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'05 Draftees Letang, Hornqvist Have Blown Away Expectations

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Ten years ago today Sidney Crosby officially became a Pittsburgh Penguin when the Penguins selected him with the first overall pick of the 2005 NHL Draft. Sam Kasan reminisced about that franchise-altering day here. We also wanted to look at two other key players on the Pens' current roster, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist, who were taken in later rounds of that same draft. We reflected on why that happened and how they've blown away expectations since.

Since the 2005 draft was held in Ottawa’s Westin Hotel and closed to the public, only the top 20 prospects were invited to attend. Looking back on it, Kris Letang absolutely should have been one of those players. But somehow, he wasn’t, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

Scouts could certainly see that Letang had elite talent, with his exceptional skating ability standing out the most. Despite that, teams were hesitant about the teenager – primarily because they weren’t sure how the game would be played post-lockout and how the new rules would affect a player like him.

The pace of the game had become so slow heading into the lockout. This was the era of the neutral-zone trap and that in itself bogged everything down. In addition, interference calls weren’t enforced nearly as much as they should have been. As a result, there was a lot of clutching and grabbing as well as tripping and slashing.

As Letang’s biggest asset was his mobility – not to mention he wasn’t the biggest guy – that didn’t seem to be a league where Letang could thrive. How could he make plays if he had guys hanging all over him?

In addition, during his draft-eligible season with the Val d’Or Foreurs, Letang played alongside highly-touted prospect Luc Bourdon. Bourdon was a big, strong blueliner whom scouts were incredibly high on, and he received a lot more publicity because of that. He was chosen fifth overall by Vancouver.

All of that contributed to Letang going in the third round, 62nd overall – many, many slots after the Penguins chose Sidney Crosby with the first pick. Today, there’s probably no way Letang would make it out of the top-10 as the post-lockout NHL turned out to be a tremendous fit for the blueliner and his skillset.

When writing this piece, I came across an article on the same topic from 2009 written by Trib Total Media’s Rob Rossi. And this quote was so perfect, I just had to use it.

“The Penguins came out of the 2005 draft with two cornerstone players," International Scouting Services' Mike Oke told Rossi. "I'm not talking about high-end players. I'm talking about two guys you'll build around for a decade.

“In theory you can do better than getting Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang in the same draft. But in reality, not by much."

While the Pens didn’t actually draft Patric Hornqvist – Nashville gets the credit for that – he’s definitely worth mentioning considering his situation. Somehow, someway, Hornqvist was taken with the very last pick – 230th overall.

Historically, players selected in that slot have not gone on to succeed at the NHL level. Hornqvist is just the third player taken with the final pick of a draft (in the modern era, since 1969) to play at least 100 NHL games and record at least 150 points. And as we know, Hornqvist has done much more than that.

He’s developed a reputation as a top scorer in this league, and if that draft was redone today, Hornqvist would almost certainly go in the first round. Last month, both and Sportsnet did redos of the 2005 NHL Draft. Sportsnet had Hornqvist 13th, while had him 15th. Quite a big jump from the absolute last pick – a couple hundred slots up, no big deal.

Hornqvist grew up playing overseas in his native Sweden and was still playing junior hockey during his draft-eligible season, so that lack of exposure may have been a factor. 

There weren’t a lot of scouting reports available on a player like Hornqvist, but the one we did find on Hockey’s Future that pointed out a few of his flaws. It wrote he may have lacked some foot speed, was weak and needed to add leg and upper-body strength, and finished by saying Hornqvist had to work on his skating, as it was holding him back.

But former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes, who is now head coach of the New Jersey Devils, told me something last year that stuck with me.

“Each player has to have their gift that gets them to the National Hockey League,” he said.

For Hornqvist, he’s got one – his ability to get to the front of the net and make plays there, and his willingness to take a physical beating while doing it.

“You have to identify something about a player when you draft him (in the late rounds), be it hockey IQ, skill level, compete level,” former Predators coach Barry Trotz told the Toronto Star a few years ago. "The thing Patric can do is score in the hard areas."

And Hornqvist has done it many, many times at the NHL level – at least 20 times in five of his seven NHL seasons. Ten years ago, no one probably would have expected that from a draft’s Mr. Irrelevant, but credit to Hornqvist – he made sure his gift didn’t go to waste.

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