It’s NHL Entry Draft season, and on Friday in Buffalo 30 players will see their dreams come true when their names are called by an NHL GM during the first round. Many teams will be drafting players that will help them for the next decade and beyond, while some will undoubtedly select a player who never plays a game in the NHL.
All first round picks hold solid value, but if you’re lucky enough (or crappy enough) to hold a top-five pick in any draft year, you should at least be securing the services of a useful NHL player who will be ready to contribute within a few years, if not immediately. Sometimes, however, that’s not quite how it works out.
After looking through every NHL draft since the year 2000, it’s clear that there’s almost always at least one dud in the top five every year. Sometimes all five players turn into useful NHL players, but there’s usually still one guy who stands out as the weakest link. This list runs from the 2000 draft year to the 2014 draft year, as it’s still too early to tell who the dud is from the 2015 class.
Here are my picks for the worst top-5 draft picks from every season since 2000, listed in best-to-worst order:
15 2006: Erik Johnson (1st overall)
The 2006 draft class yielded an impressive top five, with first overall pick Erik Johnson being the worst of the bunch. This was more or less a coin toss between him and second overall pick Jordan Staal, as the top five was round out with Jonathan Toews (3rd), Nicklas Backstrom (4th), and Phil Kessel (5th).
Johnson is playing top-pairing minutes in Colorado today, so he’s still mighty valuable. But if you compare him to, say, fellow first overall pick Aaron Ekblad, it’s safe to say that the Blues expected more from this pick. Johnson was eventually traded to Colorado in a deal that landed the Blues Kevin Shattenkirk.
One thing of note about this top five is that they’ve already collected five Stanley Cups among them—three for Toews, and one each for Staal and Kessel. Not a bad haul for the top five picks of ’06.
14 2014: Michael Dal Colle (5th overall)
I’m placing Michael Dal Colle at no. 14 is because he hasn’t had enough time to prove his worth. That being said, he hasn’t made significant progress in junior since he was drafted, and that could raise some red flags.
Dal Colle registered more points in his 2013-14 and 2014-15 junior seasons than he did in his 2015-16 junior season, which is highly unusual for a prospect like Dal Colle. Ekblad (1st), Sam Reinhart (2nd), Leon Draisaitl (3rd), and Sam Bennett (4th) were his competition for the honor. All four of those names have made some significant progress, but Dal Colle is still very much a work in progress.
Again, this draft is recent enough that I could be eating my words five years from now, but judging by the progress made to this point, it’s tough to argue that any of the other picks are worse off than Dal Colle is today.
13 2009: Evander Kane (4th overall)
How the heck can a 30-goal scorer be the most disappointing player from the top five of the 2009 draft, you ask? The answer is Evander Kane has become an injury-prone winger with an apparent attitude problem who’s not all that productive anymore, either.
There was one player from the top five in 2009 that challenged Kane for the title of most disappointing top five selection from 2009, and that was Brayden Schenn. Schenn just came off a stellar season though, whereas Kane has steadily regressed since 2012.
Kane has since been dealt to Buffalo, and he’s fallen behind a handful of forward prospects in upstate New York. If he doesn’t turn it around soon, when will he? The rest of the top five were John Tavares (1), Victor Hedman (2), and Matt Duchene (3). There's still time for Kane to turn his career around, but his regression is very concerning.
12 2011: Ryan Strome (5th overall)
The top five in 2011 definitely yielded solid NHL players, but no real superstar. The options were (listed in selection order) Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, Adam Larsson, and Ryan Strome. All five can be considered NHL regulars at this point, but only one spent time in the AHL this past season and also regressed from 2014-15 to 2015-16, and that was Ryan Strome.
This draft is also recent enough that I could be proven wrong in a couple years’ time, but when you are a healthy scratch during many of your team’s playoff games, it’s safe to say that they want and expect a little more from you.
With the top three picks playing top-six minutes on their respective teams, Larsson was the only player who challenged Strome for the title, but he averages over 20 minutes a game and plays top competition, and that value can’t be underestimated.
11 2005: Benoit Pouliot (4th overall)
Don’t get me wrong, Benoit Pouliot is a heck of a complementary winger, and can slide into any NHL team’s top-six pretty easily. His pts/60 ranks in the Milan Lucic range, so I think it’s safe to say that he’s undervalued league-wide.
