Staal vs. Backstrom: Was Shero’s first draft pick the right choice?

Matt Gajtka is a Featured Writer and Penguins Beat Reporter for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast, an audio exploration of sports and culture, on Blog Talk Radio (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/mattgajtka).

In his first major act as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ray Shero drafted Peterborough Petes center Jordan Staal with the second overall selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound jetliner scored 96 points in two Ontario Hockey League seasons prior to being chosen by the Penguins, who had just completed their third straight last-place season.

Brighter days seemed imminent for Pittsburgh, though: 2005 No. 1 overall pick Sidney Crosby had scored 100 points as an 18-year-old and 2004 No. 2 selection Evgeni Malkin was set to join the roster in the fall of 2006 after escaping his Russian club.

With enviable wealth already in place at center, Shero could have been excused for searching for an elite young winger to complement either Crosby or Malkin for years to come. Instead, the rookie GM bypassed available sniper prospects like Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard and Kyle Okposo in favor of a third pivot.

Upon first glance at the 2006 draft chart, conventional wisdom informs that the best player taken was at No. 3, where Chicago snagged current captain Jonathan Toews from the University of North Dakota. Toews led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup last season, has 266 points in 299 career games and is widely respected for his intense demeanor and precocious leadership skills.

Sweden’s Nicklas Backstrom went to the Capitals in the fourth spot, making it three consecutive centers taken after the Blues made U.S. National Team defenseman Erik Johnson the No. 1 selection. While Backstrom hasn’t received the attention of Toews, he is the only member of his draft class to record a 100-point season (101 in 2009-10).

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In fact, Backstrom is almost exactly a point-per-game player with one match to play before Washington starts the playoffs, even though he regressed offensively this season, falling back to his rookie pace of .84 points per tilt.

Putting Toews aside to simplify the argument, did the Penguins err in choosing Staal over Backstrom? Or was Shero’s first-ever draft pick a calculated move made with an eye toward future team chemistry?

The easy answer is yes to the first question. It’s difficult to argue with the hard numbers, and Staal’s .54 points-per-game average looks rather pedestrian when compared to Backstrom’s even 1.00.

But numbers may also speak in favor of the Staal selection, as long as a dollar sign precedes them. The 22-year-old is under contract in Pittsburgh for two more seasons beyond the current one, with a $4 million annual salary-cap hit. Backstrom, meanwhile, has seven more years at $6.7 million apiece to look forward to.

With Crosby and Malkin each making $8.7 million a year for the foreseeable future, squeezing Backstrom’s salary into the Penguins’ scheme would have likely presented an untenable situation for Shero if he hoped to ice a team with respectable balance.

In addition, if Backstrom had come to Pittsburgh, there wouldn’t be enough ice time to spread around among the three elite scorers, assuming they would all remain at center. Remember that Malkin was slated to play on Staal’s wing this year before Crosby’s January concussion.

As it is, Staal’s defensive prowess has made him a natural fit as perhaps the finest No. 3 center in the NHL, although his responsibilities have increased dramatically this season in the absence of Crosby and Malkin, as has his production.

After missing the first 39 games due to injury, Staal has compiled the best points-per-game average (.73) of his four-year career by far. According to hockey-reference.com, Staal is responsible for 3.4 point shares this season, which projects to 6.8 over a full season – third-best on the team behind Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

But despite Staal’s continued development, Backstrom has outperformed him by any measure, including point shares, which combine offensive and defensive contributions. By that metric, the Swede has outdone the Thunder Bay, Ont., native by a 35.5 to 20.2 margin in their careers.

Taking context out of the equation, Shero obviously should’ve taken Backstrom in 2006. But the fact remains that Staal has been a part of a successful Penguins machine since his debut at the age of 18, much like Backstrom has in Washington.

Could Backstrom have produced to his same tremendous level if he were splitting time with Crosby and Malkin? Could Staal have effectively centered for Alex Ovechkin? The statistics cannot fill these holes, as much as we may wish they could.

For now, it’s safe to say that both Staal and Backstrom have fit in well with their current clubs, but the “what-ifs” continue to be intriguing.

Statistics courtesy of hockey-reference.com; salary numbers taken from hockeybuzz.com.

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