It’s always fun to look back in life and see what could’ve been. What if I hadn’t quit that job? What if she and I had never broken up? Reminiscing is a human instinct that we don’t have much control over when your mind starts to wander. For NHL GM’s, I can’t even begin to imagine to imagine how painful it could occasionally be to let your mind wander.
Take the 2002 NHL entry draft for example. Looking back now, there were definitely some big mistakes that were made. That being said, it’s easy for me to sit here almost 15 years later and pass judgment; I have 15 years of stats and knowledge backing me up, whereas these GMs at the time had only their junior stats. This draft class also wasn't the strongest, so it turns out the GMs didn't have as much talent to choose from as we originally thought.
Today we can safely say that the first round of the 2002 NHL draft makes a knowledgeable hockey fan cringe until he can cringe no more.
So I decided to re-draft the first round and apply some sort of justice to the fist round picks that didn’t pan out. Prepare to be surprised.
30 Colombus Blue Jackets – Rick Nash
Originally Selected: Rick Nash
Unfortunately, I can’t start out with a bang. Rick Nash went first that year because he deserved to go first that year. He was by far the best forward in the draft at the time and has proven to be that in the NHL as well. He’s been by far the most productive and influential player in his draft year and continues to make an impact with the New York Rangers today.
29 Atlanta Thrashers – Duncan Keith
Originally Selected: Kari Lehtonen
Today we know Duncan Keith as one of the best defensemen in the league, a rock in the back that has led his team to three Stanley Cups. He's a gold medalist at the Olympics. He's a Norris Trophy winner. He’s also played in over 800 NHL games with 464 points to show for it. If you know Duncan Keith as we know him today, you would assume he was in the top three of the first round. But he wasn’t, not even close. In this draft year, Keith was the biggest steal, selected 54th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks.
28 Florida Panthers – Jay Bouwmeester
Originally selected: Jay Bouwmeester
Much like Duncan Keith although perhaps not on the same level, especially in recent years, Jay Bouwmeester has been a very good defenseman, bordering on elite in his prime. Still playing to this day, Bouwmeester is on the cusp of his 1,000th NHL game and has managed 377 points. Although he’s never been a point-producing machine of a defenseman, Bouwmeester always kept the back line sound, and was amazing at carrying the puck and getting the play settled in the opposing zone.
27 Philadelphia Flyers – Alexander Steen
Originally selected: Joni Pitkanen
After Rick Nash, arguably the best forward to come out of the 2002 draft was Alexander Steen, currently a top-six forward for the St. Louis Blues. Steen was selected in the first round, 24th overall, by none other than the less than stellar Toronto Maple Leafs. In defense of the Leafs, he didn’t bloom into a 50-plus point producer until later on his career with the St. Louis Blues, his best point tally coming just two years ago in the 2013-14 season with 64 points.
26 Pittsburgh Penguins – Alexander Semin
Originally selected: Ryan Whitney
After Steen, Semin seems like the logical pick to follow, considering how effective of a forward he was for years with the Washington Capitals. Although he’s often been criticized for not being consistent, Semin has put up quite a few points throughout quite a career. In 650 NHL games that came to an end early last year after a stint with the Montreal Canadiens, the Russian forward put up 517 points, good for second overall behind only Rick Nash for the entire class of 2002.
25 Nashville Predators – Jiri Hudler
Originally selected: Scottie Upshall
Scottie Upshall was a solid NHL player, first-round material in my mind, but he went a little too early for my liking in this draft, especially considering who was still available. But the player I want to replace him with was actually not selected until the bottom of the second round’s barrel, 58th overall, by the Red Wings. I’m talking about Jiri Hudler. The Czech still plays in the NHL, a most recent member of the Dallas Stars.
24 Anaheim Ducks – Kari Lehtonen
Originally selected: Joffrey Lupul
Kari Lehtonen was arguably the best goalie in this draft, which is why he would have been selected in the whereabouts of 7th overall by a team like the Ducks, and not 2nd overall before Duncan Keith. That is just madness. Although Lehtonen has enjoyed some good seasons for both the Thrashers and the Stars, the shadow of inconsistency has always loomed over his career. There’s no doubt in my mind that a team can get by with him as their starting netminder, but I would suggest a solid backup, like Antti Niemi, who is his back-up presently with the Dallas Stars.
23 Minnesota Wild – Ryan Whitney
Originally selected: Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Really not much of a downgrade for Ryan Whitney, who went from going 5th overall in real life to 8th overall in my make believe life. Whitney played a total of 481 games in the NHL and managed 259 points, not bad for a defenseman. After Duncan Keith and Jay Bouwmeester, I would argue that he’s the best defenseman to come out of this class.
22 Florida Panthers – Jaret Stoll
Originally selected: Petr Taticek
Never heard of Petr Taticek? Neither have I until this very moment. The center played just three games in the NHL, earning 0 points. Needless to say, he was a complete waste of a pick for a Panthers side that was desperate for so many years. A better option would have been Jarret Stoll, also a center who ended up playing 869 more games in the NHL than Taticek. Stoll would also get 388 points over that span.
