What If the Pittsburgh Penguins Had Drafted Jonathan Toews Instead of Jordan Staal?


It was 2006. A balmy summer day in Vancouver, British Columbia. NHL executives and scouts from around the league prepared their final rankings before heading to Vancouver’s GM Place for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were coming off a string of draft coups, having snagged Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury over the previous three drafts.

It would be the first time leading the ship on draft day for new General Manager Ray Shero, who had just come on board in May to replace Craig Patrick.

With highly touted franchise prospects Crosby and Malkin already looking set to lead the top two lines for years to come, Pittsburgh sought to further bolster their centre depth with their second-overall draft pick (their fourth consecutive top-three pick), looking to add to their already elite, young core.

While not the most star-studded of drafts, the 2006 crop was definitely a formidable one. The prospective first-rounders featured a host of strong forwards, most of whom would go on to establish solid NHL careers, so Pittsburgh had options.

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Defenseman Erik Johnson went off the board first, pulling on a St. Louis Blues jersey and smiling triumphantly for the cameras.

Pittsburgh was on the clock.

Looking back, it was a tough call between the draft’s two strongest centres, Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews, but one had a clear edge over the other.

Staal was a big, strong, defensively sound beast of a prospect coming off a point-per-game season in Peterborough and a 16-point playoff performance that led his team to the OHL championship. His brother Eric had just won the Stanley Cup with Carolina a few weeks before the draft, right after posting 100 points in the regular season.

Staal had it all. Size, skill, smarts, and a bloodline with a winning pedigree.

Toews, on the other hand, was fresh off of leading the University of North Dakota to a WCHA Championship, following a regular season that saw him post 39 points in 42 games. Besides that, he already had a gold medal from the World U-17’s (where he led the tournament in scoring and was named MVP) and a gold medal from the World Junior Championships (where he was the youngest player on the Canadian team). At 18 years old, Toews’ winning reputation was already being established.

While Toews had the winning experience and a more complete overall game, Staal had the size advantage, a more steady point-production pace, a strong postseason record of his own, and was deemed by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau to be the better of the two.

Ray Shero took the bait, and the Penguins tabbed Staal with the second pick of the draft, leaving Toews for Chicago.

Was Shero’s decision the right one? It’s hard to say. Hindsight is 20/20 and the two forwards’ careers have projected in wildly different directions, but both picks certainly worked out for the respective teams initially.

Dec 29, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal (11) gets ready for a face-off against the Toronto Maple Leafs: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Staal came into the league and made an immediate impact, posting 29 goals in his rookie season. He would go on to become a defensive anchor for the Penguins’ forward corps, leading a dangerous yet responsible third line that earned him a Selke Trophy nomination and a Stanley Cup just three years into his career.

Toews took another season to develop before making the big leagues, but made waves upon arriving. He would lead Chicago to a Stanley Cup in his third season as well, and then another in 2013. His determined leadership and responsible style of play allowed him to become one of the most respected players in the game, buoying him to the highest echelon of the league’s elite as he racked up a Selke Trophy, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and two Olympic gold medals to go along with his Stanley Cup rings.

How would each of these players have fared if the Penguins had seen this MVP potential in Toews and had taken him instead of Staal?

While he made a significant impact once he arrived, and was vital to the Penguins winning their only championship of the Crosby/Malkin era, Staal’s mediocre performance when the big two were benched due to injury showed that he is not best suited to leading a team on his own. His recent mediocrity in Carolina, who brought him in to play a key role in their offense, further evidences this.

Thus, Staal could not have provided the Blackhawks with the same element they got from Toews.

Would the Blackhawks have been an excellent team with Staal lining up alongside Patrick Kane every night? Of course. Would they be the perennial contender, flirting with dynasty status, that they are now?

Absolutely not.

Jonathan Toews is the lifeblood of the Chicago Blackhawks. Already respected as one of the greatest leaders in the game, it is surely this unrivaled leadership that has propelled the Blackhawks forward year in and year out, as their captain pushes them to seek nothing less than greatness.

It is because of this that the prospect of Toews being drafted by Pittsburgh is so tantalizing.

Is there much that Jordan Staal brought to the Penguins that Toews would not have? Staal remains a much more physically imposing player, but outside of that, his defensive and offensive skills are decidedly outclassed by Toews. That being the case, the Penguins could certainly have reached the same pinnacles of success with a lineup that suited up Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jonathan Toews down the middle.

Even for the Penguins, a team used to having an embarrassment of riches at the forward position, this would have seemed surreal.

Pittsburgh would still have gotten their Big Three structure of two offensive lines in Crosby’s and Malkin’s and a shutdown-focused third line, led by Toews – except this shutdown line would have been much much better on both ends of the ice. Pittsburgh could have boasted a powerplay that featured Crosby, Malkin, and Toews up front creating endless havoc together – a trio that would be sure to score at a fair clip even if the other two members of the powerplay were a bag of pucks and an old water bottle.

The real difference would have come now, in these past few seasons, wherein Pittsburgh housed rosters that seemed to have more than enough to contend for titles, yet repeatedly fell short. Imagine the heights these teams could have reached had they had Jonathan Toews’ leadership to push them through the obstacles that held them back.

Jan 11, 2014; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) celebrates a Chicago Blackhawks right wing Marian Hossa (81) [not pictured) against Montreal Canadiens during the third period at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY SportsWhile Chicago may have been a lesser squad if Toews and Staal had swapped draft positions, Pittsburgh would have been unstoppable.

A core consisting of Crosby, Malkin, and Toews would have provided all of the offensive wizardry, defensive responsibility, and unyielding leadership required of a dynasty.

Equally likely, however, is that Toews would not have become quite the household name he is now, as third-line centre behind two of the best in the world does not hold the same cache as captain of the hallowed Chicago Blackhawks. The move may have been better for Pittsburgh, but it certainly would not have been better for Toews, or for the NHL, as the league has certainly benefited from Toews’ star power in Chicago and in Canada as a whole.

Or perhaps Toews would have outshone the third line role and would have forced some roster adjustments. Maybe he or Malkin would have moved up to play on Crosby’s wing (the prospect of either of the two gifted forwards pairing with Crosby for the bulk of their career would have been horrifying for goaltenders around the league), allowing the other to stay at centre on the second line. Regardless of what adjustments would have been made, the result would be that we would not know any of these three players as we know them today.

Now, 8 years later, we are left to wonder how the fortunes of these two teams would have changed had Shero taken a chance on Toews. The decision could have built a dynasty, or it could have proven disastrous. We’ll never know.

All we do know is that, while both players helped their teams get their Cups, Toews and his Blackhawks now reign supreme over Crosby’s Penguins and Staal’s Hurricanes, and the latter two must now play catchup, aiming to right their respective ships in the hopes of acquiring the same winning acumen as the young Toews.

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