The topic of this list alone is enough to generate backlash from fans of teams with players labeled as busts. It's true that it's far too early to label 20-year-old prospects as busts, but at the same time there are certain expectations that come with being a first round draft pick, and you simply can't ignore when those players stumble through their first professional season. Likewise, you can't get overly excited about a young player in his first season unless the player is a generational talent like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, or Auston Matthews. That's why you won't see Sam Bennett in either category.
Bennett, the fourth overall pick in the draft, famously couldn't do a single pull up at the NHL Draft Combine, but energized the Calgary Flames during the team's postseason run in 2014-15. He had a decent rookie season, but hasn't taken the next step in 2016-17. He's not a bust, but he doesn't appear to have the drive and skill set needed to become a star player. However, there are several players from the draft who have already established themselves as top-six forwards or first-pairing defenders. Others have struggled to find footing in the professional ranks, and while that doesn't mean they won't develop into solid NHLers, there's at least reason for caution.
15 Stud: Nick Schmaltz
Recently-turned 21 year old Nick Schmaltz was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks with the 20th selection in the draft. He was regarded as a pass-first offensive forward in his draft year, having come off a season of 18 goals and 45 assists with the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers. He continued to showcase his playmaking skills through two years at the University of North Dakota, where he recorded 16 goals and 56 assists in a combined 75 games.
Since signing with the Hawks at the end of last season, Schmaltz has steadily improved, earning a call-up from the AHL after just 12 games. He has 17 points in 43 games for Chicago, but has come on as of late, recording ten points in ten February contests, including seven points in the final four games of the month. With the Hawks being perennial contenders, Schmaltz will benefit greatly from the playoff experience, and given his entry-level contract he's sure to be a valuable asset for the organization.
14 Bust: Jake Virtanen
The Vancouver Canucks have been tricking themselves into thinking they had a legitimate shot at the playoffs for the past two seasons, keeping veterans rather than dealing them for young players. That attitude changed at the recent trade deadline, but the Canucks missed an opportunity to get younger. One of the promising young players they do have in the organization is Jake Virtanen, who was selected by the team sixth overall in 2014.
Virtanen scored a point per game in his final season of junior after being drafted, which, for a top ten pick, isn't that great. He cracked the Canucks lineup in 2015-16, but was in and out of the lineup and scored just seven goals in 55 games. Rather than stick with the kid and let his confidence grow, the team sent him down to the AHL after ten games in the 2016-17 season. His lack of offensive ability has been highlighted in the AHL this year as he has just 11 points through 44 games. He's young, but the initial promise has worn off and he's nearing bust territory if he can't turn things around next season.
13 Stud: Dylan Larkin
Though he has taken a step back this season, we're willing to attribute that to the fact the Detroit Red Wings are, for the first time in 25 years, an awful team in danger of missing the playoffs. Still, even during a down year, his 12 goals in 59 games is fifth on the team, just two behind a trio of forwards who are tied with 14.
Larkin established himself as a stud in the 2014-15 season after the Red Wings made him the 15th overall pick. He led the University of Michigan in scoring that season with 47 points in 35 games and later starred for the American World Championship team. He was so good that he forced Detroit to play him as a 19-year-old last year; that doesn't sound like much of a feat, but the Red Wings have built an identity on allowing young players to develop for three or four seasons in the minors. Larkin finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting as a rookie last season, and finished third in team scoring with 45 points. He's a player Detroit will build around going forward.
12 Bust: Jared McCann
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks with the 24th overall pick, Jared McCann was rushed to the NHL by an impatient Canucks team looking to infuse their aging roster with youth. Rather than going back to junior for his final year of eligibility, McCann spent the 2015-16 season with the Canucks, recording 18 points in 69 games - decent numbers for a 19-year-old, though he wasn't without his struggles.
However, needing a defenseman, the Canucks shipped out McCann to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Erik Gudbranson. McCann has played just 29 games with the Panthers this season, scoring one goal and adding six assists. He's currently in the AHL, where he has 10 points in 23 games for the Springfield Thunderbirds. He has been labeled by former teammates as having character issues, and his on-ice play has gotten worse in the past season. At best, he projects as a bottom-six forward.
