The preparation process surrounding the NHL Entry Draft has changed considerably over time, evolving from what amounted to a monopoly on local talent during the Original Six era into an intense, exhaustive exercise in research, scouting and analytics. One aspect that hasn't changed over time, however, is the fundamental imperfections and inexact science to a process that annually sees some early draftees flounder and late selections thrive. For every blue chip flame-out like one-time first overall picks Brian Lawton (1983) and Alexandre Daigle (1993), there are countless other late bloomers or diamonds in the rough that gave their club more than fair value given their draft slot.
For how much work and attention goes into the draft, the emergence of late round talent is more commonplace than you might expect. The famously stacked 2003 draft produced 11 All-Stars taken after the first round, including five who remained on the board after over 200 players had already been snatched up. The 2012 draft has yet to produce an All-Star among its first 10 picks, but the third round - alone - has already unearthed rising young stars like Shayne Gostisbehere, Matt Murray, Colton Parayko and Frederik Andersen.
The prevalence of late picks thriving in the NHL points to flaws in the draft process, but it also shines light on some fundamental truths about young athletes. The teenage prospect entering the league simply isn't a finished product and can still be further developed over time, regardless of perceived limitations tied to draft red flags like size or hockey sense. These 20 NHL standouts journeyed from draft afterthoughts to stardom through an often lengthy process thanks to determined perseverance and an unwillingness to accept their place as dictated by supposed draft experts.
Without further ado, here are the 20 most successful gems to be mined from the late rounds of the NHL Entry Draft. And this list doesn't even include the numerous other un-drafted talents who didn't hear their name called at all on draft day.
16 20. Dustin Byfuglien
Hard as it is to believe for a physical marvel who has been named to four All-Star teams and won the 2010 Stanley Cup, Dustin Byfuglien was far from a sure thing when he was coming into the league. After three years with the WHL's Prince George Cougars, Byfuglien faced questions about perceived weight issues and whether he was better suited as a forward or defenseman. In 11 NHL seasons, the force known as 'Big Buff' has excelled in both roles.
You would think that a 6'5" goaltending prospect would be liable to raise some eyebrows among NHL scouts, but even those who ventured to Finland to check out Pekka Rinne's Karpat pro team back home likely wouldn't have gotten to see Rinne play. That's because future NHL standout Niklas Backstrom had served as the go-to starter for Karpat, leaving Rinne as the little-used and, therefore, lightly-scouted backup. It was the Nashville Predators that ultimately took Rinne off the board with the 258th selection, the last pick of the eighth round, in 2004. He has since rewarded them with eight full seasons of solid netminding while posting a 2.37 GAA and amassing a .917 save percentage.
15 18. Steve Larmer
The scouting process has grown considerably more sophisticated and thorough over the years of the NHL Entry Draft. But even so, it's hard to fathom how so many teams missed so badly on Steve Larmer in 1980. The winger was fresh off a 114-point season with the Niagara Falls Flyers of the Ontario league (he would return and score 133 points one year later) when he waited through 119 other names at the 1980 draft before Chicago grabbed him. Larmer didn't take long to pay dividends, scoring 43 goals and 90 points in 80 games of his Calder-winning NHL rookie season. That would launch a 15-year career that included five 40-goal seasons and four 30-goal seasons along the way to over 1,000 games.
It's tough to think of Brian Campbell as anything other than a dependable, reliable presence on the back end, but he faced questions about his size and physicality coming out of junior hockey despite having won CHL Player of the Year honors. As a result, he lasted until the 156th pick of the 1997 draft before being selected by the Buffalo Sabres. Campbell didn't become a regular NHL presence until 2002, but quickly continued to serve as a steady back end presence en route to four All-Star appearances, a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and over 1,000 career games.
14 16. Tim Thomas
The unlikely journey of Tim Thomas to NHL stardom had been widely chronicled during the goaltender's celebrated late career ascent with the Boston Bruins. Drafted with the 217th overall pick in 1994 by the Quebec Nordiques, he was cut by the Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers before catching on with the Bruins. Even then, he only gained opportunities after injuries to regular netminders Andrew Raycroft, Hannu Toivonen and Manny Fernandez along the way. Finally taking the reins in net at 32 years of age, Thomas went onto win two Vezina trophies and even a Conn Smythe award after backstopping Boston to the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Most of the teams on this list were more lucky than savvy when it came to having star talent fall into their laps in the later rounds. Not so for the Vancouver Canucks, who actually did their homework in knowing that coveted Russian speedster Pavel Bure was still eligible to be picked late. Though NHL executives knew of the talent of Bure from his days playing in Soviet Russia, most incorrectly believed he held a commitment to the Central Red Army Soviet club. Canucks head scout Mike Penny knew otherwise on account of some extra exhibition games that Bure had played, thereby making the Russian Rocket eligible to be taken in the sixth round (113th overall). Two 60-goal seasons in Vancouver later, the extra legwork paid off for Penny and the Canucks.
13 14. Ondrej Palat
No franchise is more closely associated with a track record of late round draft success than the Detroit Red Wings - and with good reason. Apparently former Red Wings legendary captain Steve Yzerman has learned a few things from his former club that he's put towards his new role as General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite an injury to star center and former first overall pick Steven Stamkos, the Lightning came one win shy of the Stanley Cup Finals thanks to the play of homegrown talents Ondrej Palat (seventh round, 208th overall in 2011), Alex Killorn (third round, 77th overall in 2007) and Tyler Johnson (undrafted).
12 12. Dave Taylor
11 11. Theo Fleury
10 10. Jamie Benn
9 9. Igor Larionov
8 8. Daniel Alfredsson
7 7. Doug Gilmour
6 6. Joe Pavelski
5 5. Henrik Lundqvist
4 4. Luc Robitaille
3 3. Dominik Hasek
2 2. Brett Hull
1 1. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg
It may seem like a cop-out to lump two late-selected Red Wings greats together like this, but it seemed to be the best way to capture the uncanny success of the organization when it comes to late round steals. Indeed, this list simply wouldn't be complete without recognizing the efforts of GM Ken Holland and European super-scout Hakan Andersson. Thanks to the Red Wings braintrust, the club has unearthed gems like Pavel Datsyuk (sixth round, 171st overall), Henrik Zetterberg (seventh round, 210th overall), Jonathan Ericsson (291st overall) and Nicklas Lidstrom (third round, 53rd overall). This late round success helps explain the remarkable playoff streak and stunning draft track record for a club that hasn't picked any higher than 15th since 1991.
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