The 2006 draft, like every draft, presented its own set of intrigue.
Erik Johnson, a defenceman playing out of the US National Development, was the consensus best player available and, with the St. Louis Blues making the selection and lacking any true No. 1 defenceman in the system, selected Johnson. And the rest is…history?
Johnson is widely considered to be a bust, and was recently dealt in a blockbuster deal with the Colorado Avalanche that netted the Blues forward Chris Stewart—ironically selected 18th overall in that draft—and defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk.
At any sports draft, there are two strategies: draft based on the best player availability, or draft based on need. Drafting for need often leads to reaching—selecting a player higher than he was expected to go, because he fills a specific role which you currently lack.
In the two previous drafts (2004 and 2005), the Penguins had finished as one of the worst teams in the league and thus had the second and first overall selections respectively. With those selections they chose two centers in Evegeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, both of whom were projected to, and became, elite players.
After drafting Crosby they didn’t need another center, therefore it’s safe to say they drafted based solely on best player available. This made drafting Jordan Staal, another center, unnecessary.
At the time, the Penguins bigger need was for a skilled winger. Had they drafted based on need, they would have likely chosen Kyle Okposo or Chris Stewart or Jiri Tlusty, both considered major reaches for the number two spot.
Jordan Staal may not be a traditional draft bust, but for the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, his production has to be better than 0.53 points per game. Although some Penguins fans will argue that Staal is not the type of player that will produce points at a high level, why would you draft a player destined for a defensive/third line role with the second overall pick?
Every year the Penguins have had to acquire a winger at the trade deadline, with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Alexei Kovalev getting traded for in recent years. Why? Because they lack any young scoring wingers.
In 2008-09 their highest scoring winger was the 31-year-old Petr Sykora, with 46 points; in 2009-10 it was a 38-year-old Bill Guerin with 45 points. In this past 2010-11 season, the highest scoring winger on the Pittsburgh Penguins was Chris Kunitz with 48 points.
None of these players were drafted or developed by the Penguins organization, all acquired through either free agency or trade.
This season Detroit’s highest scoring winger was Henrik Zetterberg with 80 points, and Tampa Bay’s highest scoring winger was Martin St. Louis with 99 points. San Jose's Patrick Marleau, a right winger, led the team with 73 points this season.
Good teams need production from their wingers, which is something the Penguins have lacked for the past number of years. Penguins management knows this, and attempted to make up for this deficiency this year by acquiring 23-year-old James Neal from Dallas for defenceman Alex Goligoski, and by drafting winger Beau Bennett in the first round of last year’s entry draft.
The difference between the 2004 and 2005 drafts and the 2006 one is the talent gap between the top players. Sidney Crosby was clearly the better player than Jack Johnson and Benoit Pouliot (TSN’s No. 2 and 3 ranked players); and Alex Ovechkin and Malkin were in a league of their own compared to the rest of the 2004 draft class.
The same cannot be said about 2006, where the talent gap was very minimal compared to the other two years. The Penguins were far less “handcuffed” to select a certain player than they would have been in the previous seasons.
The Jordan Staal debate presents the clash of the two draft strategies. Staal, according to the Penguins draft board, was the best player available after Erik Johnson, so they selected him in spite of their other glaring needs.
Notwithstanding his other contributions, Staal is dangerously close to being labelled a bust, based on where he was taken in the draft and his career production.
Of the top-10 picks of the 2006 draft, only defenceman Erik Johnson of St. Louis, James Sheppard of the Minnesota Wild and Michael Frolik—drafted by Florida and now with Chicago—have a lower point-per-game production than Staal.
Hindsight will always be 20/20, but would the Penguins have been better off reaching for a winger at the No. 2 spot in 2006?