The NHL draft is one of the most important times of the year for NHL general managers. Jobs have been lost because of terrible picks, and Cups have been won in part thanks to late-round steals.
As the game progresses and scouting evolves, busts are becoming rare in today’s NHL. That makes sense—with all of the tools at their disposal, scouts should be able to determine the likelihood of a professional career for a given player by the time he’s 18 years old. They have the trusty “eye test” to rely on, but now they also have a plethora of methods at their fingertips, including analytics, which some teams are placing more focus on these days.
With all that said, busts still happen. This week I looked back at the drafts of the past 10 years (since 2007) and selected the 15 biggest busts of the bunch. It’s tough to say what exactly qualifies as a bust—some of the players on this list are actually enjoying NHL careers. Their inclusion here just means that there were high expectations placed on them on draft day, and they’ve thus far failed to meet them.
To qualify for the list the player had to have been drafted inside the top 10 in any of the drafts since 2007. I only used the drafts from 2007 to 2014, as it’s simply too early to call someone who was drafted in 2015 a bust. Enjoy:
15 Ryan Strome - 5th overall, 2011
Ryan Strome will make his Edmonton Oilers debut this fall, as the team that drafted him had seen enough and shipped him out for Jordan Eberle (a steal by GM Garth Snow, by the way). Strome was selected by the Islanders 5th overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and actually seemed to be on a great trajectory for his first two NHL seasons.
In 2013-14, his rookie year, he posted 18 points in 37 games, not bad at all for a rookie. He followed that up with an impressive sophomore campaign, notching 50 points. Unfortunately, that still stands as a career high for Strome, who has had two very disappointing campaigns since (finishing with 28 and 30 points, respectively). Rumors swirled that Strome and former Isles head coach Jack Capuano butted heads, so we’ll see if Strome can bounce back in a new city.
14 Valeri Nichushkin - 10th overall, 2013
Much like Strome, the 10th overall pick from the 2013 Entry Draft also got off to a pretty promising start out of the gate. Valeri Nichushkin played 79 big league games in 2013-14, scoring 34 points along the way. An injury derailed his sophomore season, but he did manage four points in the five games he played. In 2015-16, his third NHL season, he veered off the path that once looked so promising.
He only managed to get 29 points in his third season, which is a step back from his sophomore year. It’s not like a guy can’t recover from that setback, but the problem is Nichushkin just didn’t stick with it. He went back to the Motherland to play for CSKA Moscow of the KHL, and it looks like he’s ready to stay there for at least one more season (he’s already played a few games in the 2017-18 season).
13 Sam Reinhart - 2nd overall, 2014
It’s almost too early to declare Sam Reinhart a bust, but I think it’s fair to say that the Sabres would have wanted more from their 2014 2nd overall selection to this point. To be fair, there is plenty of time for Reinhart to take another step and erase himself from this group, but as of now they need more from him. Look no further than the 3rd overall selection from that draft class, Leon Draisaitl, to get an idea of what a good scenario would look like for Reinhart and Buffalo.
The 21-year-old does have 90 points in 167 NHL games, so make no mistake, the kid is a player. But forwards' primes are getting younger and younger, and Reinhart should be closing in on his. He’s yet to crack the 50-point barrier to date, though, and if he doesn’t get there in 2017-18, the Sabres have a right to be somewhat underwhelmed.
12 Nikita Filatov - 6th overall, 2008
Russian winger Nikita Filatov comes in at number 12 on our countdown, and for good reason. Filatov was a Blue Jackets selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, and he was picked 6th overall. He immediately made the move over to North America and spent most of the year with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. He did get a cup of coffee with the Jackets that season, scoring four goals in eight games.
Oddly, he split 2009-10 between North America and Russia, which seems like a strange move so early in his career. He then returned to North America to try again in Columbus. When things failed in Columbus he went to Ottawa for a cup of coffee, but was relegated to their AHL team in Binghamton. Filatov decided that was enough, and he went back to play in the KHL and hasn’t looked back since. He played a total of 53 NHL games over four seasons.
