Using first-round draft choices wisely can accelerate a team’s effort to rebuild, or to solidify its place among Stanley Cup contenders.
Drafting teenaged hockey players is a most imprecise pursuit, however, and every club has had its share of promising prospects who never come close to realizing their perceived potential, for any number of reasons.
The Penguins certainly are no exception.
With the 2019 draft set for this weekend in Vancouver, DKPittsburghSports.com will take a look at the 10 best – and 10 worst – first-round selections in franchise history. The rankings are based not only on what they did with the Penguins, but a player’s performance over the course of his NHL career (if he had one).
Here, then, is one man's take on the 10 worst:
10. Defenseman Derrick Pouliot (2012, No. 8 overall). Getting the pick that landed Pouliot was a key to the trade that sent Jordan Staal to Carolina in 2012, and Pouliot seemed like he had the offensive skills to fit in nicely in today’s NHL. However, he sputtered through parts of three seasons with the Penguins before being dispatched to Vancouver, which reportedly will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
9. Center Chris Wells (1994, No. 24 overall). Wells had the size (6 feet 6, 225 pounds) to be an effective shutdown center, and the Penguins were convinced that his strong overall game would allow him to overcome subpar skating and become a major asset at this level. They were wrong.
8. Right winger Robert Dome (1997, No. 17 overall). Dome seemed like he had a chance to move right into the NHL when the Penguins claimed him after two decent seasons in the International Hockey League. Oh, he got there, but didn't stick around for long. Dome appeared in 52 games with the Penguins, scoring seven goals, before closing out his NHL career by playing in one game for Calgary.
7. Goaltender Craig Hillier (1996, No. 23 overall). The Penguins had big plans for Hillier, who they thought could solidify the position for a decade or so. Turned out they should have set a more modest objective for Hillier. Something like getting into a single NHL game, a feat he never managed.
6. Defenseman Stefan Bergkvist (1993, No. 26 overall). Bergkvist looked to be a perfect fit for the Penguins when he was drafted – he was big, physical and sound defensively – but his career was sabotaged by a benign tumor on the hearing nerve on the right side of his head that was discovered while he was playing for the Penguins’ farm team in Cleveland. He made it into just seven games with the Penguins before returning to his native Sweden.
• Related: Top trades involving No. 1 picks
5. Center Roger Belanger (1984, No. 16 overall). Belanger was doomed to be overshadowed by the two guys the Penguins drafted ahead of him in 1984, Mario Lemieux and Doug Bodger, but he projected as at least a solid bottom-six center. Injuries scuttled any chance he had to make an impact as a pro, though, and he made it into just 44 games with the Penguins, all in his rookie season.
4. Goaltender Gordie Laxton (1975, No. 13 overall). The Penguins thought they had found their goalie of the future when they claimed Laxton, and they were correct. It just turned out to be not much of a future. Laxton got into 17 games, winning just four, over four seasons with them before disappearing into the mists of hockey history.
3. Center Angelo Esposito (2007, No. 20 overall). There was a time when Esposito was a consensus choice as the top prospect available in his draft year, but he had plunged through the rankings by the time teams actually had to make their selections. Still, the Penguins felt fortunate that he had slipped to them in the second half of the opening round. Uh, not exactly. Esposito had injury issues and never made it into an NHL game. The Penguins ultimately sent him to Atlanta in the trade that landed Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis.
2. Center Garry Swain (1968, No. 4 overall). He had a goal and an assist in nine games with the Penguins in 1968-69, then resurfaced in the World Hockey Association in 1974, beginning a forgettable three-year stint (22 goals, 33 assists, and plus-minus of minus-43) with the New England Whalers.
1. Goaltender Steve Rexe (1967, No. 2 overall). And the first shall be last. Rexe, the initial No. 1 choice in franchise history, claims the bottom spot on this list after failing to appear in a single NHL game.
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