If you ever catch yourself questioning the quality of the players in a professional sports league, consider this: only a minority of players who play in the junior leagues ever make it as a pro. And only a few of the best kids at a given sport can make it to junior. So a player who’s great in junior is amazingly talented, full stop. However, many players struggle to transition to the big leagues. Sometimes they lack the size, sometimes they lack the discipline, and sometimes things just don’t go their way. But the opposite does exist as well. There are plenty of players who were nothing special in junior but who blossomed into all-star players when they reached the pros.
The NHL has had many players of both types. However, both are still comparatively rare. Generally, a player’s skill level and success in junior correlates with their skill and success in the NHL. Players who were amazing in their junior careers --Gretzky, Ovechkin, Toews-- are often amazing in the NHL. But there have been some amazing junior players who never made it as big in the NHL. And some never made it at all. And then there are the great players who were not heralded at all in their junior days and were therefore picked late in the draft. And some greats were never drafted at all. So read on and discover eight players who were better in their pro careers and eight who peaked in junior.
16 Pro - Henrik Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist’s status as an all-star goalie is inarguable. Lundqvist backstopped a rather average New York Rangers team to a Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference supremacy. He was nominated for the Hart Trophy in 2012 and for the Vezina Trophy five times, winning in 2012. He’s possibly the greatest goaltender of this millennium. However, his CV wasn’t always as dazzling. Apparently, Henrik didn’t even play in goal until around the age of eight when his twin brother, Joel, volunteered Henrik to go in goal without Henrik’s approval. Lundqvist made his Swedish Elitserien debut in 2000 for Frölunda HC, but the season did not go well and he lost his roster spot.
He wasn’t drafted by the Rangers until the 205th pick in 2000. Henrik made a conscious effort to improve his game. Sweden was not strong in goal at this point, so Lundqvist got the call to represent his country at the 2001 World Junior Hockey Championship. Lundqvist played very well and helped the Swedes to a 4th place finish. From there, King Henrik only got better.
15 Junior - Eric Lindros
Okay, I know, at first blush, it seems insane to downplay Eric Lindros’s professional career. He dominated the league for years and even won a Hart Trophy and tied for the league lead in scoring in 1995. But remember that ‘The Big E’s’ career was riddled and eventually shortened by injuries; specifically concussions, of which he suffered three in the 1999-00 season. And then consider his junior career. His truly phenomenal junior career.
Lindros was so good for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League that they retired his number, 88. People were already calling him “The Next One” (a comparison to Gretzky). Not even the next Lemieux or Marcel Dionne, but Gretzky. Lindros was so big and dominant, but also skilled and fast, that he dazzled spectators and analysts. So good was Lindros that he represented Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup before ever even playing a game in the NHL. So yes, his pro career was great, but his he was better in junior.
14 Pro - Martin St. Louis
Martin St. Louis is perhaps the most famous NHL player to have never been drafted. The diminutive French-Canadian winger was pretty much an average player career for the first several years of his career. However, his offensive output exploded in the early 2000s, winning the Art Ross and Hart trophies in 2004. After that, St. Louis couldn’t even touch the ice without announcers informing us that, “Hey, did you know he was never even drafted?!?!”. Yes, we all know that by now. So naturally, St. Louis was better as a pro than he was in junior. But actually, he wasn’t terrible in junior. It was just his small stature that scared off NHL clubs. St. Louis couldn’t find a spot for himself in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), so he played in the NCAA system.
He was actually a great player for the Vermont Catamounts, but still no NHL contract came his way. It wasn’t until after a season in the International Hockey League that the Calgary Flames finally came calling in 1998.
13 Junior - Jordan Eberle
After a somewhat slow start, Jordan Eberle has proven himself to be a quality, solid forward for the Edmonton Oilers. But he’s not the same player he was in junior. Eberle played great for the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, but where he really shone was at the World Junior Hockey Championship. For two years in a row, Eberle dazzled as he led Team Canada, winning gold in 2009 and silver in 2010. Eberle had a particular penchant for scoring late goals. In 2009 against in Russia in the semi final, he scored with a mere 5.4 seconds left to tie the game and then again in the shootout. On New Year's Eve 2009, Eberle scored a third period goal and again in the shootout to beat U.S.A. in the final round robin game. Canada met the U.S. again in the final and Eberle scored twice in the third period to force overtime, the second goal with only 1:35 left.
Eberle finished the tournament as Canada’s all-time leading junior scorer, with 14 goals. These are numbers and performances we haven’t seen him replicate for the Oilers.