Still, though, he’s my pick for the 2005 draft. The other four picks that year were Sidney Crosby (1), Bobby Ryan (2), Jack Johnson (3), and Carey Price (5). It’s easy to eliminate Crosby and Price from contention—perhaps the best in the league at their respective positions—so it came down to Johnson, Ryan, and Pouliot.
The reason Pouliot lost out is because his ceiling was never as high as the other two; that being said, if this was a list of which player I’d not want on my team today, Ryan and Johnson would definitely battle Pouliot for the honor, if only due to the players’ individual contracts. Would I rather have Pouliot at $4 million than Ryan at $7.5 million? Every freaking day of the week.
10 2013: Elias Lindholm (5th overall)
In 2010 Carolina used the 5th overall pick to call Elias Lindholm’s name. This draft year was one of the most difficult to pick, partly because it’s still too early to truly evaluate and partly because all the players picked top five have at least started contributing regularly in the NHL.
Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Drouin, and Seth Jones rounded out the top five. The top two picks are clearly the cream of this crop, but with the other three it came down to a three-sided coin toss, really.
Drouin would have won the day had he not stepped up in a big way for the Lightning in the playoffs. The reason Jones doesn’t appear on this list instead of Lindholm is basically because of the positions they play. Defensemen develop by sundial, so it’s highly likely that Jones has a lot more growing to do, whereas Lindholm is likely approaching a finished product.
9 2002: Ryan Whitney (5th overall)
If this list was made eight or so years ago, there’s no way Ryan Whitney would represent the class of 2002. In 2016, though, Whitney can probably be considered the weakest link of the fivesome, partially because his career is over.
Rick Nash (1st), Kari Lehtonen (2nd), and Jay Bouwmeester (3rd) are all still playing regular shifts for their teams; to be fair, Joni Pitkanen (the 4th pick) also had his NHL career cut short due to injury as well, but he still played more games than Whitney and their production was mighty similar (although Pitkanen was probably the more consistent player of the two).
Both players tried to revive their careers in Europe, but it ended badly for the defensemen, as their respective foot injuries proved too much to overcome.
8 2010: Erik Gudbranson (3rd overall)
The Panthers used the third overall pick in 2010 on defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who now holds the distinction of being the youngest NHL player who doesn’t wear a visor. He was supposed to be the big body to man the Panthers’ blue line through 2025, but his recent trade to Vancouver tells you all you need to know about how Florida valued Gudbranson.
The other top five picks in 2010 were Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Johansen, and Nino Niederreiter. Hall, Seguin, and Johansen are all obviously top-end talents who will be offensive leaders of the NHL for years to come. This choice came down to Niederreiter and Gudbranson.
I went with Gudbranson because I’m a believer in possession stats, and Nino was a possession monster in Minnesota this year. Wild fans can only hope that Bruce Boudreau plays him more than the 14-or-so minutes a night he got in 2015-16.
7 2008: Luke Schenn (5th overall)
If you live in Canada like I do, then you’ll remember how excited your annoying Leafs fan friend was when they drafted Luke Schenn 5th overall in 2008. As luck would have it, Schenn turned out to be a bit of a dud when you consider his draft pedigree.
Schenn is currently a bottom-pairing defenseman in L.A., and looks to be pretty comfortable there. The first four picks off the board in 2008 were Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, and Alex Pietrangelo. An argument can be made that Schenn and Bogosian are a wash, but the other three are far superior to Schenn.
If I’m being honest, I guess Schenn got the distinction because of personal bias. Bogosian isn’t much better, but he still plays a bigger role and holds more trade value than Schenn. Consider this as a way to throw it in the face of your own annoying Leafs fan friend.
6 2007: Thomas Hickey (4th overall)
I mentioned earlier that defenseman develop by sundial, and Thomas Hickey is a prime example of that. Drafted in 2007, Hickey didn’t play his first NHL game until 2012. He actually had his strongest season to date in 2015-16, so perhaps the 27-year-old is still developing.
Nonetheless, Hickey was the easy choice from the 2007 draft class. The first overall pick that year was reigning MVP Patrick Kane, and James van Riemsdyk, Kyle Turris and Karl Alzner were two, three, and five, respectively.
