Back in June 2012, I went down to Consol Energy Center to watch the 2012 NHL Entry Draft with a couple of friends. Mostly, I went to see the new facility, as watching a draft in-person is pretty boring unless you are a) a member of an NHL team doing the drafting b) a young man getting ready to be drafted c) related to a young man from option b.
As you watch these 18 year olds take the stage, with their $100 haircuts and just a wisp out of high school, you realize that most of them will never make it to the NHL due to the grueling attrition of pro sports. But for both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a good number of players that were standing on the stage just past center ice in 2012 are now skating past center ice in 2016.
For the Penguins, four members of that 2012 draft class have been seen in these 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The first of two 1st round picks (obtained from the Hurricanes via the Jordan Staal trade), Derrick Pouliot, is still feeling his way through the maturation process of becoming an NHL defenseman, which is said to be the hardest position to truly master. Anyone remember a young Kris Letang fighting for ice time in the 2008 run to the Cup Finals? That’s essentially the same stage of career that Pouliot is in right now.
The second of two 1st round draft picks, Olli Maatta, is currently struggling to regain his conditioning after a series of medical setbacks over the past year, including a likely concussion sustained from Brooks Orpik last round. The game is too fast for Maatta at this juncture, but he’s a huge part of their future, as evidenced by the 6 yr/$24.5M extension he signed back in February.
Third round pick Oscar Sundqvist is a bit player right now, but he has shown flashes of potential to be a solid 3rd line player for the Penguins in the future. A counterpart to Sundqvist is Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette, himself a 4th round pick at the 2012 Draft, who is showing signs that he’s a solid 3rd line player himself.
But the real stars of the show have been brought to the forefront by unexpected injuries to two starters. At the 2012 Draft, the Penguins used a second 3rd round pick to draft a young goalie named Matt Murray. Murray has been touted as the goalie of the future for some time now, but the future became the present at the end of March when Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a severe concussion. Murray took over down the stretch until he was felled by his own milder concussion in the last game of the regular season. After missing the first two games of the Rangers series, Murray come back with a resolute vengeance in these playoffs (8-3, .928 save percentage). He has outright stolen some games for the Penguins, especially last series against the Capitals, but that hasn’t prevented some fans and media members from calling for the return of Marc-Andre Fleury, for some strange reason.
The Lightning are seeing more of their second 1st round 2012 Draft pick, Andrey Vasilevskiy, than they anticipated. In Game 1 of these Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning’s starter and Vezina-contending goalie, Ben Bishop, got a skate blade caught on the ice and writhed around on the ice for some time before being stretchered off of it. To me, it seemed like he tore an ACL, but both X-rays and MRI’s have come back negative. It’s unsure what his exact injury is (because, hockey) and how long he’ll be out, but it doesn’t seem like Bishop will be back soon. Vasilevskiy came in cold in Game 1 and shut the door on the Penguins in an impressive effort, albeit against a Penguins team clearly not at 100% energy. In Game 2 on Monday, he gave up two early goals but held strong the rest of way until the beginning of overtime when Sidney Crosby went all Matrix on him with this game winning goal (check out the slowed down replay around 32 seconds):
Both of these teams are here in the Eastern Conference Finals because of the year-long contributions from their respective stars. But each team also is relying heavily on some 21 and 22-year olds that started the path to their professional careers four short years ago at the Consol Energy Center. The series may well be determined by which 2012 drafted goalie performs better for the remainder of this series.