Filip Gustavsson reacts after being selected in the second round by the Penguins during the NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, N.Y. (Getty Images)
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jim Rutherford, just days removed from being named NHL General Manager of the Year, sat at the head of the Penguins' table at the NHL Entry Draft on Saturday at First Niagara Center but trusted the men who flanked him with tough calls about the organization's future.
Years must pass before anyone will know whether Rutherford's decision to defer to his scouts on the Penguins' first two picks and delay the acquisition of defensemen — the position he identified as the priority heading into the draft — proved wise.
Rather than bolster the organization's blue-line depth with their second-round selections, the Penguins chose Swedish goalie Filip Gustavsson at No. 55 and Finnish forward Kasper Bjorkqvist at No. 61. When they finally began to collect defensemen, they strayed from the scoring-oriented, puck-moving style that served them so well this season and embraced players with some “edge,” as Penguins director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton put it.
“Their puck skills are sufficient to play the way we want to play,” Sexton said of fourth-round pick Ryan Jones and third-rounder Connor Hall. “And they bring a certain dimension that we currently don't have, particularly if we're not able to get (unrestricted free agent) Ben Lovejoy re-signed. ... They bring a physical edge and a dimension that we don't have enough of in our depth chart right now.”
Less than 24 hours before Rutherford stepped on the stage and announced Gustavsson — and minutes later, Bjorkqvist — as draft picks, he made it clear to media members he wanted defensemen.
That desire apparently never waned. He just allowed Sexton and the Penguins' other scouts to talk him into the promise of what they considered the best goalie available in the draft — the NHL's Central Scouting department ranked Gustavsson as the top European goalie prospect.
“Surprised he was still there at our pick, so we really couldn't pass on him,” Rutherford said of Gustavsson.
And of Bjorkqvist: “Our European scouts, they were close, and they followed him, and they loved this player. As I said earlier, I was leaning more towards defensemen, but they felt so adamant about him, and he's just a really good all-around center.”
Gustavsson said he left the predraft interview with the Penguins pleased with the encounter. “Pretty easy questions” was how he described the chat.
Bjorkqvist, who did not attend the draft, impressed the Penguins staff with his pride in his feisty two-way play, head European scout Patrik Allvin said.
“He's a super competitive player,” Allvin said. “We view him as more of a third-line player who comes to work every day.
“He has a really strong low game. He's strong on the puck. Goes to the net. He's hard to play against. He can play the net front on the power play. He can kill penalties. I'd say his game is suited for a (North American) ice surface.”
The Penguins scouts snagged the players they considered too good to pass up. Rutherford still hauled in four defensemen, including a pair of more offense-first options in Finland native Niclas Almari and Joseph Masonius in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively.
“We are absolutely thrilled that Gustavsson fell to us,” Sexton said. “I think when our fans and particularly Jimmy has a chance to see him next week at development camp, he's going to be pretty happy. He's a technically very strong goalie, and he has tremendous rebound control and tremendous poise and mental toughness.
“Jim is incredibly supportive (of the scouts' recommendations). We walked him through our whole list, and we laid out where we thought we could get some D-men. We talked about trading up, but in our opinion, the D-men that were available to trade up (for) were marginally better than the guys we thought we could get, and we just didn't think it was worth losing a pick or two to get somebody we thought was marginally better. And he supported us in that.”