Mike Colligan of TheHockeyWriters.com on the Penguins
Mike Colligan is the Pittsburgh Penguins correspondent at TheHockeyWriters.com and a business of hockey analyst at Forbes SportsMoney.
First, how important is it to the franchise and city to be able to host the draft this year?
Having the ability to host events like the Draft, Frozen Four (in 2013), and an All-Star Game (soon enough) is the reason the Penguins pushed so hard for a new arena. It’s hard to believe that less than ten years ago the team was a consistent last place finisher and the future of the franchise was up in the air.
Hosting the draft is just another landmark in the Penguins’ impressive turnaround story.
What do you think would surprise readers most about this team as we head into the draft?
Jordan Staal (#2 pick in 2006) has played in 431 career NHL games, while all other players drafted in the Ray Shero era have combined for just 156 NHL games. Recent draft classes aren’t expected to be contributing yet and the team has traded away a number of picks along the way, but drafting and player development are important keys to success in the salary cap era.
Can you break down the draft and let readers know what the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s draft class are?
This year’s draft class is an interesting one. The chatter last summer was the Class of 2012 would be the strongest of the past decade. It’s always tough to make those predictions and I’m not so sure that will be the case. Regardless, this class is loaded with defensemen and even a number of second rounders seem poised to turn into solid Top four NHL defensemen.
Outside of the top few picks though, if you’re a team in need of an impact winger or goalie, this probably isn’t your year.
How does the scouting process work for the Penguins – especially as hockey is such an international sport with talent located all over the globe, how do the Penguins see prospects in action and who is involved in taking those evaluations and making player decisions?
There is certainly talent all over the globe but technology seems to be helping teams better locate and identify NHL-caliber talent. The Penguins have a pretty standard sized amateur scouting staff situated across North America and Europe headed by Jay Heinbuck and Randy Sexton.
GM Ray Shero and his upper-level management team oversees the scouting process, but Shero feels that its dangerous for anyone to just dabble in amateur scouting. The entire staff is part of the final decision-making process, but Shero leaves the heavy lifting to Heinbuck and his group.
What typically is the Penguins’ approach to the draft, and how does it differ from that of other teams?
The Penguins typically select the best player available, especially in earlier rounds. They rarely find themselves in the Top 15 selections of the first round so most of their drafted players are still a number of years away from NHL action. The team feels it doesn’t make sense to draft for today’s needs when it can be impossible to predict what the team will look like and need a few years down the road. A number of teams have adopted this same philosophy, but it’s funny how you can still pinpoint exactly which team will select a certain player.
Also, coincidence or not, the Penguins have steered mostly clear of Europeans in the Shero era.
From your vantage point, who are some realistic targets you’d like to see the Penguins take in the first few rounds, and why?
The #22 spot would be great for a team in need of a puck-moving defenseman, but the Penguins don’t need another. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Penguins trade their pick, but I doubt they’ll move out of the first round entirely being that they’re the host team. Therefore I’ll predict they’ll move up five to ten spots and grab a player like Zemgus Girgensons who fits the Penguins ideal mold of compete level, skating, and scoring ability.
There’s some speculation that the Vokoun trade was as much to push Fleury as it was to serve as a solid backup. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that’s exactly why Vokoun was acquired. Capable backups could have been had for less than half the salary they are paying Vokoun. Shero believes competition is a good thing and his hope is the challenge from a legitimate backup in Vokoun will bring out the best in Fleury. I don’t think Coach Bylsma will hesitate to run with Vokoun next season if Fleury struggles.
What are the chances, in your opinion, of the Penguins trading Staal or a defenseman like Martin? And if done, what current NHL players or draft prospects can you see them targeting in such trades?
It seems inevitable than the Penguins won’t exist in their current form 18 months from now. Big decisions will have to be made with regards to the futures of Sidney Crosby and Staal, among others. The team has stated on numerous occasions that they want to keep Staal long-term but the salary cap might force them to part ways. Paul Martin is a talented defenseman that hasn’t found a consistent groove in Pittsburgh yet. I think they’ll give him another year to see if he can get back on track.
If either player does move, the Penguins will need at least one NHL-ready player in return to help them win now.
Who are some of the AHL prospects that you see contributing to this team next season?
Defensemen Simon Despres, Brian Strait, and Robert Bortuzzo all played well in limited action last season. I think all three will be given the chance to make the Penguins out of training camp. If one or multiple step up, that could open the door to trading one of the seven defensemen with NHL contracts. If Strait or Bortuzzo can’t stick at the NHL level, I think they’ll be moved to another organization.
After losing again in the early rounds of the playoffs, what does this team need to do to get back to winning playoff hockey?
The ingredients are still in place for another Stanley Cup run. Part of success in the playoffs comes down to luck and the Penguins got a tough first-round matchup in Philadelphia. Fortunately, the shocking early exit will probably be a great motivator for next season and beyond. If they can finally get Crosby back into the lineup and healthy, they will be a clear favorite once again.
The team seemingly lost self-control in the process during many of those games – how does that happen repeatedly to a playoff-veteran team?
Part of it is obviously the frustration that comes with the early playoff exits. I also think the team lost focus down the stretch with a number of players (Malkin, Neal, Dupuis) chasing individual milestones. It’s nice to reach the 40 or 50-goal plateau, but it can be difficult to flip the switch back to a team approach once the playoffs roll around. I think the players and coaching staff recognize this in hindsight and I expect a focused and determined team next year.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Let’s hope this already lengthy Penguins offseason doesn’t extend even further with a lockout. The NHL has made great strides in recent years and it would be great to see the league maintain that momentum.