The 1999 NHL draft was hardly spectacular. It did produce a few superstars such as the Canucks' Sedin twins and the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg but that draft was far more renown for busts such as the Thrashers' Patrik Stefan or the Capitals' Kris Beech.
Late in that draft, the Penguins selected a modest-sized right winger from London of the OHL named Tom Kostopoulos. A seventh-round pick who was selected 204th overall, there was little to indicate Kostopoulos would make the NHL.
Flash forward 14 years later and Kostopoulos is about to enter his 15th professional season after returning to the Penguins organization on an AHL contract.
It's actually Kostopoulos' third stint with the organization. He spent parts of five seasons with the Penguins at the AHL and NHL levels during the late 1990s and early 2000s. After bouncing around with the Kings, Canadiens, Hurricanes and Flames, Kostopoulos found himself out of work during last season's NHL lockout. After that work stoppage ended, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins brought him in on a tryout basis. He impressed so much at that level, the NHL Penguins signed him to a two-way contract but lost him to the Devils through waivers after trying to recall him. After a brief stint with New Jersey, Kostopoulos is back in Pittsburgh at the Penguins' training camp.
One of only a handful of players in this training camp who played for the Penguins during the dark, pre-Sidney Crosby days, Kostopoulos has seen quite a bit in his long career.
Earlier today, following a practice at Consol Energy Center, Kostopoulos talked about his future and his past with the Penguins:
Do you still hold out hope of playing on the NHL even though you're on an AHL deal?
"I think not immediately. It would be nice to make it but I think [management] got me set as going to Wilkes-Barre and being a leader and helping the young guys get to Pittsburgh."
Did you serve in that "big brother" role last season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton even though you were only there for a limited time?
"I think so. For the month last year I was in Wilkes-Barre, I really liked it. I like the organization. It’s a great organization. The coaches do a great job. All the players I got to work with were a lot of fun. It’s fun trying to help the young guys build their game … give them confidence. Pittsburgh’s got a lot of good prospects in Wilkes-Barre so hopefully I can be a small part in them moving up."
Did anyone serve in that role for you earlier in your career with the Penguins organization?
"My first year pro in Wilkes-Barre, Tyler Wright kind of took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He was great for me. He did a lot for me. Hopefully I can help some young guys the way he helped me."
What's the biggest difference in this organization compared to your first stint with the team?
"It’s very professional. It’s very development oriented. They work really hard to develop their guys, young and old. It’s very continuous from Pittsburgh to Wilkes-Barre to [Wheeling]. They run the same systems. They run the same drills … so it’s easy for guys that get called up to the next level, they know what they’re doing when they step into a game."
The organization is on far more stable financial footing than it was in the early 2000s. How much do you think that impacts things?
"You can tell the way they treat the players here. They do things right here. They care about players and their families. This facility is amazing. They’ve got a shooting room, an off-ice shooting room. The facility in Wilkes-Barre, the practice facility … if a young guy can’t develop his game in that facility, I don’t know where he can. They’ve spent money in a lot of good places. They’re not shy about it to develop their youth."
What were your first three NHL seasons (2001-02, 2002-03, 2003-04) like in Pittsburgh?
"They were tough years because we were young but I think that’s probably why I got a shot here. We had a close-knit group in Wilkes-Barre and a bunch of us moved up to Pittsburgh together so it was a lot of fun to move up with a bunch of guys that you knew from the minors."
What do you remember from playing with Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton?
"I really don’t like those guys …. No. They’re great guys. They’re very good hockey players. I learned more from those guys about Boston College than I ever want to know. Drives me crazy. It’s great to be on the ice with them again. They’ve done really well. They’re a perfect example of guys that went to Wilkes-Barre, got better and better each year, develop their games and have been really, really good professional hockey players."
What was last season like?
"It was odd. I thought my career might be over. After the lockout, I couldn’t get a job. I thought I might be done. I thought I might be hanging them up. My agent kind of pressed me to keep training, keep working out. I got the chance in Wilkes-Barre and I’m glad I did. Hockey was fun again down there. I renewed my passion for the game. I worked on my game and I was fortunate to get picked up by New Jersey and finish the year there. That was a good organization for me. It was a crazy year for my family and I but it worked out well. If it wasn’t for last year, I’d probably being doing something else."
How have you been able to hang on as a professional for so long?
"I don’t have tremendous skills but I think I have a good attitude and I work hard. That’s what I try to instill in the young guys and show them. Have a good attitude, work hard every day and it will pay off."
What are your goals for this season and beyond?
"If this is my last year, I haven’t won [a championship] in my career. I want to win. If it’s here in Wilkes-Barre or here in Pittsburgh, I want to win. After that, I think I would like to be a coach or assistant coach. Be involved in the game somehow."
(Photo: Rick Stewart/Getty Images)