COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If they held this draft six months ago, Angelo Esposito might well have been the first player selected.
If they held it a year ago, he almost certainly would have been.
But Esposito's reputation -- and his rating -- picked up quite a few dents during the winter of 2006-07, and he still was available after 19 teams made their selections in the opening round of the NHL draft at Nationwide Arena last night.
The Penguins had no inkling Esposito would last so long -- "We had him very high on our list," general manager Ray Shero said. "So much so that we didn't have a name tag for him" -- but made sure he wasn't there for the club picking 21st.
Esposito, at this juncture, appears to be a classic high-risk, high-reward choice: If he lives up to his promise, he can be a difference-maker for years to come. If not, he'll go down as a underachieving bust.
Shortly before the draft began, the Penguins traded forward Chris Thorburn, who will be a restricted free agent July 1, to Atlanta for a third-round draft choice, the 78th overall.
Although no one had expected Esposito to drop so far in the draft order, he insisted that he was not bothered, even though he acknowledged that "it was a long wait there" before Shero announced that he was the Penguins' choice.
"It's not disappointing at all," Esposito said. "I've never been happier in my life, other than winning the Memorial Cup. Landing with a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins, I couldn't be any happier."
Esposito had 27 goals and 52 assists in 60 games with Quebec in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. He is 6 foot 1, 180 pounds and was ranked No. 8 among North American forwards and defensemen by NHL Central Scouting in its final ratings after being first at midseason.
Shero said "we're not sure" and that "we don't really care" why Esposito's stock plummeted, although more than a few scouts questioned his commitment and apparent lack of passion at times.
Esposito said he also does not know why scouts soured on him, but insisted he does not plan to dwell on it.
"It's over now, and I'm looking forward to the future," he said.
That includes joining a team that is loaded with quality young centers like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, although Esposito said that the state of the Penguins' depth chart at his position of choice is "not at all" a concern.
"It's going to be a good challenge for me," he said. "We'll see what happens in training camp. I can't look too far ahead."
Actually, he does have a bit of experience on the wing, if the Penguins would opt to use him there at some point. Esposito pointed out that his junior coach, Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, used him on the wing for about six weeks last season "just to make sure that I adapted to learning to play" there.
Esposito said he hopes to contend for a spot on the Penguins' roster this fall, but acknowledged that it's far from certain that he'll be able to move into a job at that level.
"I'm working hard this summer," said Esposito, whose workout partners include Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier. "My goal is to play in the NHL next year.
"But, obviously, if it doesn't happen and I have to wait a year or so, I wouldn't be upset."
Going into the draft, there had been considerable speculation that Esposito's hometown team, Montreal, would claim him if he still was available at the 12th spot, but the Canadiens passed.
"I thought maybe I'd go there, but I wasn't expecting anything," Esposito said.
Esposito played on Quebec's Memorial Cup winning team in 2006, and was widely praised for his work with Alexander Radulov, now in Nashville.
Their play reinforced the belief that Esposito might be most effective in a non-starring role. If so, being with the Penguins -- where players like Crosby and Malkin, among others, command so much attention -- could be an ideal situation for him.
"I really believe that coming into the environment, with the team we have and a lot of guys to take that pressure off him ... he'll be like a Jordan Staal, able to fly under the radar a bit and be able to settle in," Shero said.
Certainly, Esposito seems to recognize that joining the Penguins could work to his long-term benefit.
"I couldn't say it before, but it was a team I'd love to play on," Esposito said. "And I'm happy I'm here."
Now, his challenge is to make the Penguins feel that way, too.Bruce Bennett, Getty Pictures
Angelo Esposito, shown here wearing his new team colors, was picked 20th overall by the Penguins in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio last night.
Click photo for larger image.
When: Rounds 2-7, 10 a.m. today.
Where: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio.
Radio: WBGG-AM (970) will cover the second day of the draft.
Penguins: Have pick numbers 51, 80, 111, 118, 141, 171 but no pick the seventh round.