Every NHL team strives to create a strong core of homegrown players. Ever since the NHL instituted the salary cap, teams starting building through the draft instead of through free agent acquisitions. Some examples of include the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins in the mid-to-late 2000s, and more recently, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Most prospects play junior hockey in the years before they enter the NHL draft. Teams often scout these young players across a multitude of junior leagues, from the OHL in Canada, to the USHL in the United States, to the J20 SuperElit in Sweden. A player’s success in juniors doesn’t always translate to success on the NHL level. There have been countless cases of junior hockey stars fizzling out once they face NHL competition. In other cases, prospects don’t dazzle in juniors, but still succeed in the NHL.
This list looks at both sides of the coin. It explores ten great junior hockey players who didn’t succeed in the NHL, and ten “bad” junior players who truly hit their stride once they reached the NHL.
It should be noted that “bad” does not mean these players possessed little skill, or had little success in junior hockey. They often played well for their junior teams, which of course, paved the way for their NHL success. However, their junior hockey tenures could be considered underwhelming by the standards they set during their respective NHL careers. These were players who saved their best play for the biggest and brightest stage.
20 Good Jr - Evgeny Grachyov
The Rangers drafted Grachyov in the third round of the 2008 draft, two rounds after selecting fellow Russian sniper Alexei Cherepanov. Grachyov put up 17 goals and 37 points in 34 games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s minor league affiliate in 2007-08. Grachyov’s hulking 6’4” 225-pound frame had scouts projecting him as a formidable power forward for the Rangers.
Grachyov continued his success upon joining the Brampton Battalion in the OHL. He scored 40 goals and 80 points in 60 games during the 2008-09 season, and was named the OHL's Rookie of the Year. Grachyov stayed hot in the playoffs, scoring 11 goals and 25 points in 19 playoff games for Brampton.
Grachyov entered Rangers training camp in 2009 with high expectations. He failed to make the final roster, and was sent to the American Hockey league for the 2009-10 season. He struggled to sustain his junior success at the AHL level. He couldn’t utilize his size and shot with the same efficiency as he had in the OHL. Overall, Grachyov played just eight games for the Rangers in 2010-11. The Rangers then traded Grachyov to the St. Louis Blues.
Grachyov played 26 games for the Blues, and managed just four points. The 27-year-old center has spent the past several seasons in the KHL. He scored just 18 points in 56 games last season with Nizhny Novgorod Oblast.
19 Bad Jr - Cam Janssen
Janssen's played more than 10 years in the NHL, and carved out a niche as a valuable enforcer during his time with the St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils. His NHL success was not defined by stats, but by his toughness and willingness to drop the gloves to protect his teammates. Janssen scored just 10 goals and 48 points in three OHL seasons with the Windsor Spitfires, and was taken in the fourth round of the 2002 NHL draft.
He may not have had the best stat line, with just six goals and 14 points in 336 NHL games, but his physical play and on-ice presence played a valuable role for his team. Janssen retired after the 2015-16 season as one of the NHL’s last true enforcers. Sometimes statistics aren’t the only measure of NHL success.
18 Good Jr - Nigel Dawes
Dawes was another mid-round Rangers draft pick who tore it up in Canadian Juniors. In four seasons with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Dawes potted 159 goals and 272 points in 245 games. The Rangers took him in the fifth-round of the 2003 draft, and hoped he could lead the team's young emerging core of Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Marc Staal.
Unfortunately, Dawes spent much of his Rangers tenure in the AHL, playing parts of three seasons at the NHL level. He scored 49 points in 121 games as a Blueshirt before a mid-season trade to Phoenix as part of a package for defenseman Derek Morris.
Dawes bounced around between the Flames, Thrashers, and Canadiens before signing in the KHL before the 2011-2012 season. He re-discovered his scoring touch with Barys Astana, notching three straight seasons of 30 or more goals from 2014-2017. That offense just couldn't translate to the NHL on a consistent basis
17 Bad Jr - Mika Zibanejad
Zibanejad came into the league as a top-10 pick in 2011. Before his sixth overall selection that year, the playmaking center played four seasons with Swedish club Djurgården. He spent his first two years playing with Djurgarden's Junior team, scoring 14 goals and 25 points in 41 games.
Those stats don't jump off the page, but they were good enough to earn Zibanejad a promotion to the elite level of Swedish Hockey for the 2010-2011 season. He added another 10 goals and 22 points in 42 games that year.
Those are respectable totals considering Zibanejad was playing at the highest level of competition in Sweden. Yet, they are underwhelming compared to his NHL success. Zibanejad notched two straight 20-goal, 50-point seasons with the Ottawa Senators before a 2016 trade to the New York Rangers. Zibanejad probably would've matched or surpassed those totals if not for a broken leg, which limited him to 56 games this past season.
