 75 games during the 1977-78 NHL season. He would move on and join the St. Louis Blues during the 1979-80 season hitting career highs with 52 points in 64 games.
He struggled after this point and was out of the NHL in 1983. Ironically the St. Louis Blues’ first pick in 1976 would have been exactly what the Penguins needed. Bernie Federko played 1,000 games in the NHL and had 1,130 points. That is the type of value you look for at no.2 and the Blues got him down at no.7. Pretty big mistake for the Penguins to miss out on a player of Federko’s ability.
8. 1993 – Stefan Bergkvist
I know what you are thinking….Who? The Penguins selected Stefan Bergkvist at #26 in 1993. Not sure what they were thinking really, he didn’t have top stats playing in the SEL. Nonetheless, the Penguins selected him and I bet they regretted it from day one. Stefan would only play SEVEN career games in the NHL with ZERO points. That is far from what you expect from a first round pick. Stefan Bergkvist was out of the NHL in 1997 and back playing in the SEL in 1998. That is a horrible career for a first round pick. His hockey career ended in 2003 playing in the BISL and even there he only mustered one point. The Pens could have had Vinny Prospal(765 points in 1108 games) or Jamie Langenbrunner(663 points in 1109 games) Neither are truly elite players but they did much better than Stefan ever did!!
7. 2010 – Beau Bennett
From one of the oldest selections on this list to one of the newest selections. Beau Bennett was selected at no.20 in 2010. It may be a little early to judge Bennett but he has struggled to establish himself at the NHL level thus far in his career. His career best thus far was in his rookie season but even then, it was just 14 points. The Penguins have already cut their losses on Bennett, moving him to the New Jersey Devils during the draft this year for just a 3rd round pick. That is a terrible return on the investment. The Penguins gave Bennett the golden chance of being a winger with Sidney Crosby but untimely injuries and poor play quickly got him in the dog house. He did get to become a Stanley Cup winner this season so at least he has that going for him.
Bennett has 45 points in 129 career games which is just not what you expect from a first rounder. The Penguins could have had L.A. Kings star Tyler Toffoli, Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher or Carolina’s Justin Faulk instead of striking out with Bennett.
6. 2002 – Ryan Whitney
Ryan Whitney was slowly brought along with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was drafted in 2002 but didn’t make his NHL debut until the 2005-06 NHL season. After three years at Boston University and three years in the AHL, Whitney should have been ready to be a big part of the Pens defensive corps. That didn’t happen. He reached career highs during the 2006-07 NHL season with 59 points in 81 games but injuries really derailed his career, leading him back to the AHL in 2008. He was traded to the Ducks that same year which brought the Penguins Sidney Crosby’s linemate Chris Kunitz.
Whitney struggled even worse with the Ducks and was moved to the Oilers after just 82 games. He could barely crack an awful Edmonton Oilers lineup and he only lasted seven games with his next team, the Panthers. Whitney’s NHL career ended in 2013 with 259 points in 481 games and he is currently playing in Sweden. Can you imagine the Penguins with either Alexander Steen playing with Crosby or Duncan Keith pairing up with Kris Letang? Both were still on the board at no.5 and the Penguins definitely missed out on adding some elite talent.
5. 1989 – Jamie Heward
Here is where we start getting into the worst of the worst of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mistakes. Jamie Heward was selected at no.16 in 1989. Heward would never play a single game with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Heward struggled for three years in the AHL before joining the Canadian National Team. After 46 points in 53 games with the national team, he signed a free-agent deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he played 25 games over two seasons and only had five points. He had his best season during the 2005-06 NHL season with 28 points in 71 games. He last played pro hockey during the 2008-09 season splitting the year between the Tampa Bay Lightning and their AHL team. He retired after the season with 124 points in 394 games.
This draft featured a plethora of elite players picked well after round 1. The Penguins missed out on Detroit Red Wings legends Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom as well as All-Star worthy goaltender Olaf Kolzig who starred for one of the Penguins’ rivals Washington Capitals.
