Pittsburgh Penguins’ Undrafted Players Are Dominating


Lots of players for the Pittsburgh Penguins have stepped up to the plate this season, achieving far more than anyone had expected from them. What’s surprising about that is the number of these players who went undrafted or have strengths that analytics don’t necessarily show.

I had the privilege of attending a small media event in Pittsburgh a couple days ago, thanks to Bob Grove. The #XfinityCupFinal event was fascinating in its focus on analytics, but also in that Pierre McGuire was there to answer our questions about the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Stanley Cup Final. Pierre is, as we all know from watching the NBCSN broadcasts, a wealth of knowledge – and yes, he did say “Kristopher Letang” in person.

He mentioned how several of the Penguins who have stepped up so much this season are more than underdogs. Some, like Ben Lovejoy, have subpar stats that make them unappealing to those scouts and fans who like to focus on analytics. Quite a few others went undrafted and only got to this point through their hard work.

That got me thinking about how much of a Cinderella story these Penguins really are. They seem almost unbeatable now, and even when they do play poorly they immediately rebound. They do not get beaten down mentally, and they are a constant force of nature.

Undrafted players and even those who go in the later rounds know that they can’t get beaten down mentally, either. Guys like Conor Sheary and Chris Kunitz have been some of the hardest workers for the Pens this year and neither one of them was drafted. Patric Hornqvist was, in the same year as Sidney Crosby, but while Sid went first overall Hornqvist was last.

Even on the opposing side, you’ve got guys like Martin Jones and Joel Ward. Jones has undeniably kept his team in the past couple of games while the lineup in front of him struggled, while Ward has been a machine for the San Jose Sharks since his acquisition.

Let’s start by looking at Sheary, though, since his overtime game-winner from game two is still so fresh in our minds. Sheary is small and played college hockey, both of which are usually factors that detract from a player’s draft value. Don’t get me wrong, college hockey players are talented and many have made it pretty far in the league, but compared to players who take the route through juniors to the NHL there seem to be fewer of them.

Sheary is like the Tasmanian Devil on the forecheck, though, and he’s been one of the Penguins’ best scorers in the playoffs. He has great chemistry with Sidney Crosby, and he understands that he needs to get down and dirty in the corners and in front of the net to control the puck as much as he can.

Okay, admittedly, playing with Sidney Crosby can make anyone look better. On the other hand, if a player does really have that kind of chemistry with him, then the Penguins’ offense get turned up another notch. That’s not only true with Sheary but also with Chris Kunitz – an pairing we’ve seen for much longer.

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Kunitz has won two Stanley Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal, two of which were thanks in part to his strong play alongside Crosby. Kunitz was never drafted and played college hockey at Ferris State University, and it’s pretty amazing that his career has gotten to this point after essentially being kicked to the curb by Anaheim his first time there.

In Pittsburgh, he’s been gritty and mean and still a top-six forward almost consistently. He stopped the “find a winger for Sid!” cries for a while and has been a hard-hitter at times when there were very few of those in black and gold. He’s had a few questionable moments during this postseason but now he seems to have had a resurgence – right when we need him to.

Other than the game in which Patric Hornqvist was benched for the third period, he has also been great during this playoff run. Like I mentioned, he and Crosby were both drafted in 2005: Sid as the highly-touted first overall pick, while Hornqvist snuck in as the 230th and final pick of the year. Now they’ve been off and on linemates for a couple seasons.

Hornqvist battles for the puck as well as anyone and is always willing to stand up for his teammates. He also is never afraid to position himself right in front of the opposing goalie and make his life miserable. As cliche as it sounds, intangibles like that kind of grit can’t be taught. That’s why players like these are so special.

Undrafted guys know how hard they constantly have to work to get to where they want to be – and to stay there. Nothing is more evident from the work ethic of this Penguins team from the top down. Every player, regardless of their background, constantly battles for the puck and breaks down their adversaries’ game plan.

Next: Penguins' Conor Sheary Wins it in OT

Every team has workhorse players, and players who constantly want to prove themselves. In my eyes, there is one thing that sets the Penguins apart from all these other teams: every one of our players has this kind of attitude. They want to prove their own might, sure, but they also want to help their teammates succeed. This is a close-knit team, and I’m glad they’re ours.