He stepped up for the Rangers in the playoffs, scoring two goals and nine points in 12 games. Unfortunately for Zibanejad, he couldn't get past his former team, as the Senators defeated the Rangers in a six-game second-round series.
At just 24 years old, Zibanejad has yet to reach his full potential.
16 Good Jr - Brandon Bochenski
Brandon Bochenski was a star in the United States Hockey League (USHL), the top junior hockey league in the United States. During his only season in the USHL, Bochenski scored 47 goals and 80 points in just 55 games as he earned the league's Rookie of the Year Award. The Ottawa Senators were impressed with the then-17-year-old Bochenski, and took him in the seventh round of the 2001 NHL draft.
Bochenski developed his game in the AHL, putting up great stats for the Senators' minor league affiliate in Binghamton. He earned his first call-up during the 2005-06 season and scored six goals and 13 points in 20 games. The Senators dealt Bochenski to Chicago that year, where he would play 30 games with the team before a February 2007 trade to Boston.
Bochenski spent much of his remaining years in the NHL traveling back and forth between the big club and the minors. He failed to make an impression with the Bruins, Ducks, Predators, or Lightning, and left the NHL in 2010.
Bochenski now serves as the captain for the KHL club Barys Astana, where he has never scored less than 17 goals and 40 points in any of his seven seasons with the team.
15 Bad Jr - Shawn Thornton
Shawn Thornton was an enforcer in the vein of Cam Janssen. Yet, Thornton possessed more of an offensive touch, scoring 42 goals and 102 points in 705 career NHL games. As a ninth-round pick in the 1997 draft, Thornton did not make his NHL debut until the 2002-03 season. He bounced around between the NHL and AHL before winning the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Thornton signed as a free agent with the Boston Bruins, where he enjoyed seven successful seasons as a fourth-line grinder and enforcer.
Thornton earned a second championship ring when the Bruins captured the Stanley Cup in 2011. Given his OHL career, however, one might not think Thornton was destined for a long NHL tenure. Thornton played two seasons with the Peterborough Petes in the late 90s, scoring 23 goals and 43 points in 124 games.
Fortunately, Thornton's relentless work ethic and toughness allowed him to play 15 NHL seasons. He retired in 2017 after three seasons with the Florida Panthers.
14 Good Jr - Angelo Esposito
Angelo Esposito was primed to go top five in the 2007 draft. He won Rookie of the Year honors after a standout first season for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2005-06. His production fell off in 2006-07, but he still managed a stellar 27 goals and 79 points in 60 games. The Penguins took Esposito 20th overall, ahead of future Montreal Canadiens captain, Max Pacioretty.
Unfortunately, Esposito never made it to the NHL. In fact, he struggled to produce at the AHL level. He scored 10 goals and 38 points in 124 career games with three AHL teams.
Esposito is probably best known to Penguins fans as a piece in the 2008 trade package with Atlanta that brought Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh ahead of the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Esposito spent the 2015-16 season playing in Italy.
"Am I disappointed that I haven't played a game in the NHL? Of course I am,” Esposito told Tal Pinchevsky at ESPN.com in 2016. “Who wouldn't be? But you have to accept it and you have to move on.”
13 Bad Jr - John Klingberg
The Dallas Stars defenseman put up a career-high 13-goal campaign this past season. The 24-year-old blueliner is heading into his fourth NHL season, and has already emerged as a leader on the Stars backend.
From a statistical standpoint, Klingberg’s potential wasn’t always so obvious. In his first two seasons in the Swedish J20 SuperElit junior league, Klingberg notched just three goals and 22 points in 40 games. The Stars selected Klingberg with the 131st overall pick in the 2010 draft. In 2010-11, Klingberg managed just 5 points in 26 games with Frolunda HC in the Swedish Hockey League.
By 2013-14, Klingberg’s game had quickly improved. After a strong start for Frolunda, he joined the Texas Stars for the end of the 2013-14 season.
Klingberg scored 12 points in the first 10 games of the 2014-15 AHL season, which promptly earned him a call-up to Dallas. He has remained there ever since.
Klingberg led all NHL rookie defensemen in 2014-15 with 40 points in 65 games, and is still developing into his physical prime.
12 Good Jr - Peter Sarno
Peter Sarno played 198 OHL games with the Sarnia Sting from 1996-1999, and emerged as a top player on the team. He scored 90 goals and 334 points in that span, and spent time developing in the Edmonton Oilers minor-league system after his fifth round selection in 1997.
The Oilers gave Sarno his first taste of NHL action when they called him up for six games during the 2003-04 season. Sarno scored one goal in that first stint. He only played one more game at the NHL level (with the Blue Jackets in 2005-06) before leaving the NHL for Europe the following season.
Sarno played in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and then back in Switzerland before retiring at the end of the 2010-11 season.
