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.
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16 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.
19. Pekka Rinne
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 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.
17. Brian Campbell
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 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.
15. Pavel Bure
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 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).
13. Peter Bondra
The assault in recent years by Alexander Ovechkin on the Washington Capitals' franchise record book has prompted a look back at the remarkable career of the European sniper that Ovi bumped from the top spot of many of those records. Slovak star Peter Bondra didn't merit much interest from NHL teams when he came over to North America on account of a perceptively suspect level of play in the Czech league. Bondra, however, soon rewarded the Caps for ultimately taking him in the eighth round (156th overall) of the 1990 draft, setting franchise bests in games (961), goals (472) and points (825) before Ovi and the current Caps came along.
12 Dave Taylor
The lowest-drafted player to amass 1,000 career NHL points? That would be Los Angeles Kings star Dave Taylor, who was taken in the 15th round of the 1975 draft, the 210th player selected. In fact, only seven more names were called after Taylor, who would go onto be the highest scoring player among the entire draft class. Taylor, now on the other side of the coin as the Vice President of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues, is best known for his place on the famous Triple Crown line alongside Marcel Dionne and Charlie Simmer.
11 Theo Fleury
It isn't as though scouts were unaware of what Theo Fleury could do, having seen him compile 201 goals and 472 points over four stellar seasons with the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors. However, it was hard for teams to look past his diminutive 5'6" stature and see a viable NHL player. With their eighth round pick (166th pick overall) in the 1987 draft, the Calgary Flames opted to take a try on Fleury. In doing so, they netted the player who would go onto become the franchise's second all-time points scorer behind Jarome Iginla.
10 Jamie Benn
The offensively gifted Dallas Stars have benefited from the production of star centermen Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin, who were taken first and second in their respective draft years. However, the club's captain and offensive anchor is actually lightly scouted BC native Jamie Benn, who was taken with the 129th overall pick in the 2007 draft. Ironically, the pick used to select Benn had been acquired as one of three fifth rounders from Columbus in exchange for a fourth rounder used to select Maxsim Mayorov. While Mayorov has managed two goals in 22 career games, Benn now has 192 goals, 448 points, two All-Star appearances and an Art Ross trophy to his name, with plenty more ahead.
9 Igor Larionov
The draft situation of Soviet star Igor Larionov was a unique one. Concerns amongst NHL front office executives surrounding Larionov had little to do with his already established skill level and more to do with the willingness of the Soviet hockey federation to release him of his Russian hockey commitments and allow him to play in the NHL. Indeed, after being selected 214th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 1985, it wasn't until the 1989-90 season that Larionov was allowed to make his way to North America. Already 29 at the time of his NHL arrival, Larionov went on to score 169 goals and 644 points in 921 career games. He earned the nickname "the professor" for his on ice intelligence.
8 Daniel Alfredsson
Few players are more closely connected to the historical success of their franchise than Daniel Alfredsson is with the Ottawa Senators. That connection could hardly have been predicted ahead of the 1994 draft, when Ottawa took a chance on the young Swede with their sixth round pick (133rd overall) at the urging of John Ferguson. After winning the Calder trophy in his rookie season, Alfredsson proceeded to lead the Senators to the postseason in each of the next 11 seasons. The long-time captain has scored almost 500 more points for Ottawa than any other player to ever suit up for the Senators.
7 Doug Gilmour
The aversion that many hockey scouts have towards the vertically challenged also caused many to overlook Cornwall Royals star Doug Gilmour ahead of the 1982 draft. The 5'11" center tallied nearly 300 points over just two OHL seasons in Cornwall, but lasted until the seventh round (134th overall) in his draft class. The St. Louis Blues happily snapped him up, setting Gilmour on a 20-season Hall of Fame NHL career that saw him play 1,474 games, record 1,414 points, win a Selke trophy and finish as high as second in Hart Trophy voting. If only it weren't for that Gretzky guy...
6 Joe Pavelski
Few seventh round draft picks have ever led their club to the Stanley Cup Finals, but that's exactly where Joe Pavelski and the San Jose Sharks currently find themselves. The Western Conference champion Sharks have finally found their way to the long-awaited Finals thanks to a talent laden roster, but they couldn't have gotten there without their captain. Pavelski has averaged over 38 goals and 75 points over the past three seasons while serving as the heart and soul of a deep, veteran club. The Sharks probably didn't expect to be landing a Conn Smythe contender with the 205th pick in the 2003 draft.
5 Henrik Lundqvist
For years, replacing Mike Richter in net was of chief importance to the draft plan of the New York Rangers. The team used top 10 picks in both the 2001 and 2004 draft on goalies, taking Dan Blackburn 10th and Al Montoya sixth, respectively. Little did they know that their long-term solution behind the pipes was already in the organization, coming in the form of 2000 seventh rounder (like Pavelski, also 205th overall) Henrik Lundqvist. The stylish Swede captured Manhattan through the 2000's, back-stopping them to 10 playoff appearances in 11 years including a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2014.
4 Luc Robitaille
Luc Robitaille earned the nickname "Lucky Luc," but it wasn't just luck that propelled the long-time Los Angeles Kings star to 668 goals and 1,394 points over 1,431 career games. After waiting through nine rounds and 170 other players to hear his named called in the 1984 draft, the 2009 Hall of Fame inductee immediately began making his mark in the NHL. Robitaille won the Calder trophy and made the first of 13 All-Star teams in his first season, setting out on a offense-heavy career that would see him score over 40 goals in each of his first eight seasons.
3 Dominik Hasek
It's a wonder that NHL scouts missed the mark so badly on some of these budding talents, but you can kind of understand their reluctance when it came to "The Dominator," Dominik Hasek. The quirky goaltender with the unconventional style probably scared off some observers when they saw his awkward, unorthodox, floppy style on display, explaining how he lasted until the 10th round (199th overall) in 1983. But Hasek quickly went about proving his doubters wrong, first as a backup in Chicago and then as a star goaltender in Buffalo, where he won six Vezina Trophies and two Hart Trophies as part of a remarkable, Hall of Fame career.
2 Brett Hull
The narrative of Brett Hull's entry into the NHL might have been a vastly different one had he measured in at a mere two inches taller than his listed 5'11" and kept off the sweets. The son of hockey legend Bobby Hull and a naturally gifted skater with great hands would have graded out well based on those qualities, but he was also under the magical six feet mark and carried perceived attitude problems and conditioning issues. Drafted by Calgary in the sixth round (117th overall) of the 1984 draft, Hull quickly got his game together with 32 goals in 65 games in just his second NHL season. That soon opened the floodgates for a 228-goal explosion over three seasons with the St. Louis Blues along the way to becoming one of the greatest snipers in league history.
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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