4. 1988 – Darrin Shannon
Darrin Shannon is another player that never actually played for the Penguins. He is even worse than Heward as he never even played for their farm team. After a great junior career, the Penguins selected Darrin Shannon at no.4 in the 1988 NHL draft. Later in 1988 he was packaged with 1984 first round pick Doug Bodger for Tom Barrasso and a 3rd round pick in 1990. In the end, this worked out okay for the Penguins as Barrasso ended up having a long and successful career as a Penguin. But their ability to turn a garbage pick into a diamond doesn’t change the fact that it was a garbage pick. Shannon played for three NHL teams, his best season by far was with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992-93 where he scored 60 points in 84 games. His NHL career ended after the 1997-98 season. He retired with 250 points in 506 career games.
The Penguins missed out on two elite players to pair with Super Mario by skipping Jeremy Roenick (1,216 points in 1,363 games) and Teemu Selanne (1,457 points in 1,451 games)
3. 1984 – Roger Belanger
Roger Belanger was the third 1st round pick for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1984. The Penguins hit a home run with their first pick with Mario Lemieux, they did okay with their 2nd pick in Doug Bodger but they really struck out with their 3rd pick Roger Belanger. Roger was selected 16th overall but he would only play 44 career games in the NHL totaling only 8 points. After one failed season he would never again play in the NHL. He even struggled at the AHL/IHL level reaching a high of 38 points. Over his last two seasons, he only had 7 points juggling between the AHL and IHL. Roger Belanger ended his hockey career in 1988.
The 1984 draft was littered with late round gems. Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull went late in the 1984 draft. Kevin Hatcher was selected one spot after Roger and he had a solid NHL career with 677 points in 1,157 games. Either of those three would have been better than Roger Belanger.
2. 1996 – Craig Hillier
Craig Hillier was drafted at #23 in 1996 from Cole Harbour, the home of Penguins great Sidney Crosby. Safe to say Hillier’s career didn’t go as well. Hillier never made it to the NHL. Craig Hillier was an okay goalie in the OHL, topping out in 1997-98 with 27 wins and a 2.50 goals against average for the Ottawa 67’s. The Penguins tried rushing Hillier and he started his pro career in the AHL and it was a colossal failure. A record of 9-18-6 with a 3.94 goals against average is all he could deliver in his rookie season and somehow it only got worse from there. He would play 11 more AHL games in his career and only won ONE game. The ECHL chewed him up and spit him out as well as he played 36 games over two seasons and only had six victories with a goals against average well over 4.50. He played in lower tier leagues like the UHL and the CHL but his confidence was shattered and he quickly failed there too. He was last seen playing for the Corpus Christi Rayz during the 2003-04 CHL season which was another losing record. The 1996 class was not a strong draft but anyone would have been better than Hillier. Undersized forward Daniel Briere is likely the best option with 696 points in 973 career games.
1. 2007 – Angelo Esposito
Here we have it, the worst selection in Pittsburgh Penguins history. Angelo Esposito had been a high ranked prospect heading into the draft yet he fell like a rock all the way down to no.20 where the Penguins were excited to snap him up. I bet they regret it now. Esposito showed signs of regression even before he left the junior ranks as his point totals decreased every year he spent in the QMJHL. He wasn’t a member of the Penguins for long as they packaged him up and shipped him to the Thrashers for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis in 2008. Esposito was a huge disappointment everywhere he played. He reached his career high during the 2011-12 AHL season scoring 16 points in 38 games. He made the jump overseas in 2012 and has played in various leagues since then. He spent last season as a member of the Cortina SG in Italy. Using him to acquire Hossa and Dupuis at least offsets the failure that Angelo was.
In 2007 the Penguins whiffed and missed out on such great players as Max Pacioretty (selected two picks later), Wayne Simmonds and one of the biggest steals in NHL history in Jamie Benn who went in round 5.
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