11 Bad Jr - Kevin Bieksa
Bieksa has proved himself to be a reliable stay-at-home defenseman with occasional offensive flair. He has scored 63 goals and 270 points in 739 career NHL games after his fifth-round selection in the 2001 draft. Bieksa began his junior hockey career with the Burlington Cougars of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), where he enjoyed solid production.
Bieksa's stats during his junior career didn't raise eyebrows. He scored 14 goals and 73 points 124 career games with Burlington. He has gone on to have a fruitful NHL career, putting up three 40+ point seasons with Vancouver Canucks, and leading their defensive corps in scoring twice.
Bieksa's production may have declined this past season when he joined the Anaheim Ducks, but he still helped the team reach the Western Conference finals against the Nashville Predators.
10 Good Jr - Brian Sakic
Brian Sakic enjoyed massive success in junior hockey, much like his older brother, Joe. He spent six years in the WHL, playing three seasons each with the Swift Current Broncos and Tri-City Americans. He scored an astonishing 596 points in 343 career games in that span.
Those stats scream 'first-round pick,' but the Washington Capitals did not select Sakic until the fifth round in the 1990 draft. Perhaps the Washington Capitals saw some flaws in Sakic's game that made him drop in the draft. In 1990 he told the Washington Post he was glad Quebec didn't take him, as he didn't want to compete against his older brother.
In the end, the Sakic brothers did not follow the same path as, say, the Hull brothers. Brian Sakic never played a single shift of NHL action, and instead toiled in the minors throughout the 1990s before finally retiring in 1999.
9 Bad Jr - Cam Talbot
Cam Talbot stood out as one of the feel-good stories in the NHL this past season. He backstopped the Edmonton Oilers to their best season in years, resulting in the team's first playoff berth since 2006. Talbot set a franchise record with 42 wins in 2016-17 and notched a career-high seven shutouts.
Talbot initially found success in the NHL as Henrik Lundqvist's backup in New York. When Lundqvist went down with a neck injury during the 2014-15 season, Talbot filled his shoes in remarkable fashion. Talbot went 21-9 with a .926 save percentage to help the Rangers win the President's Trophy that season.
Talbot seemed to be a late bloomer as a goaltender. In three years with the University of Alabama-Hunstville, Talbot had a combined record of 15-44. He only racked up two shutouts during that span. At the same time, Huntsville wasn't the best college team, so Talbot's high save totals gave him respectable save percentage numbers.
Talbot got off to a slow start in the AHL as well, going 39-43 over his final three seasons before his call-up to the Rangers.
Fortunately, Talbot found his stride in the NHL, and enters his age-30 season as a surefire starting goalie.
8 Good Jr - Daniel Tkaczuk
Few would blame the Calgary Flames for selecting OHL star Daniel Tkaczuk with the sixth overall pick in the 1997 draft. He had just come off a 45-goal, 93-point season with the Barrie Colts. From 1995-1999, Tkaczuk scored 145 goals and 334 points in 238 games for the Colts.
Tkaczuk earned a call-up to Calgary’s AHL affiliate, the St. John’s Flames, during the 1999-00 season. He played well, scoring 25 goals and 66 points that year.
Tkaczuk could not replicate his success on the NHL stage. He played just 19 total games for Calgary during the 2001-02 season, and scored four goals and 11 points. He never played in the NHL again.
He left North America for Europe in the mid-2000s, and spent a few years playing in Finland, Italy, and Germany before a brief return to the AHL. Tkaczuk retired after the 2011-12 season and returned to the OHL, this time as a coach. He left the OHL in 2016 to accept a new position as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues’ AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.
7 Bad Jr - Ryan Malone
When the Pittsburgh Penguins selected Ryan Malone in the fourth round of the 1999 NHL draft, little did they know he would pan out to be one of their better second/third line forwards. Malone spent one year in the USHL playing for the Omaha Lancers in 1999-00. He notched 14 goals and 36 points in 51 games.
He played four solid years of college hockey at St. Cloud State University in the early 2000s, but surpassed all expectations during his rookie NHL season in 2003-04. He finished third in team scoring with 43 points in 81 games with the Penguins.
Since his NHL debut in 2003, Malone scored 20 or more goals in six of his 11 seasons. He proved to be a clutch playoff performer as well, scoring 16 points in 20 games to help the Penguins reach the 2008 Stanley Cup Final.
He retired in 2016 with 179 goals and 370 points in 647 career NHL games.
6 Good Jr - Nail Yakupov
The Oilers turned a corner this past season by making the playoffs for the time since 2006. They achieved that feat with number one overall picks Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. One former Oilers top pick, Nail Yakupov, wasn't part of the turnaround.
