VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The Penguins have gotten some of the most spectacular talents in NHL history in the first round of the draft.
They’ve also gotten the rights to some guys who don’t qualify as household names beyond the confines of their backyard.
With the 2019 draft set for this weekend in Vancouver, DKPittsburghSports.com is taking a look at the 10 best – and 10 worst – first-round selections since the Penguins entered the NHL in 1967.
The rankings are based not only on what they did with the Penguins, but the player's performance over the course of his NHL career. (NOTE: The omission of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from the following list was an oversight. He should be slotted in at No. 5.)
Here are the 10 best:
1. C Mario Lemieux (1984, No. 1 overall). Aside from breathing life into a moribund franchise a couple of times – once as a player, once as an owner – Lemieux really didn’t do much to justify the hype that came with being the first player claimed in his draft year. Well, aside from captaining two Stanley Cup winners, picking up three more rings as an owner, winning six NHL scoring titles, three regular-season MVP awards and two Conn Smythe trophies, and earning induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame just months after retiring (for the first time) in 1997.
2. C Sidney Crosby (2005, No. 1 overall). After the Penguins’ luck ran the gamut from awful to wretched during their first few decades — when their most memorable games were heartbreaking playoff defeats, and vehicular accidents ended the lives of Michel Briere and Baz Bastien and the career of Stan Gilbertson — the scales tipped dramatically the other way when they won the lottery that secured Crosby’s rights. After three Cups, two Olympic gold medals and numerous individual awards, the only challenge left for Crosby is to polish his Hall of Fame induction speech.
3. RW Jaromir Jagr (1990, No. 5 overall). The Penguins actually caught a break when Crosby was 3 years old, as Jagr – one of five prospects clustered at the top of every team’s list – slipped to them at No. 5. Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Mike Ricci and Keith Primeau were selected before him and all had quality careers, but Jagr ranks among the league’s all-time leaders in just about every offensive category of consequence.
4. C Evgeni Malkin (2004, No. 2 overall). Whereas Crosby ended up with the Penguins because they won a lottery, they got Malkin because they lost one. They had the NHL’s worst record in 2003-04, but dropped behind Washington in the draft order. And while the idea of Crosby feeding pucks to Alex Ovechkin, who went to the Capitals first overall, is intriguing, Malkin proved to be quite the consolation prize. He and Crosby were a 1-2 punch without equal for a number of seasons, and there will be a place for him in the Hall of Fame, too.
5. LW Markus Naslund (1991, No. 16 overall). Management thought Naslund might be capable of great things, and the front office nailed that one. Unfortunately for the Penguins, he did his best work in Vancouver, where he thrived after being traded for Alek Stojanov, who general manager Craig Patrick believed could put some badly needed muscle in his lineup. Whether Naslund would have blossomed here is conjecture – he was a quiet sort who seemed overwhelmed by some of the huge personalities in the Penguins’ locker room at that time – but there’s no denying all that he accomplished with the Canucks.
6. C Pierre Larouche (1974, No. 8 overall). Larouche had a profound impact, on and off the ice, almost from the moment he joined the Penguins. He was wildly popular with fans, particularly female ones, and a prolific offensive talent, piling up 253 points in 240 games before being traded to Montreal. He finished his NHL career with 822 points in 812 games over 14 seasons.
7. C Jordan Staal (2006, No. 2 overall). Staal wasn’t the most gifted player among the four clustered behind defenseman Erik Johnson on most team’s draft boards – the others were Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel – but he was the perfect fit for a team that already had Crosby and Malkin down the middle. Staal had a strong 200-foot game and was capable of filling a shutdown role, as well as scoring some timely goals.
8. D Brooks Orpik (2000, No. 16 overall). Orpik was a physical presence and anchor on the Penguins’ defense from the grim days of the early 2000s through their Stanley Cup in 2009, as well as their failed bids for another title in the five seasons that followed. He went to Washington as a free agent in 2014 and picked up another Cup ring with the Capitals in 2018.
9. C Martin Straka (1992, No. 19 overall). Straka joined the Penguins at a time when they were stacked down the middle, beginning with Lemieux and Ron Francis, and did not crack the lineup until a year after he was drafted. Nonetheless, his well-rounded offensive game allowed him to overcome his modest size (5 feet 9, 171 pounds) and play 954 regular-season games in the NHL before returning to his native Czech Republic after the 2007-08 season.
10. LW Bob Errey (1983, No. 15 overall). Errey never put up the kind of offensive numbers he did while playing junior hockey at Peterborough, where his center was Steve Yzerman, but his strong two-way game made him a valuable contributor to the Penguins’ Cup winners in 1991 and 1992. He also played for Buffalo, San Jose, Detroit, Dallas and the New York Rangers.
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