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Penguins happy to get a player like Esposito

Wednesday, 06.27.2007 / 10:22 AM / Features
Associated Press
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Penguins happy to get a player like Esposito

PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Pittsburgh Penguins supposedly couldn't get a possible impact player, not in this draft. Not drafting No. 20, a pick so low it usually yields a prospect who requires years of development.

So why was first-rounder Angelo Esposito talking Tuesday of possibly playing this season with these Penguins, who already have some of the NHL's best young scoring talent in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal?

The Penguins, bad enough for so many years to get a run of early and exceptional draft picks, perhaps got a little bit lucky this time when Esposito fell to them.

Esposito, who led his Quebec Remparts junior team to the Memorial Cup championship at age 17 in 2006, was the top-rated North American prospect by the NHL's scouting bureau as late as February. Going into the draft, he was No. 8.

But as the draft unfolded Friday night, Esposito became one of those players who keeps falling and falling, for no apparent reason - much like Brady Quinn in this NFL draft and Dan Marino in 1982. Finally, he tumbled to the one team that seemed to least need youthful skills like his.

"Falling in the draft was a little bit disappointing, but now that I'm here it's better than going somewhere else," Esposito said Tuesday. "I'm happy to be here and, at the same time, maybe prove a few people wrong."

Including his own beloved Montreal Canadiens, who passed on him at No. 12 to take American defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The Canadiens and 18 other teams apparently felt Esposito was a little too self centered, didn't progress as much as anticipated and didn't always play with passion last season.

"We lost a lot of good players, and maybe when the season started I was thinking too much about the draft and too much about myself," said Esposito, who is no relation to former NHL stars Phil and Tony Esposito. "But I learned throughout the season how to play on a team."

A team like this one, perhaps?

The Penguins already have three potential top-line natural centers in Crosby, the NHL player of the year; Malkin, the rookie of the year and Staal, an all-rookie forward at age 18.

But Esposito was too fast, too skilled, too tempting for Pittsburgh to pass up, even if coach Michel Therrien must be creative in figuring out how to play them all together. Not that general manager Ray Shero seems overly worried.

"Good players like to play with good players," he said.

Esposito, who turned 18 in February, was used on a wing at times by his junior coach, Patrick Roy. Being so heavily scouted made him feel as if everyone in the arena was watching only him, and it was a bit disconcerting at times.

"What I've learned is it's opinions, and whether the opinions are good or bad doesn't matter because it's what you do on the ice," Esposito said. "Something I've considered is that, now that I know what team I'm going to be on, I can just go out and play my game and not worry about the 2,000 eyes on you."

That might have benefited Staal last season. Rather than being the No. 2 draft pick, he was simply another good young forward on a team with a growing number of them.

"I think he'll, like a Jordan Staal, fly under the radar a bit and be able to settle in and be around some good young players," Shero said of Esposito. "I think it will be good for him."

That No. 7 Esposito wore in juniors may be available to Esposito sooner than later. Forward Michel Ouellet wore it last season, but the Penguins didn't tender him a contract offer.

Gary Roberts was No. 7 with Toronto, but wore No. 10 the last few seasons with Florida and Pittsburgh - something Esposito didn't realize.

"Maybe I'll get that number some day," he said.

Right now, another number is on his mind, and it's not the 66 goals or 177 points he has in 117 games in juniors.

"My goal is to play in the NHL at 18," said Esposito, who must play in Pittsburgh next season or go back to his junior team. "We'll see what happens. I want to work hard and try to make this team at 18."

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