All four of those players have had much better careers than Hickey to this point, and with the 2007 draft class one year away from its 10 year anniversary, we can almost fairly make that assessment with the expectation that it won’t change.
5 2012: Griffin Reinhart (4th overall)
In picking the worst NHL player out of the top five from the 2012 draft class, it really came down to one question: which current Oiler should it be? First overall pick Nail Yakupov, or fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart?
To be clear, the top five hasn’t yet yielded any superstars, but Ryan Murray, Alex Galchenyuk and Morgan Rielly are easily a few steps ahead of the two aforementioned players. Reinhart got the edge over Yakupov because he’s the only one of the five who’s yet to establish himself as a full time NHLer.
As an addendum to this entry, I’d like to add that if this were about the biggest disappointments of the 2012 draft class, Yakupov would have been given the edge. There’s no way that a former first overall draft pick’s trade value should be a second rounder four years past his draft date, but rumor has it that's what it is.
4 2003: Nikolay Zherdev (4th overall)
For reasons I can’t explain, the top five picks to go off the board in the early 2000s draft years just don’t measure up. It could be because amateur scouting has taken great steps in the past decade or so, or it could simply be a matter of fewer top-end players born who were born between 1981 and 1984.
That being said, 2003 was actually the deepest draft year in the history of the NHL. The first round is absolutely laden with all-stars, but the Blue Jackets struck out with their 4th overall selection of Nikolai Zhredev. Zherdev was a pretty solid talent, but his defection back home makes him the easy choice here.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was the number one choice that year, followed by Eric Staal (2nd), Nathan Horton (3rd), Zherdev, and Thomas Vanek (5th). All four of those other guys have been NHL stars at some point in their careers.
3 2000: Rick DiPietro (1st overall)
Picking a goalie first overall can always be a little risky. It worked out okay for the Penguins in 2003 when they went with Marc-Andre Fleury, but the same can’t be said about the 1st overall pick from the 2000 draft class, Rick DiPietro.
There were a few other relative disappointments from the top five in 2000, namely 4th over pick Rostislav Klesla and 5th overall pick/ruthless headhunter Raffi Torres. Klesla has defected, but he was okay during his NHL days. I definitely considered Torres because he’s effectively banished from the NHL for his dangerous play. The 2000 draft class may very well be the worst in NHL history, so we had our pick of the litter from this year.
Alas, DiPietro got the dubious honor here, as expectations tipped the scale. Any first overall draft pick who only sees action in only 318 NHL games is clearly a huge disappointment. DiPietro now has his own radio show in New York and seems to be doing well in his retirement. Heck, he still has that 15-year contract paying him, so he's not doing bad at all.
2 2004: Cam Barker (3rd overall)
Expectations were high for Cam Barker. Drafted third overall in 2004 behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the defenseman seemed certain to become a leader in hockey’s best league. Heck, he even captained what was probably the best Canadian junior team of all time in the 2004-05 tournament (thanks to the lockout allowing players who would have otherwise been in the NHL to compete).
The top five was rounded out by Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler, two players who are still considered second-tier stars to this day. Barker is in fact the only player not still in the NHL today. The other four are all stars, actually.
Barker did have one solid season with the Blackhawks in 2008-09 when he registered 40 points in 68 games, but he never again came close to that level of production, despite the city he’d attempt it in. Picking this one was very easy.
1 2001: Alexander Svitov (3rd overall)
There were two really, really good options for this list from the 2001 draft, but I decided to give the edge to Alexander Svitov over Stanislav Chistov. It really could have been a coin flip though, as there's no real distinction between the two.
The top five in 2001 was rounded out by first overall selection Ilya Kovalchuk, followed by Jason Spezza (2nd) and Stephen Weiss (4th). Svitov and Chistov were 3rd and 5th, respectively.
Svitov only saw action in 179 NHL games, and today he plays a depth role for Kazan Ak-Bars of the KHL. Chistov too is now deployed in a depth role on the KHL, and he’s currently a member of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv. Needless to say, the Lightning and the Ducks were hoping for much more from their Russian prospects.
The Lightning found themselves extremely disappointed in Svitov. His NHL career ended in 2007 when he signed with Avangard Omsk of the KHL.