11 Stud: Aaron Ekblad
The Panthers were able to trade the aforementioned Erik Gudbranson because they had a legitimate stud on the blue line in Aaron Ekblad. This shouldn't be a surprise, however, as Ekblad was taken with the first overall pick in the draft. Few defensemen are able to jump right into the league as an 18-year-old, but Ekblad did that quite effectively in 2014-15, winning the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie after scoring 12 goals and adding 27 assists in 81 games.
Like some of the players we've labeled busts, he's struggled in 2016-17 compared to the previous two seasons, but the 6-foot-4 rearguard remains one of the league's best young defensemen, playing against the most skilled forwards in the league on a nightly basis.
10 Bust: Sonny Milano
Despite that they look to be a playoff team, the 2016-17 Columbus Blue Jackets are the youngest team in the league. This is noteworthy, considering Sonny Milano, the 16th pick in 2014, has only played just two games with Columbus this season. It's clear the Blue Jackets are willing to give young players an opportunity, but there's a sense they're not too high on Milano, who was reportedly on the trade block prior to last season's deadline.
In his first two seasons as a pro, the American left winger has played just five NHL games, while playing 98 in the AHL, recording 58 points. Milano has some skill, but he hasn't been developing as expected. If he doesn't make inroads in Columbus by next season, he could find himself in another organization.
9 Stud: Sam Reinhart
The Buffalo Sabres made the right decision with second overall pick Sam Reinhart. The North Vancouver native made the team out of training camp in 2014-15, but played just nine games before being returned to junior. Had he played one more, he would have burned a year of restricted free agent status and likely would have halted his development. Instead, he recorded 65 points in 47 games with the WHL's Kootenay Ice and won a World Junior Championship gold medal with Canada.
Reinhart arrived at Buffalo's training camp in 2015 with increased confidence in his game and went on to finish third in team scoring with 42 points. His 23 goals ranked second on the team, just one behind 2015 second overall pick Jack Eichel. Reinhart and Eichel project to be a formidable one-two punch in Buffalo for years to come.
8 Bust: Conner Bleackley
It's usually not a good sign if you're drafted twice, especially if you're a first round pick. The Colorado Avalanche selected center Conner Bleackley with the 23rd overall pick after he had recorded 68 points in 71 games for the WHL's Red Deer Rebels. He continued along at a near point-per-game pace for the following two seasons, but the Avalanche were unimpressed by his development and opted not to sign him to an entry-level contract by the June 1st deadline in 2016.
Because he was unsigned, Bleackley became eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft and was scooped up by the St. Louis Blues - in the fifth round! It was clear that most teams shared the same sentiment as Colorado, passing on the former first round pick due to his lack of speed and finishing ability. He has just ten points through 44 games with the AHL's Chicago Wolves this season.
7 Stud: David Pastrnak
Few expected 25th overall pick David Pastrnak to have the impact he has had at the NHL level this soon, including the Boston Bruins. The Czech winger played in Sweden prior to being drafted, recording 24 points in 36 games with Sodertalje SK of the second division league. Because he played in Europe, he was eligible to play in the AHL as a teenager, unlike Canadian and American junior players, who have to wait until their 20-year-old season.
Pastrnak impressed immediately with the Bruins AHL affiliate in Providence. He picked up 28 points in 25 games before earning a mid-season call to Boston, where he went on to generate 27 points in 46 games, becoming an integral part of the Bruins' offense. He battled injuries in 2015-16 and didn't progress as much as anticipated but he's been Boston's second-best player this season behind Brad Marchand. He's second on the team in goals (26) and points (52).
6 Bust: Josh Ho-Sang
Though he was recently recalled by the New York Islanders, there are plenty reasons to believe Josh Ho-Sang isn't going to develop into the player the organization hopes he will. The right winger was one of the most talented offensive players leading up to the draft, but questions about his character persisted, especially given his outspoken confidence, which goes against the hockey culture.
He continued to showcase his playmaking abilities during the 2014-15 season with the OHL's Niagara IceDogs, but rather than getting an honest look with the Islanders in 2015, Ho-Sang arrived late to training camp and was immediately sent back to junior. He's endured a decent rookie season in the AHL this year, posting 36 points in 48 games, but unless he matures and becomes a more well-rounded player it's unlikely he reaches his potential.
5 Stud: Nikolaj Ehlers
You have to give the Winnipeg Jets credit for selecting Nikolaj Ehlers with the ninth overall pick. At the time, he was an undersized winger who arrived in Halifax of the QMJHL from Denmark, a country not particularly known for developing quality hockey players. That said, Ehlers opened eyes with 104 points in 63 games for Halifax and rose up the draft rankings throughout the year.
Still, few would have predicted he would be making such an impact in the NHL this soon. Ehlers played one more season in Halifax after being selected by the Jets and made his NHL debut in 2015-16, playing in 72 games and recording 38 points. His overall game has grown leaps and bounds this season and, through 64 games, he was fourth in team scoring with 49 points, just one point behind captain Blake Wheeler.
4 Bust: Haydn Fleury
The Carolina Hurricanes have a stable of promising young defensemen currently playing in the NHL. But despite their acceptance to play young blueliners, their patience with Haydn Fleury is telling, particularly given that their playoff chances are slim to none.
A 6-foot-3 defenseman from Carlyle, Saskatchewan, Fleury had a promising junior career, playing twice for Canada in the World Junior Championships, but his slow first step and poor hockey IQ became clear on the big stage. As a first-year pro, the former seventh overall pick has been decent, picking up 16 points in 48 games for the AHL's Charlotte Checkers, but it's looking as though his ceiling is limited to a bottom-pairing defenseman. Making matters worse, defensemen Julius Honka, Travis Sanheim, and Anthony DeAngelo, all of whom were selected after Fleury, are off to more promising starts in their career.
3 Stud: William Nylander
Sweden's William Nylander is more than just an incredible head of hair. The eighth overall pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs proved himself enough in just 20 games with MODO of the SHL in 2014-15, scoring eight goals and adding 12 assists. He came to North America following the 2015 World Junior Championships and played in 37 games for the AHL's Toronto Marlies, acclimating himself well with 32 points.
In any other organization, Nylander might have cracked the NHL lineup to start 2015-16, but the Maple Leafs were committed to being patient with their young players. Nylander forced their hand, however, after leading the Marlies in scoring with 45 points in 37 games. He earned the call-up following the NHL trade deadline and has stuck ever since. This season, Nylander was named the NHL Rookie of the Month in October and has 44 points through 61 games, good enough for fifth on the Maple Leafs in scoring.
2 Bust: Michael Dal Colle
Teams drafting in the top five generally expect to find a future impact player, one who might be able to play in the league and produce as early as 19 or 20. That hasn't been the case with winger Michael Dal Colle, who the Islanders selected with the fifth overall pick. A prolific scorer in his draft year, Dal Colle carried that momentum into 2014-15, posting 93 points in just 56 games. Still, he wasn't able to make the Islanders in 2015-16 and was sent back to the junior.
Inexplicably, Dal Colle recorded just 25 points in 30 games with the retooling Oshawa Generals of the OHL. A trade to the Kingston Frontenacs seemed to kickstart his season as he went on to post 55 points in his final 30 games. In his first season as a pro, Dal Colle has just 11 goals in 53 games with the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The selection stings for the Islanders, given Nylander and Ehlers, who are already impact players in the NHL, were taken a few picks after Dal Colle.
1 Stud: Leon Draisaitl
Lost in all the Connor McDavid hype in Edmonton is the fact that Leon Draisaitl has been one of the league's best young players in 2016-17. The big-bodied German center was taken with the third overall pick, and as the Oilers were accustomed to doing, the team expedited his development by keeping him with the big club in 2014-15. Draisaitl scored just two goals in 37 games with the Oilers, and, realizing they made a mistake, the Oilers sent him back to the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, where he ended up posting 53 points in 32 games.
Draisaitl posted a quiet 51 points in his first full season in the NHL last year, and has been a key cog in the Oilers resurgence this season, collecting 54 points through 64 games while playing second-line minutes behind McDavid. His 23 goals lead the team.