21 Calgary Flames – Matthew Stajan
Originally selected: Eric Nystrom
Another top forward, similar to the likes of Jarret Stoll in terms of games played in production, Matt Stajan would have been my pick for 10th overall. That makes it ironic, because then he would’ve been selected by the Calgary Flames, which is where Stajan has been playing for the past seven years. Another plus for Stajan is that he wouldn’t have had to go by the Maple Leafs for a few seasons. The Leafs selected the center 57th overall. Not bad for someone with 861 games played in the NHL with 381 points to show for.
20 Buffalo Sabres – Joffrey Lupul
Originally selected: Keith Ballard
Joffrey Lupul is another player that falls into a certain class of forwards. The ones typically rented out near the end of the season to give your team some offensive spark. Lupul himself has always been a pretty consistent point producer during his time in the NHL, enough for a very respectful 11th overall on my list. He originally went 7th overall, chosen by the Anaheim Ducks, but the Ducks would’ve opted for Lehtonen in my world.
19 Washington Capitals – Cam Ward
Originally selected: Steve Eminger
This draft really only had two quality goalies in it. Kari Lehtonen was obviously one of them, and the other was Cam Ward. Drafted 25th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes, Ward would be a Capitals netminder in my mind if the draft had gone differently. Ward had a few very good seasons with the Hurricanes. It all started when he was forced into action in the playoffs when Martin Gerber was injured. He would carry the team all the way to the Final and beat the Cinderella Edmonton Oilers in seven games, earning himself MVP credentials in the process.
18 Washington Capitals – Johnny Boychuk
Originally selected: Alexander Semin
Another great defenseman to come out of the 2002 draft was Johnny Boychuk. He was originally drafted 61st overall in the second round by the Avalanche. He wasn’t the quickest and he didn’t have the best hands, but he could shoot the puck and he could also defend as well as any other defenseman in the league, with a Stanley Cup win with the Big Bad Bruins to show for it. He was traded from the Bruins to the Islanders in 2014, and the Bruins blue line saw a noticeable decline in quality.
17 Montreal Canadiens – Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Originally selected: Chris Higgins
With all due respect to Chris Higgins, he probably deserved to go much later in the first round. He was used in the wrong role in Montreal and found little success in Vancouver afterward. To me, he would have been best positioned as a third liner. Instead, I think the Habs would have been better off with Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Selected originally by Minnesota eighth overall, Bouchard finished his career in 2014 with 356 points in 593 games.
16 Edmonton Oilers – Valtteri Filppula
Originally selected: Jesse Niinimaki
The Edmonton Oilers had a few very, very, very rough years leading up to today, with the exception of 2006 where they reached the final. Some of it may be due to making first round picks like Jesse Niinimaki. Who, what, why? The center never played a game in the NHL. A first round pick that came to absolutely nothing. Instead, I think the Oilers would have been better off with Valterri Filpulla.
15 Ottawa Senators – Frans Nielsen
Originally selected: Jakub Klepis
It’s because of picks like Jakub Klepis that the 2002 draft’s first round is so dull. Jakub played one season of 14 points in the NHL four years after he was drafted, a move squandered for the Ottawa Senators. Considering Klepis was a centre, I think selecting Frans Nielsen instead would have paid dividends for the Senators, and would have really helped them in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final against Anaheim.
14 Washington Capitals – Dennis Wideman
Originally selected: Boyd Gordon
The third of three draft picks in the third round by the Washington Capitals, this would have been a chance to really solidify the blue line for years to come. Although Boyd Gordon was a consistent player throughout his career, he was never meant to be more than a fourth liner, maybe third line center at most.
Selecting him 17th overall wasn't quite the right pick. But history played out, resulting in Buffalo getting the steal of the 2002 draft, selecting Dennis Wideman 241st overall in the eighth round.
13 Los Angeles Kings – James Wisniewski
Originally selected: Denis Grebeshkov
While we're talking about defensemen that were a steal in the draft, you need to bring up James Wisniewski. Although he was by no means the best of defenseman, he was selected too late considering how well his career went. Selected 156th overall in the 5th round, I think the Kings would have been better suited selecting James Wisniewski over Grebeshkov, also a defenseman.
12 Phoenix Coyotes – Tomas Fleischmann
Originally selected: Jakub Koreis
Selected 63rd overall in the second round by the mighty Detroit Red Wings, Fleischmann goes up over 40 spots in my draft and is selected by the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes in the first round. The Coyotes are a team that has struggled on and off the ice for quite a while now, and I’m sure selecting a player like Jakub Koreis in the first round, who never played a game in the NHL, didn’t help the team.
11 Buffalo Sabres – Scottie Upshall
Originally selected: Daniel Paille
Daniel Paille was by no means a bad pick, but I think there would have been a little more upside in selecting a player with character like Scottie Upshall. Upshall was by no means a prolific scorer but did have a respectable 250 points in 629 NHL games. He’s a member of the St. Louis Blues for the current season. In the real draft Upshall actually went 6th overall, selected by the Nashville Predators, but knowing what we know after all these years it would be foolish to keep him so high.
