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Penguins Persevere Through Another Chaotic Draft Year

The team did an admirable job through cancelled and postponed seasons, travel and capacity restrictions, and a management change

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

It's been another chaotic draft year in the National Hockey League, particularly for the Penguins.

Last year, the amateur scouting staff had to finish the scouting process virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This year, the group dealt with postponed and cancelled junior and NCAA regular and postseasons, along with travel and capacity restrictions - not to mention Ron Hextall taking over as general manager less than a month into the season, with the accompanying ripple effects regarding staff and philosophy.

But through it all, the amateur scouts remained focused on their main goal, which is to add players into the organization who fit the identity and the culture of the Penguins, and can hopefully contribute in Pittsburgh at some point in the future.

Heading into the 2021 NHL Draft, which will be held virtually on Friday and Saturday, Penguin assistant general manager Patrik Allvin feels the group has put the franchise into a position to do just that with their five total selections.

"I think they've made the best out of the situation," Allvin said. "I think they've done a really good job trying to dig in and do their due diligence. They've met all the players virtually through WebEx and are communicating a lot. I think they made the most out of whatever was available. 

"I know it's tough. They all want to see the guys play; they all want to be well prepared. But under the circumstances, I think they have done an excellent job."

So has Chris Pryor, who was named the Penguins' director of player personnel at the end of February. In his role, Pryor helps oversee the team's scouting efforts in North America and Europe and assists with all player personnel decisions.

"Just stepping in here with the season up and running and trying to figure out the staff and the players, it had to be tough," Allvin said. "But Chris Pryor has been handling the scouting part excellently up to this point. I'm excited about that transition."

Before getting promoted into his current role, Allvin was the Penguins' director of amateur scouting for the 2020 NHL Draft, which didn't take place until October instead of June.

Once it concluded and the group shifted its full attention to the 2020-21 campaign, the scouts had to be patient, as many of the leagues had decided to postpone their respective start dates.

The United States Hockey League (USHL), NCAA and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) - which was the only member of the Canadian Hockey League to crown a playoff champion - all started in November. The Western Hockey League (WHL) wasn't able to begin play until Feb. 26 and was limited to just 24 games, which were exclusively intra-divisional.

However, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) - which is a leading talent supplier for the draft and has member teams in both the United States and Canada - was affected the most.

Their potential start date kept getting pushed back due to public health orders, with the season being postponed indefinitely in December after the province of Ontario shut down. When the region shut down again in April, the league made the difficult decision to cancel the entire season. 

A few of the OHL players went overseas to Europe, and some were able to compete in the World Junior Championship. But ultimately, the Penguins will be evaluating those prospects based on what they saw prior to the 2020-21 campaign.

"I think this year's draft is going to be really, really interesting, because the reality is that the league hasn't been able to scout the kids as much as we want," Allvin said. 

Not only were there a limited number of games on the schedule depending on the league - travel and capacity restrictions made it challenging to watch them in person.

"The U.S.-based scouts couldn't get into Canada, you couldn't get over to Europe, and in some of those European countries, they played without having any access to the fans and scouts," Allvin said. "It definitely will be a different feel with the draft here."

That also applies a little bit to the Penguins' draft philosophy with the change in management.

"There have been some tweaks when it comes to the message, and the guys really adapted and really appreciated the clarity," Allvin said. "I think the communication has been really good. I definitely sense we're on the same page here."

Hextall and Pryor have been on the same page for almost 30 years, starting when they were both members of the New York Islanders organization in the 1993-94 season. Hextall was on the playing side as a goaltender, while Pryor was on the hockey operations side in development. 

They both ended up joining the Philadelphia Flyers as amateur scouts in 1999, and worked together in various capacities for the organization over the years. 

"We think along the same lines, we have the same mindset, we view the game the same way," Pryor said. "There's a loyalty, there's a friendship, there's a working relationship, and we just have a long history of being together."

Pryor's roles also included director of scouting, director of player personnel and assistant general manager under Hextall. Some of his noteworthy draft picks with the Flyers organization include Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny and Carter Hart.

"He's a top evaluator of talent," said Hextall, who said hiring Pryor was a top priority after arriving in Pittsburgh. "Very, very proven track record over many, many years." 

When it comes to the draft, Hextall and Pryor's approach centers around one word: will. It encapsulates the biggest thing they look for in players regardless of their role, which is not necessarily a physical aspect, and more of a mindset.

"That's No. 1 thing that I like from all players, and Chris certainly does as well," Hextall said. "Whether you're a highly skilled player or a role player, to compete on a nightly basis, to win one-on-one battles, to take a hit to get a puck - all those types of things are important."

Hextall has been adamant in saying that he didn't want to walk in and change everything after taking over, as the Penguins are a first-class organization with a distinct identity and culture that other teams strive for. Instead, it's about adjusting and adapting here and there to improve and customize, which is a sentiment Pryor echoed.

"They have a rich history. We don't want to screw that up," he said with a laugh. "We're just trying to build on it. They've done a really good job trying to learn from what they've done here, and hopefully we can integrate what we've done and our thought process and continue on with the success they've had."

Part of that success has come from giving up higher draft picks over the years to acquire players who can help the team win now. The Penguins do not have a first-round selection this weekend, instead holding five total picks in the second round (one), fifth round (one) and seventh round (three).

"That's the price of poker," Pryor said. "When you're trying to win, unfortunately sometimes you have to give up some assets. It's reflective of the Flyers at one time. We were a little similar. We're well aware that we have to build from an asset management standpoint. So we're going to try to do that going forward here, and we're excited. I know we don't have a lot of picks this year. But there's some names out there that we think we have a good chance at, so we're looking forward to it."

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