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Hockey's Future
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Author:  ( 06/28/2004
Selection of Malkin Puts Pens' Rebuilding Program in High Gear

Pittsburgh hockey fans got a quick glimpse of the future on June 26 in Raleigh when long, lean Evegni Malkin strode to the podium at the NHL draft and pulled on a Penguins sweater.

As a singular event, the drafting of Malkin – a 6-foot-3 centerman who is a wizard with the puck and considered by scouts to be a " complete package" – was cause enough for celebration in an organization that has been rebuilding in earnest for the past two years.

But there’s more where he comes from.

Much more.

Viewed in the context of the past three drafts, the reconstruction of the Penguins has rapidly shifted into a higher gear – not only because of Malkin, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2004 draft, but because of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, drafted first overall in 2003, and defenseman Ryan Whitney, taken fifth overall in 2002.

Yes, the Penguins have missed the playoffs for three straight years, but they have used the resulting top-five picks to take a potentially dominant player at each of the game’s core positions.

Could Malkin, Fleury and Whitney form the nucleus of an exciting young team that – in the relatively near future – competes on a regular basis for the Stanley Cup?

Stay tuned.

" It wasn’t planned that way, but any time you’re building a team, you’re looking to build the middle with a goaltender, defenseman and a center," Penguins scout Mark Kelley told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. " It just so happens in the last three drafts, we picked (players) who we think can be stalwarts in each of those positions."

These things taken time, of course. Malkin is 17 years old. Fleury is 19. Whitney is 21. The Penguins have shown considerable patience with the individual development of their young prospects, and will continue to do so with an eye toward long-term success

But given the immense potential of the three most recent first-round picks, and the quality of other prospects sprinkled throughout all levels of the Penguins organization, there is a growing sense that the team’s rebuilding program is on the verge of breakthrough success.

Young players such as Ryan Malone (24), Brooks Orpik (23) and Konstantin Koltsov (23) have established themselves as NHL regulars, while a slew of other prospects – Tomas Surovy (22), Andy Chiodo (21), Kris Beech (23), Shane Endicott (22) among them – helped lead the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to the Calder Cup finals.

In the junior ranks, forward Maxime Talbot (20) was a dominant force in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In college, Noah Welch (20) of Harvard is developing into a tower-of-strength defenseman and Ben Eaves (22) just completed his career at Boston College as a relentless, high-energy centerman. In Europe, speedy winger Sergei Anshakov (20), acquired in the Martin Straka trade, starred for Russia in the World Junior Championships, scoring five goals, and defenseman Ondrej Nemec (20) progressed well enough in the Czech Elite League that he joined Wilkes-Barre late in the regular season and played in the palyoffs.

And there are more names, more prospects. The well runs deep.

Kelley, the team’s European scout, certainly sounded excited after the conclusion of the 2004 draft on Sunday – the latest step in the reconstruction process.

" Coming off of the final months of the season, when our young players (in the NHL) really seemed to come into their own, coupled with the success Wilkes-Barre had in the playoffs and then, these kinds of prospects that we have, it makes us very excited about the future of the franchise," Kelley told the Tribune-Review.

" We’re starting to speed up the whole rebuilding process, which was our goal two years ago."

The addition of Malkin gives the Penguins’ prospect depth chart the one thing it appeared to be lacking – a potentially dominant first-line center.

He was rookie of the year in the Russian Super League, and he was named the top forward at the World Under-18 Championships, where he captained Russia to the gold medal, and he has drawn raves for his total package of skills and dedication. The Hockey News rates him a " franchise player." Scouts drool.

" He’s an unbelievable player already, and he’s only 17," one scout said. " You’ll love him in Pittsburgh."

The future, indeed, is bright.

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