11 Brett Connolly - 6th overall, 2010
Brett Connolly was a top shelf prospect when he was picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning 6th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He was joining an already youth-rich club, and looked to be a key part of the future for the franchise. Connolly’s game, which in junior featured impressive offensive numbers, failed to translate well to the NHL, and as a result he’s struggled to find a permanent NHL home.
After playing 68 games in his rookie year, he finally managed to match that total in 2015-16 with the Bruins when he played 71. Nonetheless, the right winger’s career hasn’t gone as the Lightning expected it to, and they parted ways with him in 2015. Connolly is more or less an established depth player, but at 25 years old I’d say it’s fair to call him a bit of a bust.
10 Dylan McIlrath - 10th overall, 2010
Defensemen are always more difficult to accurately scout, so perhaps it’s no surprise that a few of them show up on our list today. Dylan McIlrath was the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, selected by the New York Rangers. He didn’t even make his NHL debut until 2013-14, and even then he only skated in two games for the Rangers.
McIlrath was selected at a time when “old school hockey players” was still a thing (you know, sandpaper, chop wood, carry water, etc.). He was a pugilist in junior, and he’s been a pugilist in the AHL, and he has a pretty high PIMs per game rate in the few NHL games he has played. McIlrath only played six NHL games in 2016-17, bringing his career total to 43. I think it’s safe to call him a bust at this point.
9 Magnus Paajarvi - 10th overall, 2009
Magnus Paajarvi (formerly known as Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson) was picked by the Oilers 10th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and his career got off to a great start. Debuting in 2010-11, Paajarvi posted great rookie numbers, scoring 15 goals and adding 19 assists for a respectable 34 points. Surely he could build on that and become at least a second-tier star in this league, right?
For whatever reason, that’s not how things materialized for Paajarvi and the Oilers. Sadly, Paajarvi hasn’t come anywhere close to those totals since, as all three figures still represent career highs for him. He was shipped to St. Louis in the 2013 offseason, and has been in the club’s system ever since, bouncing back and forth from the AHL to the NHL.
8 Jake Virtanen - 6th overall, 2014
The Vancouver Canucks' prospect cupboard was pretty bare when they chose local boy Jake Virtanen 6th overall in 2014.Virtanen finished his junior career with the Calgary Hitmen and then turned pro the following season, in 2015-16. He didn’t have a great year—he managed just 13 points in 55 games—but the kid was a rookie; surely he could build on it.
Well, he’s done none of the sort since, and he’s in fact regressed a little bit. He played in just 10 NHL games (one assist) last season before being demoted to the Utica Comets for the rest of the year. It was his performance with Utica that should be of great concern to Vancouver and its fans, as the winger managed just nine goals and 19 assists in what was essentially a full minor-league season (65 games).
7 Michael Dal Colle - 5th overall, 2014
Michael Dal Colle, the New York Islanders’ 5th overall pick from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, has yet to play a game in the NHL. That’s unusual for such a highly-regarded prospect. Dal Colle turned 21 in June, so if he doesn’t make noise in 2017-18, it’s fair to wonder if it will ever happen for the winger from Woodbridge, Ontario.
Dal Colle spent the entirety of the 2015-16 season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL, the Islanders’ farm club. Things went alright for Dal Colle, but he certainly didn’t make the type of statement the Isles’ were hoping for. It would be wildly unfair to say the ship has sailed on the young man, but a quiet/invisible season this year could solidify Dal Colle as a true bust.
6 Slater Koekkoek - 10th overall, 2012
Slater Koekkoek (pronounced cuckoo) was picked up by the Tampa Bay Lightning 10th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. That was the year of the defenseman, as eight of the top 10 picks were rearguards. Of those eight, it’s fair to say Koekkoek is one of the worst of the bunch.
