QUESTION: Is there any urgency in the Penguins organization to find a new GM? With the entry draft a little over a month away, don't they need to find one soon? Do the scouts handle most of the decisions in terms of what kind of a player the team needs?
-Michelle of Ottawa
BOB GROVE: You've got it right -- the scouts run things on draft day. So there's no need to have someone in place to make selections at the June 24 draft in Vancouver. But that's not to say there shouldn't be some urgency for the Penguins in naming Craig Patrick's replacement.
At the moment, Boston, Colorado and the New York Islanders are also searching for a new GM, which means the Penguins could lose a good candidate or their preferred candidate if they don't move quickly enough. Of course, you don't want to rush a decision like this, but they also need to hire a GM as soon as possible because this guy will have a lot on his plate. He's got to add to the management and coaching staff. Most importantly, he's got to assess the talent level already in the organization, assess the team's needs and be ready to make trades the week of the draft (when there's always plenty of activity) and hit the ground running when free agency begins July 1. In my opinion, this position should be filled in the next two to three weeks -- at the very latest.
QUESTION: Who do you think is the best choice for Pens in the draft and why? What do you think of JonathanToews?
-Lee of Pittsburgh
BOB GROVE: I believe the best outcome for the Penguins would be to draft defensemen Erik Johnson, the No. 1 rated prospect according to the NHL Central Scouting Bureau and Red Line Report. The 6-4, 222-pounder, playing with the U.S. National Under-18 development program, has size, skill and toughness. He can be a factor at both ends of the ice; he had 49 points and 88 penalty minutes in 47 games this past season. The Penguins need more defensive depth in their organization, and Johnson, who led the U.S. to the Under-18 World Championship in April, would certainly provide that. He has committed to play at the University of Minnesota this fall.
Jon Toews, a 6-1, 195-pound forward who was a freshman at North Dakota this past season, remains one of the top prospects in this draft, ranked third by both Central Scouting and Red Line Report. He had 22 goals and 39 points in 42 games as a freshman, helping North Dakota to the Frozen Four and scoring a goal in their semifinal loss to Boston College. He was named MVP of the NCAA West Regional, scoring two goals and five points in wins over Michigan and Holy Cross. The Winnipeg native also helped Canada to the gold medal at the World Junior Championships, and he's a product of Shattuck St. Mary's, the same school at which Sidney Crosby and Ryan Malone played.
Toews, not surprisingly, told Canadian Press recently that he's "not in a rush to go anywhere," and that fits with all other speculation that Toews would not be turning pro this fall. He is considered a smart player and perhaps as complete a player as there is in the draft: a kid with no glaring weaknesses in his game. If the Penguins don't get Johnson and wind up with Toews -- or with Jordan Staal or Phil Kessel -- they will still have drafted one heck of a player.
QUESTION: With the GM position still in the air, are there any front runners yet, and has Michel Therrien been associated with any of them before? Does Therrien he have any input to the selection (choosing his boss!)?
-Ray of Orrstown, PA
BOB GROVE: There have been a lot of names tossed out as possible candidates for the Penguins' vacant GM position, including Dallas pro scout John Weisbrod; agent Pat Brisson; former Rangers' GM Neil Smith; Ottawa assistant GM Peter Chiarelli; Nashville assistant GM Ray Shero; Detroit assistant GM Jim Nill; former Calgary GM Craig Button, now a pro scout for Toronto; and Brent Sutter, owner, GM and coach of the Red Deer franchise in the Western Hockey League. Agent Steve Bartlett was quoted in the Boston Globe two weeks ago saying he believed Shero was a candidate in both Pittsburgh and Boston.
As far as I know, Michel Therrien does not have ties to any of these potential candidates. And, no, he will not have input into this decision.
QUESTION: What former draft picks are the Pens looking to sign or let go?
-Wendy of Downingtown
BOB GROVE: For some time now, draft rules have stipulated that NHL teams have two years (June 1 deadline) to sign North American amateurs not playing college hockey, with those who remain unsigned re-entering the draft. Meanwhile, there was no limit on how long NHL teams retained the rights of their unsigned European picks. The new collective bargaining agreement, however, stipulates 1) that NHL teams will lose rights to all unsigned European picks drafted in 2002 or earlier unless they're signed by this June 1, and 2) that NHL teams now must sign all European picks within two years or lose their rights, putting those players back into the draft. So the clock is ticking on several members of the Penguins' 2004 draft class and several European picks.
Among the Penguins' unsigned North American 2004 picks are centers Brian Gifford (third round), Tyler Kennedy (fourth round) and Jordan Morrison (seventh round); defensemen Michal Sersen (fifth round) and Chris Peluso (seventh round); and right wing Moises Gutierrez (sixth round). Of those, Sersen (79 points in 63 regular-season games with Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League); Morrison (68 points in 67 games with Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League); and Kennedy (70 points in 64 regular-season games with Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL) are coming off good offensive seasons. Sersen and Morrison have continued their fine offensive play in leading their teams into the Memorial Cup, which begins Friday. Sersen (6-2, 190) is among the best offensive defensemen in junior hockey, but Morrison (6-0, 165) and Kennedy (5-10, 183) are on the small side.
Gifford is a 6-2, 187-pounder who had 26 points in 56 games with Indiana of the United States Hockey League; Peluso is a 5-11, 185-pounder who had 24 points in 57 games with Sioux Falls of the USHL; and Gutierrez is a 6-3, 213-pounder who had 29 points in 66 games. Of course, you can't judge a player simply on his offensive stats.
Primary among the European picks the Penguins must sign by June or lose is second-round 2002 pick Ondrej Nemec, a defenseman who played this past season with Karlovy Vary of the Czech Elite League. Sergei Anshakov, the 6-3, 180-pound Russian forward acquired from Los Angeles in the Martin Straka deal, like 2004 pick Evgeni Malkin, can't be signed until Russia joins the transfer agreement the NHL has already worked out with other hockey-playing countries. It is assumed the NHL will give NHL teams who drafted Russians in 2004 a waiver until Russia becomes part of that agreement.
My guess is that Sersen, Nemec and Morrison have the best chance of being signed by June 1.