VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- There are two completely distinct occurrences transpiring over the two days of any NHL Draft:
• The draft.
• The stuff people care about.
That's not to diminish the main event. The prospects chosen here, beginning Friday night with the first round, will make waves across the sport. This one will probably pick up on the opposite coast, mind you -- the Devils and Rangers go first and second and are expected to take exceptional talents Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, respectively -- but it'll be felt everywhere eventually. And that'll apply to all seven rounds, lest anyone forget Patric Hornqvist was selected when only he and the janitor were left in the building.
But there's beyond that process and all related pageantry. And to be candid, in covering this draft with Dave Molinari, for as much attention as we'll devote to the Penguins' picks, chiefly the one they'll take 21st overall, our eyes and ears will be equally fixed on the draft floor, as well as the hotel lobbies and everywhere else execs mingle to make the moves that make the most immediate impact.
To that end, here are a handful of non-draft things I'd like to see the Pittsburgh delegation get done here, in descending order:
3. PRIORITIZE SKILL.
The concept that hockey's at some crossroads between speed and size is currently being overhyped because the Blues were heavier than most, but there's nothing to it. The Blues weren't bigger than the Jets or Sharks, and they weren't much bigger than the Stars or Bruins, either. They bruised opponents with will, a healthy mix of all the tangibles and camaraderie.
In all conversations, and absolutely including those related to the draft, the Penguins should prioritize the one trait that's been fad-proof for centuries: Skill.
Other traits can be acquired routinely down the road. Need a leader? They're out there as free agents for six-figure salaries. Need a burner? No one's grossly overpaying for Carl Hagelin or Michael Grabner. Need bulk? Those guys are cheapest of all.
But skill costs. Erik Karlsson just got $11 million annually from the Sharks because of skill. Mitch Marner's on the verge of asking that much from the Maple Leafs. And the Flyers just handed Kevin Hayes $50 million in guaranteed cash because ... because ... because they're the Flyers, so leave them out of this.
The point stands.
The Penguins, particularly at the prospect level, are gasping for an influx of skill. Those days when they dominated all the NHL's All-Star teams and awards are fading fast. They're now runners-up or absent altogether. Having Jake Guentzel emerge as a 40-goal sniper is a blessing beyond compare. Adding Dominik Kahun was an inspired start to this offseason. Now add more, top to bottom in this draft and in any other move.
2. SET A HARD COURSE.
There's no rebuild at hand. Or even a partial rebuild. Jim Rutherford's been making that clear to his lieutenants behind the scenes, from what I've picked up, but more than that needs to happen. And this is the place. Because it's crazy rare for all of an NHL team's executives, scouts, coaches and other instructors to be under one roof and, for most, it only happens at a draft.
Look them all in the eye. Let them know that no team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and other championship pieces is about to delve into a rebuild of any kind. Point to the Bruins reaching the Final with a far older core. Paint a plan toward replenishing the system, as happened in Boston with a bevy of quality draft picks, while not straying from what's already in Pittsburgh.
Above all, emphasize that the page is the same. Far too often, Rutherford and Mike Sullivan appear to have a divergent view of a player right after an acquisition, that never being more obvious than with Ryan Reaves. Those two need to figure it out but, almost as important, they need to share that same message in that same voice, all the way from communicating it to ownership right down to the lowest-tiered scout working out of some Helsinki cave.
If everyone's hearing and heeding, if everyone's involved, if everyone feels invested, that makes for an organization strong enough to step up and bark back before a Reaves or Derick Brassard move is ever made. That was the kind of togetherness I heard about from so many sources in the days after the universally uplifting Jared McCann/Nick Bjugstad trade. The consulting was through all rooms, the smiles that much broader, the satisfaction that much greater once those two performed as they did.
Repeating: This is the place.
1. TRADE PHIL KESSEL.
I know, I know, it's not that simple with the limited no-trade and all that. Also, the return matters. One doesn't simply dump a point-a-game player when one is purporting to be seeking skill.
But if that meeting of the minds actually takes place here -- and I'm told there's plenty of that sort of thing on the docket -- I can promise that the projected identity of the 2019-20 Penguins, if not the whole of the system, will be that they're about to become a hell of a lot harder to play against.
"That’s what we were missing,” as Rutherford said over the past weekend “You look at the way the playoffs went ... if we had that, who knows what could’ve happened?”
He’s right. Which is awesome.
So back it up.
Rutherford won't be fooling anyone here that he'll 'probably' bring back Kessel, or that he'll keep Kessel 'as I sit here right now,' or any of the other willful soft-pedaling he's done of late. He wants Kessel gone. Sullivan wants Kessel gone. And anyone who'd want the Penguins to fully embrace the aforementioned mindset, to really come together again, to really cull the best of what the Blues just did ... they'd want Kessel gone, too.
Seriously, let's stop tiptoeing around this. Let's stop the false equivalency of including Malkin and Kris Letang in this doghouse dialogue when it's always been about Kessel. Let's clear up what most needs to be cleared up. There will be 30 other GMs on the floor. One of them will covet Kessel, and one of them will be among the teams he hasn't crossed off his list. So get it done.
Sometimes, getting on the same page first requires turning one.
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