If you know anything about the NHL Entry Draft, you know it can be a bit of a crapshoot. NHL teams often have to rely on limited scouting, partial stat lines, unknown personalities and intangible characteristics to select – for the most part – teenaged players whose skillsets are still not fully developed and then entrust them with the future of the franchise.
Usually, teams are able to do enough homework on their prospective picks to make an informed decision once they’re officially on the clock. But no matter how thoroughly they research and no matter how many hours of film they study, there are far too many unknown variables to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly how well a player will perform once they’re turned loose at the professional level.
We’ve seen first-round picks who never step foot on an NHL rink and obscure eighth- and ninth-rounders who develop into Hall-of-Fame All-Stars who lead their teams to multiple Stanley Cups. To be completely honest, GMs might be better off closing their eyes and throwing a dart against the wall.
So as we prepare for the 55th edition of the NHL’s selection ceremony in Chicago on June 23 and 24, let’s take a look at eight of the biggest busts and seven of the biggest steals in the history of the draft.
15 BUST: PATRIK STEFAN, 1999 - 1ST OVERALL (ATLANTA THRASHERS)
Talk about a letdown. With the first-ever pick in the history of the Atlanta Thrashers, Czech-born centerman Patrik Stefan was a celebrated cornerstone around which the Thrashers planned to build their team.
He scored 35 points in 33 games for Long Beach of the IHL during his second season in North America in 1998-99, and despite a season-ending concussion, he was highly regarded as a top talent coming into the ’99 draft. Naturally, the Thrashers scooped him up with the first pick, but it was a terrible decision in the long-run. He only ever played one full season due to repeated injuries, and his on-ice performance never justified the lofty expectations.
He only managed 188 points in 455 games, and in what can only be described as his career boiled down to one single moment, he missed a gimme open-net goal for the Stars in 2007, leading to a dramatic comeback win by the Oilers in a shootout.
14 STEAL: PEKKA RINNE, 2004 - 258TH OVERALL (NASHVILLE PREDATORS)
When you think about the very last selection in the eighth round of an NHL draft, you probably wouldn’t expect it to turn into a league wins-leader or an eventual All-Star who took his eighth-seeded team into the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in team history 13 years later.
But then again, few – if anyone – could have predicted the franchise goaltender and class of the league that Finn Pekka Rinne has turned out to be.
Initially assigned to AHL Milwaukee after signing with the Preds in 2005, Rinne quickly climbed the depth chart and was eventually named the Nashville starter later in 2008. Since then, he has been the anchor of the young expansion franchise, a multi-time Vezina nominee and easily one of the best active netminders in the league.
13 BUST: AL MONTOYA, 2004 - 6TH OVERALL (NEW YORK RANGERS)
After the Rangers finished 2003-04 with an ugly 27-40-7-8 record and giving up 250 goals, the fourth most in the entire league, it’s understandable that then-GM Glen Sather was thirsty for a dependable starting goaltender in the 2004 draft. Enter Al Montoya.
At the time, Montoya was a bright, young 19-year-old coming off a solid season with the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2001-02 and two solid seasons with a combined record of 56-22-5 in 2002-03 and 2003-04 as the starter at the University of Michigan. He was a highly sought-after netminder and what should have been the perfect answer for New York’s miserable rotation between the pipes of Mike Dunham and Jussi Markkanen.
Long story short, Montoya was a massive disappointment. He never made the Rangers roster and was relegated to the minor leagues until 2008, when he made his league debut for Arizona. From there, he has bounced around the league as a backup and currently owns a career 2.60 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
12 STEAL: HENRIK ZETTERBERG, 1999 - 210TH OVERALL (DETROIT RED WINGS)
Henrik Zetterberg was a bit of a gamble that Detroit Red Wings director of European scouting Hakan Andersson convinced general manager Ken Holland to take with the seventh-round pick in 1999. That obviously paid off.
Developing his game in his native Sweden, Zetterberg wasn’t really that huge of a standout player, but Andersson saw something in him. After being selected with the 210th pick, Zetterberg didn’t crack Detroit’s lineup until 2002 and put up solid numbers in his first two seasons with 87 points in 140 games.
Since the 2004-05 lockout, he has been one of the best players in the league. He won a Conn Smythe Trophy when the Wings won the Cup in 2008, made the 2008 All-Star Game and has scored well over a point-per-game for his career.
11 BUST: PAVEL BRENDL, 1999 - 4TH OVERALL (NEW YORK RANGERS)
Two-hundred six picks ahead of Zetterberg in the 1999 draft, one Pavel Brendl, a highly skilled Czech-born winger, caught Glen Sather’s eye after he dominated the WHL with 134 points in his North American debut with the Calgary Hitmen in 1998-99.
