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Draft Picks Are Valuable Commodities In Today's NHL Landscape

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Friday night marks the unofficial beginning of the 2010-11 National Hockey League season as the annual Entry Draft kicks off at 7 p.m. from the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles.

The Penguins enter the draft holding seven picks – one each in rounds 1,3,4,5 and 7 and two in the sixth – as general manager Ray Shero and his staff prepare to add several prospects to the team’s talent pool.

While the general thought is to look at the players the Penguins will select as future stars of tomorrow, we must also keep in mind that with a team like the Penguins – one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders – each of these seven picks can also be viewed as assets which Shero and company can use in a variety of different ways to help keep the Penguins among the league’s elite.

If you sit back and break down the average draft from year-to-year, you will find that a team has a good draft if 2-3 players from a particular class develop into solid NHL players. Being that each of the league’s 30 teams start off with seven picks apiece, that means roughly four or five of the players drafted per team will never skate a regular NHL shift.

For teams that finish the previous year ranked near the bottom of the standings, the mindset entering the draft is more likely to include trying to accumulate extra picks, particularly in the early-to-mid rounds, in hopes of unearthing the talent required to turn their ship around.

These picks are usually acquired at the trading deadline when contenders are willing to sacrifice picks in exchange for players who can help put them over the hump heading into the postseason.

As happy as those teams at the bottom are to receive the extra picks, those teams that have championship aspirations have no problem peddling off some of their picks for what they hope will be an immediate reward in the present. This is the situation the Penguins have been in the past four years.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Shero said. “You can’t build through the draft and take seven guys every year for five or six years. There has to be a point where you supplement your team to win and you trade a draft pick for an unrestricted free agent, which we have done. It has worked more times than it has not.

“There is a balancing act because there is a salary cap. You used to have control of guys until they were 31-years-old and now you might have them until they are 25-to-27-years-old. There is a shorter window and you owe it to your fans and your ownership group to try to win. Luckily we have been able to win and we have been competitive.”

The Penguins have made several trades which have sent draft picks to other teams in exchange for veterans the past few seasons, and the result was back-to-back Cup Final appearances in ’08 and ’09 – including a championship in ’09.

Among the draft picks Shero exchanged for proven talent were a ’08 third-round pick to Phoenix for enforcer Georges Laraque in ’07, a ’08 second-rounder and a ’09 fifth-rounder to Toronto for Hal Gill in ’08 and a ’09 third-rounder to the New York Islanders for Bill Guerin in ’09.

Shero also used ’07 first-round pick Angelo Esposito along with his ’08 first-rounder as part of the package which landed forwards Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis in ’08.

Shero expects to continue seeing this trend of contenders having to part with assets such as top prospects and future picks because of how hard it is to keep good teams together for an extended period as a result of the salary cap and the way entry-level contracts quickly rise.

The Penguins sent a 2009 third-round draft pick to the New York Islanders at the 2009 trade deadline to acquire forward Bill Guerin. Credit - Getty Images
“I think you see more and more teams trading draft picks because you have a window,” Shero said. “Entry-level contracts are only three years long and then you see a huge jump from star players’ first contracts to their second. We’ve seen that recently with players such as Kris Letang and Jordan Staal for us, and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago.

“Philadelphia paid a price for the next couple of years to get Chris Pronger. They got to the Final and almost won. We paid a price for Marian Hossa.”

Draft picks can also be used as assets during the selection process as teams attempt to move up and down in the draft to choose a player they may be targeting.

The Penguins went this route in ’03 when former general manager Craig Patrick packaged the third-overall selection along with pick No. 55 and forward Mikael Samuelsson to Florida to move up two spots to No. 1-overall to grab goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Seven years later we can all agree it was worth Patrick including the extra draft pick to ensure the Penguins got Fleury.

Shero also talked about the possibility of moving down in the draft to gather more picks, which is something that could be of interest to the Penguins after they traded their second-round pick to Florida in exchange for Jordan Leopold in March, and then sent one of their three sixth-round picks to Anaheim for goaltending prospect Mattias Modig.

“You are always interested in trading up or down depending on the situation,” Shero said. “Maybe you can acquire more picks if the opportunity to trade down presents itself.”

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