12 Pro - Brian Rafalski
Like Martin St, Louis, Brian Rafalski had a very successful tenure in the NCAA, playing for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And, like St, Louis, despite his success, NHL teams still were not interested in him, and this was also partly because of Rafalski’s less-than-average size for a hockey player. So Rafalski headed over to Europe in 1995 and played in Sweden with Brynäs IF. After two largely disappointing seasons in Sweden, Rafalski moved to Finland, where he had more success over the next three years, even becoming the first non-Finn to win the player of the year award there in 1998-99. That was enough for the NHL to finally take notice and the New Jersey Devils signed Rafalski, and he would go on to be one of the greatest undrafted defensemen of the modern era.
11 Rick DiPietro
Choosing a goalie with the first overall pick is often a fool’s errand. Even a first overall pick who later backstops your team to the Stanley Cup (Marc-Andre Fleury) can leave a GM for criticism by analysts and fans. But there’s no sugar coating the New York Islander’s first overall pick in 2000; Rick DiPietro was a bad choice. But the Isles weren’t crazy for picking DiPietro. He had a very good junior career in the NCAA for Boston University. But DiPietro’s reputation really ascended to heady heights after the 2000 World Juniors, where he was named goalie of the tournament. But alas, DiPietro’s star would never again shine so bright. Add 13 years, a load of injuries, and one truly ridiculously large contract in there, and you get a pretty underwhelming pro career.
10 Pro - Jamie Benn
Jamie Benn is another NHL scoring champion who did not set the world alight in junior. Or, to clarify, Benn’s beginning to his junior career was uninspiring. Benn wasn’t drafted by the Dallas Stars until the 129th pick in 2007. But it wasn’t long before the Stars realized they had got themselves a steal. Benn had a reputation amongst some for being a bit lazy in junior. That seemed to change in 2007-08 when Benn had a great year with the Kelowna Rockets, and even improved on it the next. Benn’s performances became so consistently good that he was selected to represent Canada at the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championship where he won gold. Benn’s play would steadily improve for the Stars, leading him to eventually win the Art Ross in 2015.
9 Junior - Stéphane LeBeau
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) is generally a smaller, faster, more skill based league than the OHL or WHL, so smaller guys can flourish there. Stépane LeBeau was relatively small at five-foot-ten. And he did flourish in ‘the Q’ for the Shawinigan Cataractes. LeBeau finished his junior career second in goals and second in points in QMJHL history. Of all time. He was behind Mike Bossy in total goals, and for for points, he was behind...well, we’ll get to him later. Nevertheless, making the jump to the NHL can be difficult for smaller players, and it was for LeBeau. The pacey forward was never even drafted, but was signed by the Montreal Canadiens in 1986. He eventually cracked the Habs’ lineup in the 1989-90 season and even won the Cup with them in 1993. But he was never the player he was in junior.
8 Pro - Pekka Rinne
Nashville’s star goaltender wasn’t always pegged to be a franchise player. This is evidenced by his low draft choice, 258th overall, the final pick of the eighth round. So how did a future All-Dtar and Vezina Trophy nominee get selected so late in the draft? Well, before being drafted, Rinne played for Oulun Kärpät in the Finnish SM-Liga; and he played well. The trouble was that he didn’t play often. He was the backup goalie to Niklas Bäckstöm, who himself could be on this list. Bäckstöm was an undrafted NHLer, and at the time that he Rinne were playing together on Kärpät, Bäckstöm was already in his mid twenties and a seasoned veteran at that level.
As a result, no NHL scouts ever saw Rinne unless they were at a game scouting a different player in which he happened to be playing. So Nashville took a punt on a goalie about whom they had heard a few good things and it eventually paid off. Big time.
7 Junior - Nail Yakupov
Nail Yakupov’s junior career was so impressive that fans of struggling NHL teams were actually wishing for them to finish in last place to increase their chances of getting the first overall draft pick. “Fail for Nail” was a commonly heard refrain throughout the 2011-12 season. What’s more is that, unlike some other Europeans on this list, Yakupov played his junior for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, so general managers and scouts figured they knew what they were getting: a fabulously talented forward who could handle the rough and tumble North American game.
What the Edmonton Oilers did get, however, was a mediocre, third-line forward who could barely seem to handle anything. Yakupov is still young, mind you, so perhaps his recent trade to St. Louis can reinvigorate his career. As it stands now, though, he was far better in junior.
6 Pro - Pavel Datsyuk
One of the more famous draft gems, Pavel Datsyuk was overlooked by many teams principally because of his slight stature. Well, actually, most general managers didn’t think Datsyuk was too small so much as they didn’t know he existed; because most scouts never bothered to look at him (largely because he was too small). Detroit’s director of European scouting at the time, Håkan Andersson, has said that he thinks he may have been the only NHL scout to have seen Datsyuk play in the flesh. And even then he only saw him twice and the first time he was there to scout a different player, Dmitri Kalinin.