10 Chicago Blackhawks – Trevor Daley
Originally selected: Anton Babchuk
The Blackhawks are lucky they had the unreal luxury of selecting Duncan Keith in the second round because their first round pick wasn’t anything to be too proud of. Babchuk spent his time between the NHL and the juniors, never succeeding in making a long-term impact on an NHL line-up. For the Blackhawks, the pick didn’t pay dividends at the end, that’s why I think they would be better off having selected Trevor Daley. Daley was selected 43rd overall (before Keith) by the Dallas Stars, where he spent most of his career.
9 New York Islanders – Greg Campbell
Originally selected: Sean Bergenheim
Sean Bergenheim was a decent pick so late in the first round, but this is a good chance for the Islanders to make a good character pick while also getting someone who can put up some points. Greg “Soupy” Campbell was drafted 67th overall by the Florida Panthers, so he would jump quite a few sports in my mock draft.
8 Arizona Coyotes – Matthew Lombardi
Originally selected: Ben Eager
No hate for Ben Eager, but his stats and his style of play over 407 NHL games didn’t match his first round selection. Instead, I choose Matthew Lombardi, the center selected by the Flames 90th overall and who ended up playing over 500 NHL games, earning 262 points in the meantime. Although Lombardi struggled to find his form as of the 2012-13 season, his production in his first few NHL seasons was pretty good with the Calgary Flames, until he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for a few seasons.
7 Toronto Maple Leafs: Joni Pitkanen
Originally selected: Alexander Steen
The Maple Leafs selected Alexander Steen 24th overall in the first round, a gift from the Gods looking back all these years later. Because I have Steen going in the fourth round chosen by the Philadelphia Flyers, it’s only fitting that the Leafs selected who the Flyers had actually chosen fourth overall, Joni Pitkanen.
6 Carolina Hurricanes – Tom Gilbert
Originally selected: Cam Ward
The Hurricanes would be one of the teams that would have to downgrade in my draft. They wouldn’t get their stud goaltender Cam Ward, who led the team to their only Stanley Cup in 2006. Instead, the Carolina Hurricanes select Tom Gilbert with their first round draft pick, a defenseman with over 640 games of NHL experience and 220 points earned in the process.
5 Dallas Stars – Keith Ballard
Originally selected: Martin Vagner
Add Keith Ballard to the list of very solid defensemen coming from the first round. Ballard was actually originally selected 11th overall by the Buffalo Sabres, but because they chose Joffrey Lupul, Ballard was available to be chosen by the Dallas Stars. That's better than their actual pick, Martin Vagner, who played a whopping zero NHL games. That's something that can ruin the reputation of an NHL general manager.
4 San Jose Sharks – Chris Higgins
Originally selected: Mike Morris
As I mentioned earlier, Chris Higgins went a little too early to my liking. Selected 14th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, he only bounces back a few spots to 27th overall since the Habs opted to go with the hometown sensation Pierre-Marc Bouchard. This means that Chris Higgins would have potentially made his NHL debut as a San Jose Shark, and he could’ve made a nice addition to their third line. At least that's better than Mike Morris, who never played an NHL game.
3 Colorado Avalanche – Daniel Paille
Originally selected: Jonas Johansson
This was a lost pick for the Avalanche, who selected forward Jonas Johansson late in the first round though he only ended up playing one NHL game. Poor guy never really even got a chance. However, because in this life the Sabres elected to draft Scottie Upshall in the first round, Daniel Paille was still available for the taking. Paille enjoyed a good career in the NHL between three teams, most notably the Boston Bruins where he found the most success.
2 Boston Bruins: Erik Christensen
Originally selected: Hannu Toivonen
Hannu Toivonen was a bold pick; a goaltender getting picked up in the first round can be a bit risky. It didn’t end up panning out for the Bruins or for Toivonen, who would only end up playing 61 games in the NHL. A better choice would have been Erik Christensen, who was still available; he ended up being selected 69th overall by the Penguins.
1 Atlanta Thrashers – Maxime Talbot
Originally selected: Jim Slater
To finish off the first round, the Atlanta Thrashers selected Jim Slater. Slater, a centerman by trade, played in 10 seasons for the Thrashers. He was also a part of the Winnipeg Jets when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated. It was definitely not a waste of a pick for the Thrashes at the time considering how loyal he was to the team, and considering the fact that he did have 138 points in 584 NHL games.
But instead I would opt for Maxime Talbot, a gritty forward to close out the first round. Talbot went in the eighth round, incredibly, to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team he would even win a Cup with. He even scored both the team's goals in their Game 7 win over Detroit in the '09 final.
This year, Talbot plays in the KHL for the first time in his career. But just because he isn't in the league anymore, it doesn't mean this pick would've been a waste.
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