He had declared himself ready for the pros after that first junior season, and in Sather’s defense, everybody else would have agreed. He played two more seasons with the Hitmen, in which he netted 186 more points in 110 games, but he reportedly showed up to the Rangers pre-season camps out of shape and lazy.
Brendl was eventually involved in the Eric Lindros trade and landed in Philadelphia, but his amateur talent and laziness never worked in the pros, and he only lasted 78 games with three separate NHL teams, scoring a measly 22 points between 2001 and 2006 before he fled back to Europe, never to be heard from in America again.
10 STEAL: PAVOL DEMITRA, 1993 - 227TH OVERALL (OTTAWA SENATORS)
One of the best Slovakian-born NHLers ever to play the game, centerman Pavol Demitra wasn’t exactly an immediate success. After notching 28 points in 46 games with HC Dukla Trencin of the Czechoslovak Extraliga in 1992-93, the Ottawa Senators gave him a shot at pro hockey in North America by taking him with their second-to-last pick of the 1993 draft.
After three fairly productive seasons spending time with both the Senators and their AHL affiliate, Demitra was traded to St. Louis in 1996, where he would finally establish himself as an elite player. In parts of eight seasons there between 1996 and 2004, Demitra scored 493 points in 494 games, made three All-Star appearances and won the 2000 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.
Demitra finished with 768 points in 847 games, and only one player from his draft class, Paul Kariya, who was drafted 223 spots before him, finished with a better points-per-game average.
9 BUST: ZACH HAMILL, 2007 - 8TH OVERALL (BOSTON BRUINS)
British Columbia native Zach Hamill, a talented forward who excelled in junior, was too good to be true for the Boston Bruins, who took him with the eighth-overall pick in the 2007 draft. According to NHL Central Scouting, Hamill was a solid playmaker with good stick-handling and special teams play and someone who had good vision for the ice.
The Bruins took him after his fourth year with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. Up until that point, he had 190 points in 183 games and was considered a solid first-round talent. But as good as he was in junior, he struggled equally as much in the NHL.
Boston gave him a few chances to crack the lineup, but in 20 games over parts of three seasons, he was held goalless and only contributed four assists while registering just 15 shots on goal. He hasn’t seen NHL ice since 2012 and now plays in Europe.
8 STEAL: DOMINIK HASEK, 1983 - 199TH OVERALL (CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS)
You know him, you loved him; The Dominator, Dominik Hasek, a Hall-of-Fame goaltender who won two Cups, six Vezinas and two Harts, made six All-Star Games appearances and won an Olympic gold medal, didn’t always command the respect as one of the game's best goaltenders in its history.
After two relatively mediocre seasons on the junior circuit in his native Czechoslovakia, the Chicago Blackhawks took him with the 199th over selection, all the way down in the 10th round of the 1983 draft. He remained in Europe for seven more years before making his North American debut in 1990 with the Indianapolis Ice of the IHL. He then made his NHL debut in 1990, and the rest is history.
Though he only played parts of two seasons with the Blackhawks, his patience paid off, as he is now No. 13 on the all-time NHL wins list.
7 BUST: NIKITA FILATOV, 2008 - 6TH OVERALL (COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS)
Let’s get one thing straight. Moscow-born Nikita Filatov is no Steven Stamkos, but that’s what the scouts were saying in 2008, when Stamkos went first overall and Filatov went five picks later as the second forward selected in the draft.
Too bad for the Columbus Blue Jackets. They bought into the hype and leaned on him to rescue their floundering offense.
Once signed, Filatov underperformed, refused to learn the Blue Jackets’ system and generally had a very bad attitude. He hated his time in Columbus and went back and forth between the U.S. and Russia a number of times while the ‘Jackets tried to figure out what to do with him.
Eventually dealt to the Senators, it was the same old story in Ottawa. Finally, after futile attempts to work with him, the Senators gave up on him too, and he jetted back to Russia for good after notching just 14 points in 53 NHL games.
6 STEAL: HENRIK LUNDQVIST, 2000 - 205TH OVERALL (NEW YORK RANGERS)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Rangers needed some goaltending depth near the turn of the century, so in 2000, as longtime Rangers backstop Mike Richter was starting to inch ever closer to his inevitable retirement, Glen Sather selected a somewhat obscure Henrik Lundqvist, who had plied the Swedish junior circuit for three seasons prior, in the seventh round of that year’s draft.