Despite his size, had Datsyuk put up more than merely decent numbers in in his junior career, maybe more scouts would have seen him . As it was, the Red Wings drafted him 171st overall and Datsyuk blossomed into one of the most skillful defensive centers ever.
5 Junior - Justin Pogge
Of the many spectacular goaltending failures that have characterized the Toronto Maple Leafs troubles since 2004, Justin Pogge stands out. And that’s saying something. But he doesn’t stand out because comical goals he let in or because of a high price tag the Leafs paid for him, but because Pogge was never even good enough to unseat any of the living jokes the Leafs had in net ahead of him. Pogge was a star goalie for the Prince George Cougars and later the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. It was with the Hitmen that Pogge was named league MVP in 2006, as well as being CHL goalie of the year. More than that, he was truly scintillating in net for Team Canada at the 2006 World Juniors, backstopping them to gold.
But for whatever reason, it was all downhill for Pogge after that. He never became an NHL regular and he now plays for HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL.
4 Pro - Henrik Zetterberg
Man, the Red Wings really have been good at finding hidden gems in the draft, haven’t they? Henrik Zetterberg was another Håkan Andersson special. His story is similar to Datsyuk’s in that the first time Andersson saw him, at a tournament in Finland, he was pointing out Mattias Weinhandl to Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill, who was more interested in the great play of Zetterberg, who appeared to be all over the ice. Despite his tireless play, Zetterberg’s numbers were nothing outstanding for Timrå IK in Sweden. Because NHL general managers and scouts are less familiar with the standard and style of play in various European leagues, they’re more comfortable picking from the CHL. So an average young player in Europe can be overlooked.
As a result. the Red Wings were able to wait until the seventh round to pick the man that would later help them to a Stanley Cup and captain their team.
3 Junior - Alexander Svitov
Alexander Svitov was nothing short of a wunderkind as a teenager. He dazzled and dominated at the junior level so much that when he suited up for Avangard Omsk in 1999, he became the youngest ever skater in the Russian Superleague (now the Kontinental Hockey League). It should come as no surprise then that the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Svitov third overall in 2001. Svitov, however, had trouble adapting to the more physical and more crowded NHL game. He seemed to become quickly discouraged by the more difficult standard of play and kind of just, well, gave up. The Lightning became frustrated with Svitov’s lack of effort and shipped him off to Columbus in 2004. The Blue Jackets had no better luck with him and Svitov has been in Russia since 2007; paying decently, but nowhere near fulfilling the potential he promised as a junior.
2 Pro - Luc Robitaille
Luc Robitaille's nickname during his playing days was “Lucky Luc”, but in actuality, we should be calling the Kings lucky to have been able to draft him way down in the ninth round with the 171st pick. In fact, Robitaille was picked so far down the draft that L.A. actually picked him after they had selected future Atlanta Braves (MLB) Hall of Fame pitcher, Tom Glavine. Yeah. So why was the future Hall of Famer and all-time highest scoring leftwinger in NHL history so unfancied in the 1984 draft? At first glance, Robitaille had a very good draft year, scoring 85 points in 70 games for the Hull Olympiques. But remember, that was in the QMJHL, where, seemingly, three goals are equal to one in any other league. Robitaille was also pegged as being a bad skater. He himself has stated that he only had contact with one NHL team, the Kings, when he introduced himself to King’s GM Rogie Vachon. If not for that meeting, who knows what would have happened. We may have a different highest scoring leftwinger.
1 Junior - Patrice Lefebvre
Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine, Sidney Crosby. These are just a few of the great names that have dazzled in the highly offensive and talented QMJHL through the decades. But these three greats --and all the others-- all pale in comparison to one man: Patrice Lefebvre. What’s that? You say you’ve never heard of Patrice Lefebvre? How can that be? Lefebvre is the all-time leader in points in QMJHL history. Of all time. Lefebvre scored 595 points while playing for the Shawinigan Cataractes (alongside Stéphane LeBeau). Surely, he went on to have a fantastic NHL career? Well, he did play in the NHL...three times. How does the all-time points leader in ‘The Q’ fail to make it as an NHLer? Well, like St. Louis, LeBeau, and many others before him, Lefebvre was undersized, but only more so. Most sites listing his height as five-foot-six, truly tiny for a hockey player.
He was never drafted and played most of his career in Europe. Lefebvre was good enough to represent his country, though! Or, at least, a country. He played for Italy at the 2007 World Championship, being eligible to do so by way of marriage to his Italian wife.