Few drafts–in any sport–have produced as much top-end talent as the 2006 NHL Draft. Four of the top five picks have represented their country in the Olympics. Two have made All-Star appearances. Two have won Stanley Cups. One is even a Conn Smythe winner. The best stat yet? All five players are under the age of 24.
The next 25 picks were not exactly scrubs either. Claude Giroux, Michael Grabner, Chris Stewart, and Kyle Okposo are all budding NHL superstars.
For Penguins fans though, satisfaction is not determined by the success of the first round as a whole. Instead, it is measured through a simple equation: The success of Jordan Staal minus the success of the three picks selected after him. After five seasons and a Stanley Cup, the question of whether Staal was the best choice for the Penguins still looms.
In any other draft the selection of Staal with the number two pick would have been unquestioned. Jack Johnson and Benoit Pouliot were picks three and four in 2005. Kyle Turris and Thomas Hickey in 2007. But, in 2006, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel were picks three, four, and five. All three are NHL All-Stars, Olympians, and the face of their franchise. Staal is none of the above.
Before comparing Staal to the field, understand that Kessel was labeled as a Center by most scouting agencies at the time. Those unhappy with the Staal selection are quick to criticize GM Ray Shero for drafting a Center when the need was obviously for a scoring winger.
Central Scouting’s highest rated winger at the time was Stewart—a player that has scored 28 less goals than Staal to date. And Giroux–the consensus top winger from the draft now–has never scored more than 25 goals in a season. Staal’s career high is 29.
Others may point out that Kessel was already seen as a prime candidate to switch to wing. Remember though, Staal’s 29 goal performance came in his only season at wing. It also happened to be his rookie season. Think if Staal would have continued his career as a wing for the Penguins. It is hard to imagine that he would not have eclipsed the 30 goal mark by now. He may have even reached 36–the highest single season total (Kessel) for any player selected in the 2006 draft. Surely 36 would have been within reach if Evgeni Malkin continued to center Staal’s line as he did in 2006-07.
Instead, Staal was placed on a third line with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke. Kennedy had never scored more than 22 goals in the minors let alone the NHL. For Cooke, 15 was the ceiling.
“Had Staal not been selected by the Penguins he’d likely be a No. 1 or No. 2 center elsewhere in the NHL. In turn, he’d likely have higher scoring totals. It’s not often you’re selected on to a team with two of the top five players in the world playing your same position.”
The move resulted in back-to-back Eastern Conference championships and a Stanley Cup. Perhaps the Penguins didn’t need a scoring winger as much as thought.
Still, many point out that Toews, Backstrom, and Kessel all would have won a Cup if put in a similar situation.
For Backstrom, he is in a similar situation. Washington has won a Presidents Trophy and four straight Southeastern Division championships. He has played the majority of his career on a line with Alex Ovechkin but still has five less playoff goals than Staal. If Backstrom has that much trouble scoring in the playoffs, then how would he be able to produce points and shut down the opposing team’s top player in crunch time?
Likewise, Kessel was placed in a position to win the Stanley Cup. The Boston Bruins hoisted hockey’s ultimate prize just two seasons after he was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Obviously something wasn’t working in Boston. To say that Kessel was solely to blame for holding the Bruins back in the playoffs would be ignorant. Certainly though, he was not a part of the solution.
Neither Backstrom nor Kessel could fill the role that Staal is asked to fill on the Penguins. He wasn’t drafted to be a point-producer. Crosby and Malkin fill those roles just fine. Rather, he was selected for his defensive game and ability to chip in offensively when needed. And, as we saw in his rookie season, he can post solid goal numbers if given the opportunity.
Of the three players selected directly behind Staal in the 2006 draft, only Toews boasts a more impressive résumé. His Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy indicate that he would have been a nice fit for the Penguins. While Toews excels offensively, his defensive game ranks among the best in hockey. Still, Staal (09′) and Toews (10′) totaled the same amount of points in Stanley Cup Finals. Also, Toews has arguably never scored a more important goal than Staal did in game four of the 2009 Finals. His shorthanded tally with the Pens down 2-1 and on a second consecutive penalty kill was perhaps the biggest goal of the series.
As much as Penguins fans like to re-create the 2006 draft with Toews, Backstrom, or Kessel slipping on the flightless bird sweater, the fact is that Staal was nearly a perfect pick.
His role as a shutdown center frees Sid and Geno from matching up against opponents top offensive weapons. Of the other draft possibilities, only Toews was capable of having a greater impact for Pittsburgh. Before slotting the Blackhawks captain in the the Penguins lineup though, keep in mind that Staal is the only player from the 06′ draft to be nominated for a Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top offensive defenseman.
Plenty of Penguins fans peg Staal as a disappointment. Some even label him a bust. Here are the facts: Toews, Backstrom, and Kessel have all had the same opportunities as Staal to win a Stanley Cup. Yet, Staal has appeared in more Stanley Cup Finals than any of them. And, he owns as many Cups as any player selected 2006 draft.
Staal may not be the best player from the 2006 Draft, but he is the best fit for the Penguins.