In fact, the Oilers traded Yakupov to St. Louis in 2016 after four underwhelming seasons with the team. He scored 50 goals and 111 points in 252 games as an Oiler. That stands in stark contrast to his OHL career, where he scored 80 goals and 170 points in two seasons with the Sarnia Sting.
Yakupov was a frequent healthy scratch during his time in St. Louis, appearing in 40 games and scoring three goals. He missed the team's final month of regular season play, as well as their entire playoff run, with a lower body injury. At just 24 years old, Yakupov's NHL future remains uncertain.
5 Bad Jr - Milan Lucic
Lucic is one of the top power forwards in the NHL today. He mixes in a ferocious tenacity with a deft scoring touch that has earned him a valuable niche in the league. The 2016-17 season marked Lucic’s second straight season of at least 20 goals and 50 points.
Lucic broke into the league with the Boston Bruins in 2007. Before that, he spent one season with the Coquitlam Express in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) and two full seasons with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. While his BCHL stats were nothing too special (9 goals and 23 points in 50 games), his WHL numbers were slightly better. He scored 39 goals in 133 games. He broke out during the 2007 WHL playoffs, with 19 points in 22 games, as he helped the Giants reach the WHL finals.
Lucic truly discovered his scoring touch once he came to the NHL. He has scored at least 17 goals in seven of his 10 NHL seasons. Lucic has not yet turned 30, ensuring that his skill and hard-nosed style of play will only continue to improve in the coming seasons.
4 Good Jr - Scott Scissons
The 1990 NHL draft class was among deepest of the past 30 years, especially when one considers the fact that players like Keith Tkachuk and Martin Brodeur were taken at the end of the first round.
So when the Islanders were on the clock with the sixth overall pick (one after Jaromir Jagr), chances are they would hit a home run, right? Well, things did not work out that way. The team selected WHL forward Scott Scissons, who ended up playing a grand total of two NHL games.
Of course, by the looks of Scissons’ success with the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL, the Islanders figured they were getting a future All-Star sniper. Scissons scored 70 goals during his two junior seasons, but injuries kept him from carrying this production into the NHL.
Scissons spent three seasons in the International Hockey League (IHL) before retiring prematurely at the age of 22 due to injuries.
3 Bad Jr - Dustin Penner
Penner is a great example of a “late bloomer” in the NHL. The Anaheim Ducks signed Penner as a 22-year-old undrafted free agent in 2004. Until then, his hockey career hadn’t gone so smoothly. Penner never played major junior hockey and was even cut from his local junior team in Winkler, Manitoba multiple times.
Penner played one year with the University of Maine Black Bears on scholarship in 2003-2004, and scored 11 goals and 23 points in 41 games. He helped the Black Bears reach the NCAA final, and signed with the Ducks months later. Penner went on to win two Stanley Cups with the Ducks and Kings in 2007 and 2012, respectively.
He amassed 151 goals and 310 points in 589 career games from 2005-2014. Not too bad for a kid who never played major junior hockey, and spent just one season at the college level.
2 Good Jr - Pavel Brendl
The Rangers were not exactly draft gurus in the late 90s and early 2000s. From Jamie Lundmark to Hugh Jessiman, the Rangers front office struck out on many high first-round draft picks during the turn of the 21st century. However, no draft pick fizzled out quicker than Czech winger Pavel Brendl.
Brendl’s WHL stardom had him ranked among the top European skaters heading the 1999 draft. The Rangers snatched him up with the fourth overall pick, ahead of Martin Havlat and way ahead seventh-round steal Henrik Zetterberg.
To the Rangers’ credit, there was plenty of reason to fawn over Brendl’s skill set. He scored a ridiculous in 73 goals and 134 points in 68 games for the Calgary Hitmen during the 1998-99 season.
Brendl put together another 50-goal, 100-point season the following year, en route to being named to the WHL All-Star team.
Despite all the hype, Brendl never played an NHL game with the Rangers. In fact, the Rangers traded him away to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2001 for Eric Lindros.
In total, Brendl played just 78 NHL games from 2001-2006, and has played in Europe ever since. Although his scoring prowess vanished at the NHL level, he found it again while playing in Europe over the next decade.
1 Bad Jr - Patrick Roy
Patrick Roy is arguably the greatest goaltender to ever play in the NHL. With 551 career wins, 11 All-Star appearances, and three Stanley Cups, Roy was a shoe-in for the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006.
Despite his many NHL accomplishments, Roy's major junior hockey career got off to a rocky start. He spent three seasons with the Granby Bisons of the QMJHL from 1982-1985. In those three seasons, Roy went 58-89 with a goals-against-average of 5.42. He made his first NHL start for the Montreal Canadiens during the 1984-85 season, and earned consistent starting duties the following season.
Roy elevated his play during the 1986 playoffs, boasting a 1.92 GAA in 20 starts. He helped lead the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1986, and won his first of three Conn Smythe Trophies.