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SHERO, MALONE HOPE TO UPGRADE PENGUINS AT NHL ENTRY DRAFT

Thursday, 06.15.2006 / 12:00 AM / News
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SHERO, MALONE HOPE TO UPGRADE PENGUINS AT NHL ENTRY DRAFT
The Pittsburgh Penguins have plenty of options.

With the second-overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, the Penguins are poised to acquire some valuable assets. Their names will be revealed on June 24 at General Motors Place in Vancouver as the draft begins at 6 p.m. and will be televised on OLN in the United States.

General Manager Ray Shero is looking forward to his first draft with the Penguins.

“It’s exciting. You can’t get much better,” he said. “You could have the first-overall pick and that’d be great, but the second-overall pick is very exciting.”

While this will be Shero’s first draft as a general manager, he has had plenty of experience building powers from scratch as an assistant general manager in Ottawa and Nashville over the past 15 years. So, he knows the benefits of drafting near the top of the order.

“I have had that experience being with Ottawa before. It gives you a lot of options. The draft is about acquiring assets that are going to help you and I really hope we can get two or three players out of this draft who will,” he said. “We only have six picks [this year], not seven, we’re missing the sixth-round pick I believe. We’ll see how the day goes. Maybe we will acquire more. It’s an exciting time for the organization. Even if we stay at No. 2 and draft, we’re going to get an exciting player who will help our team for a long time.”

Shero wouldn’t rule out trading up to the No. 1 position, either. The St. Louis Blues own the first-overall selection and are expected to choose top-rated Erik Johnson.

“I’d have some interest, sure. We know who we have rated second; I just want to make sure that when these [proposals] start to come at us, as they are now and especially Friday night and Saturday of next week, that we’re in the position to react if we get offered something to move up, move down – that we’ve already thought of those scenarios and we know what we’re going to do,” he said. “Once we do that, we’ll be as prepared as possible and be ready to go.”

Inquiries have come Shero’s way already.

“I think it happens every draft. Teams are curious about moving up,” he said. “I’ve already had some of those phone calls. We’re going to have a conference call with our scouts and go through some of those scenarios. I guess, most importantly from our standpoint, our guys pretty much have our top five solidified. But, as I said since Day One, we’ll look at all the options and go from there.”

If the Penguins remain at No. 2, they have a bounty of top talent available. Other than Johnson, prospects Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, Nicklas Backstrom and Peter Mueller would give the team yet another solid, young talent. Other than Johnson, who is a defenseman, and Backstrom, a right winger, Staal, Toews, Brassard, Kessel and Mueller are listed as centers. The Penguins have two young, elite centers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“Ray’s philosophy when he came in was who was going to be the best player down the road, regardless of position. That’s where we’ve focused on and it’s something where my staff and I have battled it out and came up with an answer,” Penguins Head Scout Greg Malone said. “We’ll know, in four or five years, if it was the right answer or not.”

Shero says a prospect’s position won’t change the Penguins’ draft philosophy.

“When the draft was here in Pittsburgh in 1997, I was with Ottawa at the time. You talk about drafting the best player or drafting by need. At the time in Ottawa, at the right wing we had Daniel Alfredsson, who was a very good player and still is, and Alexandre Daigle, who had just come off 26 goals and was a first-round pick, and another good player in Andreas Dackell,” he said. “We had a good right side. We were picking 13th or 12th. Pierre Gauthier was the general manager and Marshall Johnston and Andre Savard ran the draft. We talked about that scenario. The best guy we had rated was Marian Hossa. There was some sentiment among the scouts that, because of the right side we had, maybe we should draft a center or defenseman. Andre and Marshall and Pierre said, ‘No, we’re taking the best guy.’ Thank God we did because he’s a superstar in the league. Outside of drafting by position in the first round, I think that’s a good lesson in history, for me anyway.”

Malone agrees and points out that positioning does not affect the organization’s assessments of prospects.

“No matter who we get, it’s a big asset to the organization. I think the coaching staff will dictate when the player gets to Pittsburgh the best position for him and where he fits in with the hockey club,” he said. “I think that is the asset that we want. I am not going to sit there and say we’re going to draft this guy and make him a winger because maybe he will be better off at center iceman and maybe it will be better for the whole organization that he does stay at center.

“I think you have to look at who is available and who is the best player down the road. Everything else will take care of itself.”

Likewise, the Penguins don’t necessarily expect any of their draft choices to be an impact player at the NHL level next season.

“I don’t think that comes into consideration. I think it’s just going to look at the prospects and taking whoever is available. If we have to wait two years for this particular player to come in and be an impact in our organization, that’s the choice I think we’re going to go,” Malone said. “We’re not really necessarily looking at who’s going to be ready next season. We’re looking at, down the road, who is going to be the best player four or five years from now.

However, the Penguins wouldn’t rule out keeping a prospect on their roster, if he is ready to contribute at a high level.

“Every organization comes to that. Basically, that comes down to the general manager and the coaches whether or not the player fits in or how much ice time they are getting and what’s best for their development,” Malone said. “I think that decision probably will be answered after the draft and watching the kid play, particularly in training camp – whether or not he can come in and be helpful to us right away.”

Still, fans should not expect a player to come in and dominate the NHL the way 2005 first-overall pick Sidney Crosby did last season as an 18-year-old.

“At 18 or 19 years old, you really need to be a special player to play in the league,” Shero said. “If you have a special player, you’re going to know it. Obviously, Sidney Crosby is special.”

Another area which the Penguins won’t rule out a prospect is age. Staal, the brother of Carolina Hurricanes star Eric Staal, is one of the youngest players in the draft. He won’t turn 18 until Sept. 10.

“Of all the guys Central Scouting has rated in the top five, he is the youngest. Obviously, we look at everything,” Malone said. “We consider age; we consider size. But, it still comes back to talent. We’re looking at particular prospects out there and we’re projecting not only the first round, but we’re also projecting down the road going through the draft. We take everything into consideration.”

Staal, a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, appears almost as physically mature as his older brother.

“He plays a very similar game to Eric, too,” Malone said.

Toews, who is listed as a center/winger, is the third-rated prospect.

“He’s a solid hockey player. He’s had a solid year at North Dakota,” Malone said. “ He’s had some success on the international level with Team Canada. He’s a very solid hockey player on both sides of the puck.”

Kessel, a 6-foot, 189-pounder, was the second-rated prospect, but dipped to No. 5. Nevertheless, he is a very dangerous player on the ice shooting and distributing the puck.

“I think he does both very well.  I saw him score some key goals at critical times in some big games. He’s what I’d call a natural goal scorer. He has a really good shot with a lot of accuracy on it. I have also seen him set up his wingers well, too,” Malone said. “He’s fast. He has speed. He is explosive. When he has to turn the defenseman wide, he has that extra jump. I think that he has shown that at both the international level and the university level.”

Overall, the draft will give the Penguins the opportunity to continue to upgrade their personnel.

“I don’t think the draft is deep in any particular position. I think the overall depth is probably not as strong as the years in the past, but it’s fine at the top,” Malone said. “In the middle rounds, I think there’s some talent out there. As we all know, as we go through the draft, there are going to be some players who play in the NHL. The goal for myself and the rest of the scouting staff is to make sure we get some assets for this organization.”

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