ST. PAUL -- Minnesota may be the state of hockey, but the early part of Draft Weekend had a Pittsburgh feel to it.
Four players from the region -- three of whom are graduates of the same minor-hockey program -- were picked in the first 64 selections.
"I think it's a validation of a long journey that Pittsburgh has taken in hockey," David Morehouse, Penguins CEO/President and a Pittsburgh native.
Jonathan Miller, a center with the U.S. National Team Development Program, was taken by the New York Rangers with the 15th pick in the draft. His teammate, goaltender John Gibson, was taken 39th by the Anaheim Ducks. At No. 43, the Chicago Blackhawks selected Saginaw's Brandon Saad, and at No. 64, the Florida Panthers selected his teammate, center Vincent Trocheck. Prior to going to junior hockey, Miller, Gibson and Saad were teammates with the Pittsburgh Hornets AAA hockey team.
Miller is the only one of the four that isn't a Pennsylvania native -- he lives just over the state line in East Palestine, Ohio, but the Rangers made him the highest-ever Pittsburgh-area player drafted, just ahead of R.J. Umberger, who was taken 16th in 2001 by Vancouver.
He was third on the USNTDP Under-18 team with 50 points in 56 games in 2010-11, and posted team-highs of 8 assists and 12 points to help the U.S. win gold at the World Under-18 Championship.
"To be first is a cool feeling, I guess," Miller said after being picked Friday. "But it doesn't really matter with those guys. They're a great group of guys."
"We wanted a play-making type player -- a center," said Rangers scouting director Gordie Clark. "Although (Miller) plays all three forward positions ... his game is a centerman's game. His playmaking ability is second to none and that was what we had made a decision on. We were going for the best person that can make a play. Then we add all the other qualities -- size, skating, character, grit, toughness, his work ethic. He by far had the best scores on all those qualities."
Gibson went 24-11-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 40 games. He went 6-0 with a 2.34 goals-against average at the World U-18's and was named the tournament's best goaltender.
"He has size and presence in the net and moves with power," said USNTDP goalie coach Joe Exter. "The best part is he's not just a limited goaltender for being a big guy. He's multi-dimensional. He has power, athleticism and he's got good flexibility. And those parts of his game allow him to have success at the high level. He also has a calm demeanor in the net."
Saad, from the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia, Pa., had 27 goals and 28 assists in 59 games in his debut season for the Spirit.
"A lot of people had him as a mid-first round pick and we thought so, as well," said Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. "We were hoping he might slide. Sometimes you hope and you're right and we were right."
Trocheck was third in scoring in Saginaw with 62 points in 68 games.
"Character guy," said Panthers Director of Scouting Scott Luce. "Very close to his family. He stepped outside the box and went and played in Michigan (USNTDP) from Pennsylvania at a young age. This guy wants to be a hockey player."
Almost to a man, those guys say they were influenced to start playing by Mario Lemieux and the core of the team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups. While none of the four players was born until 1993, the hockey bug was spread through the region by Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Tom Barrasso and their teammates.
"My dad saw the Pens win the Cup in '92, so he wanted me to pick up a hockey stick," said Miller. "Who knows -- if they wouldn't have won, I may not be sitting here now."
"I was just a big Mario fan," added Gibson, who recalled playing hockey in the Civic Arena parking lot prior to going in to watch a Pens game. "He was a household name."
"When they won the Cup a few years back was pretty emotional for me," said Miller. "It was awesome. I've been waiting for 15 years of my life for that to happen. I've been rooting for them since I can remember."
Gibson said the wave of popularity that came with Crosby's arrival in 2005 now is being seen in improved youth hockey throughout the region.
"I think it's a lot to do with the Penguins," he said. "They won the Cup a couple years ago ... I think they're doing a really good job of promoting hockey at a young age and more kids are following. The teams are getting better, more teams are coming into play, better quality, so I think that's a really big step."
Morehouse said under Lemieux's ownership of the team, the club has been very supportive of minor hockey in the region.
"The involvement we have at the mite level, with Sidney Crosby's Little Penguins program, where we provide free equipment for kids 5-7 years old, it just keeps exploding," said Morehouse. "We gave away over a thousand sets of equipment last year. There's more and more people applying for it. We're running out of ice. It's been great."
Gibson's seen that demand for more ice first-hand. His 8-year-old brother is following his footsteps through the city's minor-hockey programs.
"When I started … we played in a big hockey club and there was about six teams," he said. "Now my brother is playing and there's 12 teams just for his organization. It's just took a substantial increase. That's one of the main reasons hockey is getting so big and players are coming out and getting such recognition."
Morehouse said he believes the current team's success plus the popularity of stars like Crosby, Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal makes the 2011 draft class just the start of the emergence of hockey talent from the Pittsburgh area.
"Pittsburgh has always been a football town," he said. "We've produced great football players over the years. Now it's also a hockey town and we'll produce great hockey players, also."