Monday, July 9, 2007

Fall from Grace and Land Softly in Pittsburgh

Most of us are aware of the incredible string of draft picks earned by the Penguins over the last few years, and of course by earned I mean received as a consolation prize after being flat-out, bottom of the barrel awful. Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Whitney, Jordan Staal will all be future stars in this league. Of course, the most famous pick of all was their first overall pick in 2005 of Sidney Crosby. After one of the best single season turnarounds in NHL history, due in large part to those aforementioned youngsters, the Penguins, who were used to drafting in the top three, had the 20th pick overall. To Pittsburgh officials, it must have been like not having a pick until the end of the 5th round. They were primarily passengers for much of the early draft excitement as they simply waited to see who they might be able to snag that slipped through the cracks....nineteen cracks to be exact. However, it appears that the Penguins may have lucked out yet again at the draft.

A year ago Angelo Esposito was considered by many to be a shoe-in for the first overall pick of the draft. The 17 year old was coming off of a stellar 2005-2006 season in Quebec scoring 98 points with 39 goals in just 57 games with a +42 rating. Afterwards, he was quickly appointed the next first overall pick. Angelo himself is the first to admit that the draft pressure impacted him as he cooled off considerably in his next season, and his last prior to the draft, scoring 79 points with 27 goals and a +9 rating in 60 games. This fall off in production sent him tumbling down the prospect rankings. He was quickly stripped of the first overall pick expectation and generally fell somewhere in the latter half of the top 10 on most lists. Scouts claimed that he showed a lack of physical play, often choosing to play on the outside and avoid high traffic areas. They were also concerned with his consistency and play without the puck. Now, of course, it's important to note that he still averaged well over a point-per-game and ended up with a positive plus/minus but he had set an enormous expectation with his performance during the 05-06 season and he simply failed to repeat that same level of success. Fast forward to the draft and the Penguins waiting patiently in the 20th spot.

Player after player is marked off the board and Esposito still sits, waiting to hear his name called. Cameramen frequently frame Angelo's face after each pick is announced. It's tough to watch and I felt for the kid. He plays two major seasons upon which he was judged. The first was astronomical and put him at the top and the second, while seemingly solid according to the statistics, had him free falling through the first round. The same scouts that were once singing his praises had now kicked him down the proverbial stairs.

After 19 other picks, the Penguins management staff, who seemed as surprised as anyone, was able to step to the podium and unveil a black and gold jersey with Angelo's name on it. So now, the team that has all the high first round picks in the world, is able to have a great season and with the 20th pick in the draft still grab a guy who could have possibly been first overall. In interviews, you could tell that the Penguins and Esposito felt as if they'd hit the jackpot. For him, the act of falling so far just to land on Crosby's team was the peak of what had otherwise been a very uncomfortable roller coaster ride. Esposito earned a lot of respect for how he handled the situation and his fall from grace. He spoke openly about how he knew that he hadn't played his best. And now, because of that, he'll most likely get to play with Sidney Crosby and the other wonder-kids in the next few years. Just think, he could have ended up in hockey hell: aka Chicago.

This is one of those draft stories that make sports and the draft so interesting. Historically, the best players in the NFL draft usually get taken in the 2nd round or even later. Tom Brady is a great example of this. You'd think that football would be easier to predict since the young men being drafted are generally in their prime and are expected to play, and play well, immediately. In hockey, we're drafting kids prior to college. We're scouting them at 14, 15 and 16 years old and then trying to predict how they'll perform a handful of years later against people more than a decade older than them. It may be a while before we find out if the Penguins hit the lottery or whether those other teams saw something that the Penguins missed but in Esposito, the Penguins have a player who's proven he can play the game at very high level. He's shown creativity with the puck, a nose for the net and now he has something else...a chip on his shoulder and sometimes that can make all the difference in the world.

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