Lundqvist remained in Sweden after that, developing his game in the Swedish Elite League, where he became one of the league’s greatest all-time netminders during his five seasons of service.
Once he finally joined the Rangers in 2005, Lundqvist strung together seven straight seasons with 30 wins or more and has done so in 11 of his 12 NHL seasons (falling six short in 2012-13 because of the lockout-shortened season), winning a Vezina Trophy and being selected to three All-Star Games along the way.
5 BUST: HUGH JESSIMAN, 2003 - 12TH OVERALL (NEW YORK RANGERS)
Of course, as we’ve already discovered on this list, with the good comes the bad for the Rangers when it comes to their fortune in the annual entry draft. Our latest case in point is none other than New York City’s own Hugh Jessiman.
Jessiman was a three-year Dartmouth standout between 2002 and 2005, and even though he didn’t go inside the top-10 of the 2003 draft class (one of the deepest in recent memory), he was still expected to do big things as a sizable power forward in the NHL.
Simply put, that didn’t pan out… at all. Sadly, the first-rounder ended up being a career AHLer, playing eight seasons there, and only found his way into two NHL games with the Florida Panthers in 2011, where he logged a -1 rating and one fighting major.
4 STEAL: JARI KURRI, 1980 - 69TH OVERALL (EDMONTON OILERS)
Finn Jari Kurri was selected far higher than any of the others among this group of draft steals, but the fact that his world-class Hall-of-Fame talent wasn’t picked up in any of the first three rounds of the 1980 draft makes him arguably one of the biggest bargains on this entire list.
After three successful years in the Finnish Elite League between 1977 and 1980, the Oilers snatched him up, paired him on a line with Wayne Gretzky and then sat back and watched as he became one of the greatest playmakers in the world.
He quickly became known as the Finnish Flash for being one of the most complete players in the league. By the time it was all said and done following the 1997-98 season, Kurri turned his 69th draft selection into five Cup championships, 1,398 points and the third-highest scoring career ever for a European-born player.
3 BUST: RICK DIPIETRO, 2000 - 1ST OVERALL (NEW YORK ISLANDERS)
Yeesh. Rick DiPietro really, REALLY dropped the ball as the first-overall selection of the 2000 draft. In what could have been one of the greatest goaltending careers ever, DiPietro never even came close to realizing his full potential, due to repeated and nagging injuries.
When the Islanders made that fateful selection 17 years ago, they made DiPietro the first goalie drafted No. 1 overall. Six years later, the Isles doubled down by offering him a massive 15-year, $67.5 million contract, the longest and most lucrative one for a goaltender in the history of the league.
Sure, when he actually played, he did pretty darn well, but the Islanders should have seen the injury warning signs before he even made his pro debut. Nevertheless, they forged on, and at his worst, DiPietro managed to play in just 50 games over five seasons between 2008 and 2013 before his contract was bought out and his career dead at just 31 years old.
2 STEAL: BRETT HULL, 1984 - 117TH OVERALL (CALGARY FLAMES)
It’s hard to fathom how Brett Hull got passed over for five straight rounds before the Flames finally took him with the 117th overall pick in the 1984 draft. I mean, not only was he Bobby Hull’s son, but he registered an astronomical 292 points in 107 BCJHL games with the Penticton Knights over two seasons in 1982-83 and 1983-84 leading into the draft.
Unfortunately for the Flames, their impatience with his development cost them one of the greatest players ever to play the game, and he became the all-time talent that he was as a member of the Blues after he was traded to St. Louis in 1988.
Over the course of his 18-season career, Hull won two Cup championships, a Lady Byng Trophy, a Hart Memorial Trophy and an MVP while becoming one of the greatest snipers ever. He thrice led the league in goals, four times broke the 100-point mark and is fourth all-time with 741 goals.
1 BUST: ALEXANDRE DAIGLE 1993 - 1ST OVERALL (OTTAWA SENATORS)
Well-known as one of – if not THE – biggest draft busts in the history of the league, Alexandre Daigle was highly celebrated as the next greatest player to grace the league with his talents when the Senators took him first overall in the 1993 draft.
Granted, Daigle did play 616 career games with six different teams and averaged just over a half a point per game, which really isn’t THAT bad. But what makes him such a huge bust is the fact that he was supposed to be a rare and historic superstar who could challenge some of the more untouchable league records.
After he notched 247 points in two seasons in the QMJHL prior to the ’93 draft, he never scored more than 26 goals and 51 points in an NHL season and only lasted 10 years in the league before heading overseas to salvage what was left of his playing career.
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