Koekkoek did find his way into 29 games this past season, which by far eclipses the 12 he’d played combined in the two seasons prior. He’ll turn 24 in February, so it’s safe to say that if Koekkoek doesn’t make himself known soon, he could be destined for a career in the minors. It’s not like it is imperative for D-men to produce offense, but Koekkoek’s 13 points and even rating on a good Syracuse team in the AHL in 2016-17 does not inspire confidence.
5 Griffin Reinhart - 4th overall, 2012
Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Griffin Reinhart was selected 4th overall by the New York Islanders in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the second of eight defensemen to go in the top 10 that year. Reinhart struggled to crack the Islanders roster, and then Garth Snow finally decided he’d fleece the Edmonton Oilers by sending them Reinhart for the 16th and 33rd overall picks of the deep 2015 draft.
Reinhart never established himself as a full-timer in Edmonton, and they eventually lost him for nothing in the expansion draft last June. Reinhart has a good opportunity to find permanent employment in Vegas this upcoming season, as logic would dictate that making an expansion team in its first season should be easier than making most other teams. If he doesn’t land a spot out of training camp, it's time to close the book on this one.
4 Keaton Ellerby - 10th overall, 2007
Keaton Ellerby was selected by the Florida Panthers 10th overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and to be fair he did crack the 200 NHL game mark. Despite that milestone, I’m including him here because many of those games were gifted to him on account of being on an awful Panthers team to begin his career. He made brief stops in L.A. and Winnipeg before making the permanent move to Europe in 2015.
What stings the most for the Panthers here is that the next four players picked turned into decent players. The Hurricanes picked up Brandon Sutter at 11, the Canadiens nabbed Ryan McDonagh at 12, the Blues picked up Lars Eller at 13, and the Avs grabbed offensive defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at 14. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that the Cats would have preferred any of the above.
3 Zach Hamill - 8th overall, 2007
Zach Hamill was picked 8th overall in the same year as Ellerby, 2007. The center was a Boston Bruins pick, and despite the club’s high hopes for the WHL star, things never panned out for Hamill. In the end, he made the move to Europe in 2013, playing in a grand total of 20 NHL games before making the call to move on.
We already know that the Panthers picked Ellerby at 10, but what’s damning for the Bruins is that they passed over the 9th overall pick, Logan Couture, in favor of Hamill. Granted, the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, but can you imagine how good that team could have been had they chosen Couture instead of Hamill? Perhaps it could have changed the fate of the 2013 Stanley Cup, when the Blackhawks beat the Bruins in the Final.
2 Scott Glennie - 8th overall, 2009
When you draft a center with your first round pick, 8th overall, you really do hope they pan out and perhaps even become a key contributor to the future of your franchise. The Dallas Stars picked up Scott Glennie in the 8th overall slot in 2009, and the fact that he’s played a grand total of one hockey game for the Dallas Stars so far is pretty indicative of how things are going.
Sometimes players are just better suited for the league below, and judging by the fact that Glennie has played the last five full seasons in the AHL, I think he fits that bill. It wasn’t the deepest draft of the decade, but 2009’s first round saw some pretty useful players get called after Glennie. I’d be willing to bet the Stars would have preferred any of Ryan Ellis, Nick Leddy, Chris Kreider, or Marcus Johansson.
1 Nail Yakupov - 1st overall, 2012
Number one on our list is also the only one here who was selected first overall, and that is Nail Yakupov. Yakupov was the third consecutive first overall pick for the Edmonton Oilers in in 2012, and he has proven to be a dud. The Oilers eventually moved on from Yakupov prior to 2016-17, garnering just a third round pick for the former golden boy.
What’s funny is that the Oilers were in desperate need of defense at the time, and most of the top prospects that year were D-men. Why they chose to go with Yakupov over, say, Ryan Murray (2nd overall) is a mystery. There are rumors, however, that the scouts wanted to go with Murray, but were vetoed by owner Daryl Katz.