Top NHL draft prospects Seth Jones, Darnell Nurse and Jonathan Drouin.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEWARK, N.J. -- Anything is possible, of course.
Nothing says that general manager Ray Shero couldn't work out a major trade today, one that allows the Penguins to make their first selection in the NHL draft while most of the crowd is making its way into the Prudential Center.
As things stand, however, no fewer than 76 prospects are supposed to be chosen before the Penguins make their first pick, around the middle of Round 3.
That means their chances of ending up with an impact player aren't very good.
But not necessarily as bad as some might suspect.
For while the quality of a draft class can't be accurately assessed until years later, this one has the potential to go down as one of the deepest in recent summers.
Not quite the equal of, say, 2003, but worthy of comparison to 2008.
"You go down almost any list that's out there, in publications, and you see that there are good players probably deeper than in the last several years," said Jay Heinbuck, the Penguins' director of amateur scouting.
The 2003 draft has become something of a gold standard by which drafts can be measured.
If not because of the players who were the first few to go -- Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal and Nathan Horton were the top three -- then because of the quality contributors that teams were able to pick up as the opening round was winding down.
New Jersey got Zach Parise at No. 17. Ryan Getzlaf went 19th to Anaheim. Vancouver grabbed Ryan Kesler with the 23rd choice, one spot before Philadelphia claimed Mike Richards.
After which Florida snagged Anthony Stewart at 25, Brian Boyle went to Los Angeles and, one choice later, Anaheim put an exclamation point on the round with its selection of Corey Perry.
"That was a pretty good draft," Heinbuck said. "There were a few misses in there, but geez, it goes down pretty far.
"There's sort of a drop-off after 29 or 30, then it gets to be start of a [mix] of guys who made it and guys who didn't. That certainly was a very good first round, for the most part."
And while he won't rule out the opening round in 2013 proving to be the equal of that from a decade earlier, neither does he seem eager to draw that parallel.
"Possibly, but it's hard to predict," Heinbuck said. "Boy, you have some nice players there in the 20s [in 2003], and that doesn't always happen."
There definitely are some pretty good headliners in this year's group. Center Nathan MacKinnon, defenseman Seth Jones and left winger Jonathan Drouin are universally regarded as elite prospects; the only uncertainty is which will prove to be the best pro.
Although MacKinnon is the favorite to go first overall to Colorado if the Avalanche retains that pick, that doesn't mean he's a consensus choice.
"Even within our staff, there are some guys who really like Jones, some who like MacKinnon and some who like Drouin," Heinbuck said. "They're such good players, and they all offer something different.
"Jones is that big defenseman who does a lot of things well, Drouin is such a crafty but smaller player, and MacKinnon, he's intensity with skill and grit. There's a lot to like there, and all for different reasons."
Mind you, unless Shero makes a bold move, the top three prospects might be on flights home before the Penguins make their first trip to the arena stage to announce a selection because of the trades that sent their first-rounder to Calgary for Jaroma Iginla and their No. 2 to San Jose for Douglas Murray.
With the Penguins having no choices before Round 3, their scouting staff likely spent many hours evaluating players who have no chance of being available when it's their turn to select. That, Heinbuck said, simply is an occupational hazard.
"Your ultimate goal is to try to win the Cup, and that's what we tried to do," he said. "It's exciting when you have a first-round pick, but we all understand that [trading them can be] part of the process.
"You use assets to make trades. Sometimes, the asset's an upcoming draft pick, and sometimes, it's players you've already picked. That's our job, to work with what we're given and see how it turns out."
Of course, it could have been worse. Could have been a repeat of 2008, when the Penguins didn't select until the fourth round. Or almost any other year, when the talent pool isn't as deep and diverse as this one looks to be.
"In the past, more often than not, it seems to me, we've had a pretty strong group of defensemen, but this year, it's pretty spread between forwards and defensemen," Heinbuck said. "There's a good mix."