The Penguins have gotten used to pulling elite prospects such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury out of the first round of the NHL entry draft.
Why not? They've been doing it for most of the millennium.
Not this time, however, and for a couple of good reasons.
While some pretty fair prospects -- guys such as Patrick Kane and Kyle Turris and James vanRiemsdyk -- will be available in the opening round of the NHL entry draft Friday evening in Columbus, Ohio, there's no one with a pedigree rivaling those of the Penguins' recent first-rounders.
And even if there were, it wouldn't matter much to the Penguins because, after selecting first or second in four consecutive drafts, they won't choose until 20th this time. Even in years when the quality and depth of the talent available border on legendary, the superstars-in-waiting aren't stacked 20-deep.
No matter, though. The Penguins, after all, already have a stable of rarefied young talent and having the No. 20 pick hardly dooms them to getting a guy who will be manning a drive-through window before the decade is over.
Consider that in recent years, Alexander Frolov of Los Angeles, Buffalo's Daniel Paille, Travis Zajac of New Jersey and Minnesota's Brent Burns are among the players who have gone 20th overall.
"There are a lot of guys [selected] at 20 who are playing in the league," said Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins' director of amateur scouting. "There are a lot of guys who aren't playing, too. We just hope we get one who does."
The Penguins' scouts have drawn up a list of players they think -- and hope -- still will be on the board after the first 19 prospects have gone. That list hasn't been divulged because letting the world know which kids they like or don't like could undermine the Penguins if they try to work out a trade, but among the players who might still be available then are:
Rugged defenseman Nicholas Petrecki of Omaha in the United States Hockey League, a 6-foot-3, 213-pound stay-at-home type who plans to attend Boston College.
Right winger Simon Hjalmarsso of Sweden, a 5-11, 161-pounder who skates well but needs to upgrade his toughness.
Oshawa Generals left winger Brett MacLean, an aggressive power forward who must improve his skating and finesse game.
Jonathan Blum, a 6-0, 160-pound defenseman from Vancouver of the Western Hockey League who is skilled and a right-handed shot, but reputed to be somewhat soft.
Predicting how teenaged hockey players will develop is a most imprecise pursuit, and scouts offer conflicting opinions on the chances those prospects will be productive NHLers someday. A winger one scout projects as a top-six forward might strike another as an utterly hopeless cause.
"You have to do your homework, and hope that things work out," Heinbuck said. "Usually, [when a prospect is] at 20, there's a reason he's at 20.
"It might be a minute flaw, or something that could prevent him from getting [to the NHL]. But hopefully, you can figure it out the right way and land a guy who can contribute and play in the league."
For the first time in several years, there is no consensus on who the top prospect in the draft is. In 2004, virtually everyone pointed to Russian winger Alexander Ovechkin. The next year, it was Crosby and, in 2006, defenseman Erik Johnson.
This year, it's entirely possible Chicago will take Kane, a high-scoring winger, with the No. 1 pick. Unless the Blackhawks opt for Turris, a solid all-around center, or vanRiemsdyk, a promising power forward.
"It's a good situation to be in," Chicago general manager Dale Tallon said. He added that the Blackhawks, desperate for an infusion of talent on their top two lines, "have a pretty good idea of who we're going to take," but would not identify him.
While the Class of 2007 does not include a can't-miss superstar, many scouts and team executives insist it would be folly to downplay the impact its members might eventually have on the league.
"There are some good players," said new Phoenix general manager Don Maloney, whose team has the No. 3 selection. "Maybe not that elite, franchise player at the top of the pack, but there are some very good players. There always are.
"It might take a little more sorting through to find the hidden gems, but if you look at the big names at the top -- whether it's Kane or vanRiemsdyk or [defenseman Karl] Alzner or Turris -- they're very good hockey players. There are lots of interesting players."
Perhaps even one who will still be there when it's the Penguins' turn to choose.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and continues 10 a.m. Saturday.
Where: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio.
TV: Versus will show Round 1.
Penguins: Select No. 20 in first round.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .