In any sport, the prospect of a first overall pick is the only solace for a team that's bottomed out by Christmas and has no prayer of participating in the post season. The rewards, though loaded with promise prior to every season, can have great variance. We see it every few years across all sports, either a player destined to change the course of a franchise, or a player loaded with impossible expectations who fails to raise the bar.
Hindsight, of course is 20/20, and it's being gifted with this insight that we can point the finger at every franchise that could have (and should have) done better, and offer speculation toward the possibilities should they have selected with perfection every single time.
In this piece we shall re-draft every first overall pick since 2000, and offer some scenarios that may have transpired should they have selected with flawless precision
17 New York Islanders (2000): Henrik Lundqvist
Original Pick: Rick DiPietro
Other than sporting a fantastic hair style and well-tailored suits, Henrik Lundqvist is a hell of a goaltender. Lundqvist was somehow ranked fifth among European goaltenders for the 2000 NHL Draft, and was way under the radar for the New York Islanders.
Should the Islanders have gone completely off the board and selected the Swedish star, not only would their Scandinavian scouts have deserved a three hundred percent raise, but they would have arguably the best goaltender since the 2005 lockout. The Isles missed the playoffs five consecutive years from 2007-2012, and with a 'tender like Lundqvist manning the net they may have at least had reason to ice a competitive roster.
Alas, Lundqvist was passed on 204 times prior to being selected by the Rangers, and with Yann Danis and Joey MacDonald manning the net when they finished last to acquire John Tavares, perhaps it was best for the franchise to have subpar goaltending for the better part of a decade.
16 Atlanta Thrashers (2001): Ilya Kovalchuk
Orginal Pick: Ilya Kovalchuk
Leading up to the 2001 draft it was a battle between a Russian sniper and a Canadian playmaker. Looking back on a 2001 re-draft, that battle remains exactly the same.
Jason Spezza had some elite years with the Sens in the mid-late 2000s, anchoring a dangerous power play unit that brought them to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Kovalchuk, however, maintains a slight edge as his point production wasn't just elite, but his goal scoring totals were completely off the charts as well.
"Kovy" had six consecutive years of scoring at least 40 goals, which not even Alex Ovechkin has done. He has one of the best wrist shots ever to be released in the NHL, and even though the goalies knew he was going top glove every single time they still couldn't stop it. At 6'2", 220 lbs, it would have been fascinating to see the impact Kovalchuk could have had should he have embraced the North American physicality of the game, as it always seemed he could have been more challenging to play against.
Regardless, he was the reason Atlanta sold any tickets at all, as his game breaking speed and booming one timer were truly sights to see.
15 Columbus Blue Jackets (2002): Duncan Keith
Original Pick: Rick Nash
The Columbus Blue Jackets originally selected Rick Nash with the first pick in 2002, and while he scored 30 goals seven times over his nine years there, he failed to elevate Columbus from expansion franchise to playoff franchise. Perhaps just as importantly, the two first round draft picks on either side of Nash were Rostislav Klesla, Pascal Leclaire, Alexander Svitov, and Nikolai Zherdev, so maybe Nash wasn't dealt a fair hand.
Regardless, a franchise defenseman is always a better piece for an expansion team to start with than a franchise winger, and having someone with Duncan Keith's breakout ability may have allowed their younger forwards a bit more opportunity to have the puck. Keith somehow had 15 defensemen selected before him, and if his three Stanley Cups, two Norris Trophies, and Conn Smythe Trophy mean anything, it means that he should have gone not only before all of those defensemen, but before any forward as well.
14 Pittsburgh Penguins (2003): Patrice Bergeron
Original Pick: Marc-Andre Fleury
The 2003 draft is one of the best drafts in recent decades and resulted in an abundance of talent hopping into the league after the 2005 lockout. Of course, that means choosing the first overall candidate is as challenging as it's ever been.
Ryan Getzlaf, Shea Weber, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Corey Perry are all incredibly suitable candidates, but Bergeron is what all teams dream of: an offensive-defensive center. That sounds ridiculous, but Bergeron is just that; if he wasn't so defensively wired, he possesses all of the tools to surpass his career highs of 31 goals and 73 points. But for Bergeron, victory is more important.
If the Penguins had made him their selection, the coming drafts would have added Malkin and Crosby, and any combination of those three in your top-six (or even splitting them as three centermen) would have been line matching hell for the opposing coach. Bergeron is tied for the 2nd most Selke trophies in history as the league's best defensive forward with 3, and here's a stat for you: of the eight forwards with multiple Selke trophies, only one has not won a Stanley Cup, and five of them have won multiple. What's that saying? Defense wins championships?
Combine a three-time Selke winner in Bergeron with the three Hart Trophies and four Art Ross' that Malkin and Crosby have combined for, and the Penguins quite probably would have more than two Stanley Cups since Croz joined the league in 2005.
13 Washington Capitals (2004): Alex Ovechkin
Original Pick: Alex Ovechkin
Evgeni Malkin has to be considered here for obvious reasons, but no one touches the greatest goal scorer of all time.
Since the league has nestled into its current six year average of roughly 5.35 goals per game, there has been six 50 goal seasons. Mister Ovechkin has three of them, and is the only player to do it multiple times over that period. The goaltenders are positionally exceptional, and more than ever teams are emphasizing blocking pucks and getting sticks on shots. For The Great Eight to be consistently throwing down 50 goal seasons in a period where scoring has never been more challenging is not only completely insane, it might be something we never see again. Unless of course, Patrik Laine or Auston Matthews have something to say about that.
When George McPhee stepped up to the podium on June 26, 2004, he didn't know it, but he was effectively saying: "The Washington Capitals are proud to select a winger who will score 40 goals in nine of his first 11 seasons."
Nice pick, George.
12 Pittsburgh Penguins (2005): Sidney Crosby
Original Pick: Sidney Crosby
Will we one day reflect on the 2015 and 2016 drafts the way we do the 2004 and 2005 drafts? Only time will tell, but what a time for the league to have a lockout and "re-brand" with two new superstar-faces for the league.
Since Sidney Crosby joined the league in 2005, there have been seven total seasons where a player maintained 1.5 points per game or more. Crosby has four of them, and is the only player to do it multiple times. When Croz was getting knocked because "Ovechkin was a better goalscorer", what did he do? He went and scored 50 goals - and if not for that concussion in 2011 might have pushed 60 as he had 32 goals in 41 games.
As former head coach Dan Bylsma once said, "Only Crosby does Crosby things" which is his poetic way of saying "Hey guys, even when he doesn't score 3 points in a game he's still the best $!#@ing player out there."
Simple to say he's the best player in the world and I'll never tire of appreciating the fact I've finally gotten to witness a generational talent perform in the NHL for the entirety of his career. (Wayne Gretzky retired when I was eight years old.)
11 St. Louis Blues (2006): Jonathan Toews
Original Pick: Erik Johnson
What a missed opportunity this was for then-GM Larry Pleau and the St. Louis Blues. The Blues haven't had a true number one center since Pavol Demitra in 2004, and in spurts Andy McDonald in the late 2000s. Selecting a solid defenseman in Erik Johnson ended up setting them back significantly given the options. Insult to injury? He went to their division rival over in Chicago and casually won three Stanley Cups.
If Jonathan Toews would have joined the Blues in 2007, he would have bolstered a struggling lineup that wasn't too far from earning a playoff position. Despite their failures this season, the Blues of today boast a deep defensive squad, elite talent on the wings, and some absolutely fantastic centerme- err, hold that thought. Right. Centermen is the main reason they've failed to take the next step as an organization.
Let's face it: Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera are not cutting it for the Blues, and the National Hockey League simply does not allow you to win Stanley Cups without franchise centermen. Just ask the history books.
10 Chicago Blackhawks (2007): Patrick Kane
Original Pick: Patrick Kane
Jamie Benm, P.K. Subban, and Logan Couture all contend for a first overall re-draft in 2007, but dethroning a three time Stanley Cup champion with a scoring and MVP title is a pretty tall order.
Patrick Kane perhaps has inspired a young crop of players: Nik Ehlers and Mitch Marner are examples of players who have taken a page out of his book and have focused on a shifty skill set with dynamic stickhandling abilities. His 713 career points is 200 more than the next player from his draft class (Jamie Benn, 493), and since he casually threw down 62 goals and 145 points in 58 games in the OHL way back in 2007, he's been a bright and shining star.
It couldn't have worked better for the 'Hawks, who drafted a strong two-way player and exceptional leader in Jonathan Toews, and then added a dynamic offensive talent one year later. They got lucky with both St. Louis and Pittsburgh miscalculating on Toews in '06, and then put the icing on the cake with Patty Kane.
At 28 years old, Kane will have no problem hitting the 1000 point mark, and if he continues at his current pace, should push 1200 or 1300 points. We didn't know it back in 2007, but the 'Hawks may have selected one of the top-50 point producers of all time when they snagged the scrawny teenager out of Buffalo.
9 Tampa Bay Lightning (2008): Drew Doughty
Original Pick: Steven Stamkos
Steven Stamkos' name should be here. He has two 60 goal seasons, and has been a key factor in Tampa turning things around so quickly after hitting rock bottom in 2008. Adding to that, if he might've had better luck with injuries and blood clotting issues, he could be headlining this list still as most would expect.
But, it's hard to argue with Stanley Cups and Norris Trophies. We've seen the Lightning perform admirably without Stamkos, and especially given the late round talent they've dug up, having Drew Doughty to complement Victor Hedman would be a duo of unstoppable proportions. Effectively, every time the Lightning were your opponent, you would battle Doughty for 28 minutes, and Hedman for the other 28 minutes, which would make scoring nearly impossible. If Doughty went number one, it could have been similar to the 2008 Ducks where the combination of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer basically guaranteed a reasonable shot at winning a Cup.
Of course, selecting Stamkos was far from a poor pick, but having two of the top-five defensemen in the game is nearly always a recipe for success. Top level defenders are hard to come by.
8 New York Islanders (2009): John Tavares
Original Pick: John Tavares
Hooray, the Islanders didn't select a goalie first overall this time and hand him a 15 year contract!
"Johnny T" has competition from Victor Hedman as a first overall re-draft, but he has certainly put to rest the pre-draft speculation that Matt Duchene might have gone first overall. Should that have been the case, it would have been an astronomical error.
Tavares hasn't thrown a 40 goal or 90 point season down, but since becoming the first player ever to be granted exceptional status in the OHL, he has proven he could handle the pressures of the Canadian Torture Test. Unfortunately for the Islanders star, they have failed to give him a supporting cast capable of winning, and have let key free agents such as Kyle Okposo walk for nothing at all.
I love speculating on what could have been if Tampa Bay won the draft lottery and got Tavares and Stamkos, but alas, when the dominoes fell, he was destined for Long Island.
Tavares has one year left on his contract, and despite his diplomatic claims that he wants to remain an Islander, there is a reasonable chance he abandons ship, and I hope he does. It's a shame he's only played 22 playoff games because his clutch World Junior performances indicate he thrives when it matters most.
7 Edmonton Oilers (2010): Tyler Seguin
Original Pick: Taylor Hall
"Taylor or Tyler?" was one of the simplest headlines the media got to use for a draft in ages. Just like in 2010 when they were neck and neck in their ratings, their statistics are very similar: Hall has averaged .86 points per game over his career, and Seguin has just a hair less at .85 points per game.
Vladimir Tarasenko (16th to the Blues) also has to garner serious consideration here - and he might even be ahead of Hall at this point, but since joining the Stars, Seguin has averaged 36 goals and 78 points, and has fully embraced the promotion of hockey down in Texas.
Unfortunately, if Seguin would have been an Oiler, I'm not sure it would have changed much. The problem for the Oil lied in the next two drafts, getting a solid but unspectacular center in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and a complete bust in Nail Yakupov. Seguin, Hall, or Tarasenko- it unfortunately doesn't change a whole lot as the 2010 draft started their rebuild with promise, but was then let down by their following two selections.
6 Edmonton Oilers (2011): Mark Scheifele
Original Pick: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
If the 2011 draft were to be redone, the top two picks of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog would get minimal love. Nikita Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, and Mark Scheifele are all fantastic candidates that would garner consideration, but Scheifele gets the edge for a simple reason:
Since February 18th of last year he is second in the league with 42 goals and 87 points in 78 games, one spot below Sidney Crosby and one spot above Connor McDavid. That company speaks for itself, and 78 games is certainly a large enough sample size for me. It seems that he may nestle into a 40 goal, 40 assist centerman for the foreseeable future, which is a marvelous outcome for any first overall pick.
If the Oilers would have selected the Kitchener, Ontario star instead of Nugent-Hopkins, he would have joined 6'1" winger Taylor Hall, and combined with Scheif's 6'3" frame, would have had a crease crashing, goal sniping duo for years to come. Perhaps more importantly is the fact Scheifele is destined to be the future Captain of the Jets, something that couldn't be said of either Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or Jordan Eberle.
Instead, McDavid and Scheifele will be lining up head to head for years to come in the Western Conference.
5 Edmonton Oilers (2012): Morgan Reilly
Original Pick: Nail Yakupov
The 2012 draft started off with a Russian winger that prompted all sorts of slogans such as "fail for Nail," but in the end the proper slogan should have been "fail with Nail," as he hasn't lived up to the expectations of a second round pick let alone a first overall pick.
Alas, there were eight defensemen selected with the top 10 picks, and the Oilers could have selected just about any of them and it would have been an upgrade. Alex Galchenyuk, Jacob Trouba, Hampus Lindholm, and Filip Forsberg are all candidates to push for the top selection, but Morgan Reilly leads his Leafs in shifts and ice time per game, and has developed into the top defender they were hoping to acquire when they traded for Dion Phaneuf back in January of 2010.
This Oilers pick has left the most room for improvement as The Nuge and Hall are quality NHL forwards. Snagging a defenseman here would have made trading Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson unnecessary, and the Oil would have their top defenseman they so desperately needed, and could've kept the speedy goal scoring ability of Taylor Hall.
4 Colorado Avalanche (2013): Nathan MacKinnon
Original Pick: Nathan MacKinnon
I don't mean to stress you out if you're reading this Nathan MacKinnon, but you are holding onto this position by a singular, dangling thread. Rasmus Ristolainen, Aleksander Barkov, and Sean Monahan are incredibly tempting names to put here, but the 2014 Calder Trophy winner will maintain his status as the best 2013 pick at least for now.
MacKinnon started his NHL career with a bang, scoring 24 goals and 63 points while using a merciless ability to take defenders wide and crash the net. At this past September's World Cup, he looked to be playing the best hockey of his career and we all saw why he indeed was selected first in this draft. Power, speed, physicality, and goal-scoring prowess was part of the package that made him such a no brainer with the first pick, but as this draft crop slowly matures, so to does the chance that perhaps hockey IQ or playmaking ability is holding the young centerman back.
Regardless, the Avalanche are a mess right now and perhaps a new supporting cast (or fresh start) might put his point totals where they ought to be, as MacKinnon's tools are still loaded with potential.
3 Florida Panthers (2014): Nikolaj Ehlers
Original Pick: Aaron Ekblad
It is only with Aaron Ekblad's bump in the road this year that consideration of moving him out of the top spot isn't ridiculous. He's a franchise defenseman and will have a very realistic chance of reclaiming this position if this list were to be redone in a year or two's time.
But for the moment, no one is showing the ceiling Nikolaj Ehlers has. Edmonton's Leon Draisatl and Toronto's William Nylander are mighty close competitors, but it is Ehlers' flair and dynamic skating that has him topping the list. With 19 goals and 47 points in 55 games at the time of writing, the ceiling of this jaw dropping speedster is off the charts. 30 goals and 90 points is a realistic cap-out for the dynamic Dane.
Realistically, it might still be best for Florida to take a defenseman here as they're tough to fish out in the draft, but adding Ehlers to a core with Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trochek would only heighten the promise of their already dangerous attack.
2 Edmonton Oilers (2015): Connor McDavid
Original Pick: Connor McDavid
Sorry Jack Eichel, you will never have a chance at going first overall in a re-draft. Connor McDavid hasn't only changed the offensive makeup of the Edmonton Oilers, he's given their leadership a jolt, become the face of the franchise, and has somehow propelled Edmonton into a marquee free agent destination. McDavid is blessed with the best first three strides in hockey ever, and his combination of breakneck speed with his brain and hands has me wondering just where his point totals will cap out. The kid was built to dominate today's NHL, and over the next few years while Crosby is still in his prime we're going to have some seriously entertaining scoring races.
The hockey gods gave the Oilers a pardon for failing to capitalize on their three previous first overall picks, and it seems as though General Manager Peter Chiarelli has every intention of capitalizing on it.
1 Toronto Maple Leafs (2016): Auston Matthews
Original Pick: Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews might be the perfect fit for the media frenzy that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. The kid has already blazed his own trail by coming from Scottsdale, Arizona to be a first overall pick. He blazed another trail by playing in Switzerland during his draft year, and now he's set to lead one of the league's most storied and plagued franchises back to Stanley Cup glory.
The caveat to this draft is everyone (myself included) wants to say Matthews is the better player, and Patrik Laine is the better goal scorer. Laine has the better shot - yes - but is he the better goal scorer? Laine has already posted an incredible pace for an 18 year old with 23 goals in 47 games, yet there Matthews is with 24 goals in 51 games while playing a more defensively demanding position at center ice.
It looks similar to Ovechkin and Malkin in 2004 where you could flip a coin and come away with a game breaking talent, and the Leafs and Jets look to have done so.
The 2015 and 2016 draft will go on as a catalyst to a whole generation of hockey fans who are just buying EA Sports' NHL series or just tuning in to watch hockey for the first time. McDavid, Eichel, Matthews, and Laine will be the face of the NHL for the coming two decades, and with Crosby and Ovechkin still having at least five years each of elite level hockey, the NHL has never been in better hands.
It's a good time to be a hockey fan.