It’s no secret that the Penguins’ pool of prospects has, in large part, dried up in recent years, to the point that it's more of a puddle these days.
No surprise, either.
After all, they’ve been in win-now mode for more than a decade, and a key part of that philosophy – whether it’s being implemented by Ray Shero, Jim Rutherford or any other general manager – is being willing to surrender future assets for an immediate upgrade in talent, usually at the trade deadline.
That’s a price teams routinely pay seeking to earn a Stanley Cup before their window of opportunity slams shut.
It definitely has been the case with the Penguins, who have retained just one first-round selection in the past six years. (And the guy they claimed with that, Kasperi Kapanen, was dispatched to Toronto one year later in the Phil Kessel deal.)
But when Rutherford heads to Vancouver for the draft this weekend, he’ll have a No. 1 choice stashed in his carry-on luggage. The question is, will he still possess it by Friday evening, or will he exchange it in a trade to enhance his team’s chances of contending for another title next spring?
Rutherford chuckled softly when the question was posed recently, and stressed that the plan is to retain that pick. The plan, however, comes with no promises.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I don’t intend to move it, but if we move it, it’s going to be for a good player who’s going to come and help us immediately. I’m not going to move it for a 30-year-old. If somebody offers us somebody under 24 or 25 who’s going to be here for at least five years and he’s a good player, you might have to say, ‘Well, maybe we should do it.’
“Because everything is about winning now. When it comes time to rebuild the team, whenever that is – three years, five years from now – you just have to rebuild it. Ideally, what I’d like to do is retool the team and still give this team a chance to win the next few years.”
If Rutherford isn’t enticed to part with his first-rounder, which is No. 21 in the draft order, the Penguins intend to use it on the best prospect/asset available, rather than looking to address a specific need in their organization. That’s standard procedure in the NHL, because few prospects are capable of playing in the league within months of being drafted.
“There’s a group of five or six guys that our staff really likes, where we’re picking,” Rutherford said. “I’m pretty sure that we’ll get one (picking) there. And it could be any (on-ice) position.”
Even if the Penguins make a first-round choice, it won’t necessarily be the one they’re holding at the moment. While teams tend to stick with their place in the draft order, Rutherford said the Penguins will at least investigate the plusses and minuses of sliding up or down from their current spot.
“We do the analytics on all that stuff, how far up we think we should move or how far down can we move and still get somebody we want,” he said. “That’s all in place.”
That doesn’t mean the Penguins will move in either direction anytime soon.
Deals to tweak a team’s draft position generally don’t happen until the draft is underway and, based on which prospects have been selected and who remains available, decisions can be made about whether it’s prudent to move up or down.
Trade scenarios with potential partners certainly can – and probably should – be discussed in advance, because negotiating a fair exchange of assets on the fly could be quite tricky. At the same time, it would be folly for a GM to complete a trade without being certain he will be able to get a player he is targeting.
“You really don’t know until you’re about two picks away,” Rutherford said. “You prepare yourself for it, so you have an idea of what could happen, but you really don’t know until you get closer. If you have five or six guys who are still on the board and you’re only two picks away, you know you can move down and still get one of them. That’s when you can answer that question.”
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