Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Evaluating the Penguins 2005 Draft Class

National Hockey League experts will be rushing to pass judgment on the “winners” and “losers” of the annual entry draft within minutes after the two-day selection process concludes on June 26.

However, no matter how the Penguins’ draft class grades out in the present, we must keep in mind that general manager Ray Shero and his scouting staff are selecting 18- and 19-year-olds based upon projections as to how these guys will play when they are 21-24.

With that in mind, instead of waiting to examine the 2010 draft class in a few weeks, or even last year’s selections, we are going to dip back in time and evaluate the Penguins’ 2005 draft class.

The ‘05 class will always be defined by Sidney Crosby, whom the Penguins selected with the first-overall pick. Even if none of their other six selections would have never even sniffed the NHL, the Penguins were assured of hitting a home run the second the ping-pong ball came up in their favor and league commissioner Gary Bettman opened the envelope containing the first-overall pick and revealed the Penguins logo, ensuring Crosby would begin his career in the Steel City.

When you factor in the Penguins were able to grab two-way blueliner Kris Letang with the first pick of the third round (62nd overall), that home run quickly turns into a grand slam to the deepest part of the ballpark. Letang would no doubt be a top-10 draft pick if the ’05 draft were to be held today based upon his rapid development and the fact that GMs at the time didn’t know how the game would be played post-lockout.

Pittsburgh also appears to have unearthed a hidden gem in seventh round (195th overall) selection Joe Vitale, a potential fourth-line/penalty killing center currently toiling for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.

While Vitale figures to help improve the Penguins’ overall depth in a few years, Crosby and Letang have already delivered a Stanley Cup championship, two Cup Final appearances and are both locked into long-term deals which place them at the forefront of the team’s impressive collection of young core talent which will lead the franchise into the CONSOL Energy Center Era.

Crosby was the no-brainer selection when former Penguins general manager Craig Patrick stepped up to the podium in Ottawa on July 29, 2005, and that thought has only become more apparent over the course of the last five years.

Hailed as the savior of both the Penguins and the NHL even before he pulled on a Pittsburgh sweater that day, Crosby hasn’t disappointed on either account.

At 22, the Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia native already has the following accomplishments on his ever-growing resume:

- Youngest captain of a Stanley Cup championship team
- Art Ross Trophy (scoring champion), Hart Trophy (MVP) and Lester Pearson Award (players’ MVP)
- 2009-10 Rocket Richard Trophy winner (leading goal scorer)
- Game-winning goal for Team Canada in the Gold Medal Game at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver

Of course that is but a small sampling of the wondrous display of on-ice wizardry Crosby has performed, but you get the idea.

The Penguins got a steal when they chose Kris Letang with the 62nd overall selection.

As he gets set for his sixth season (where does time go?), Crosby continues to find ways to improve his all-around game. This past year he added goal-scoring sniper and faceoff extraordinaire to his job description as he has quickly become the most well-rounded player in the game. The Penguins couldn’t have asked for a better player, leader and person at No. 1 overall.

While everybody anticipated great things from Crosby, expectations weren’t quite as high for Letang at the time. But that’s why you need to wait a couple years before really evaluating a draft class.

After watching Letang morph into a potential all-star who is a presence in all three zones on the ice, it’s tough to imagine 61 picks going by without Letang’s name being called.

When Letang broke into the NHL he was regarded as an elite offensive prospect. He has proven that analysis to be spot-on, scoring 10 goals during the ’08-09 regular season and pacing all blueliners with five goals this past postseason.

Letang’s goal-scoring exploits alone, combined with his smooth skating and passing skills, would have him considered by many to be a future No. 1 defenseman. Factor in that he has already been entrusted with shutdown minutes after just 217 NHL games by head coach Dan Bylsma and you see why the Penguins made Letang a priority among their upcoming free agents and inked him to a four-year extension in March.

Although Vitale has yet to suit up for an NHL contest and has just 95 AHL games on his docket following a successful four-year run at Northeastern University, he too is seen as potentially having an NHL future, further bolstering the A+ mark the Penguins have already received from the ’05 class.

Vitale projects to be a defensively-responsible performer capable of winning faceoffs and helping out the PK unit when he arrives in the NHL. The Penguins were so happy with Vitale’s development they rewarded him with a two-year contract extension on Jan. 28.

Writers from coast to coast were quick to give the Penguins high marks on the third-to-last day of July in 2005. Five years later those grades have only risen behind the development of Crosby, Letang and Vitale.


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