Draft day is very exciting for prospects who are lucky enough to hear their name called on that fateful day every June. They finally find out where their professional hockey journeys will begin, and hopefully they are able to find a path to the NHL within that organization.
The reality of the fact is, even though most players’ careers do start with the team that picks them in the draft, most of the successful journeys take them well beyond their first NHL city, often through multiple squads. In other cases—albeit rare ones—the player doesn’t even play a single game with the team that picked him. For today’s list, we look at the best players in history to have never played a single game with the team that drafted them.
It’s interesting that there are eight defensemen on the list, five forwards and two goaltenders. Since forwards make up a bulk of the roster, you’d think they’d have higher representation here. However, when you consider the typical development curve of a forward compared to that of a defenseman or goaltender, it does make sense. An 18-year-old forward is much closer to a finished product than an 18-year-old D-man or goalie, so teams often move on from the latter before truly discovering what they have.
15 Aaron Ward
We kick off the list with stay-at-home defenseman Aaron Ward, who was drafted 5th overall in 1991 by the Winnipeg Jets. Before even playing his first game, Ward was dealt to the Detroit Red Wings where he immediately helped bring back-to-back Stanley Cups to Motor City in 1997 and 1998.
Ward would later add a third championship to his resume in 2006 as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, further solidifying the fact that he was able to contribute on a championship team. Ward wasn’t a goal scorer or power play specialist by any stretch, as he mustered just 44 goals in 839 NHL games, with six being his single-season high.
Ward’s career also included stops in New York, Boston, and Anaheim. He never did play a game with the Coyotes before retiring from the game in 2010, thus earning him the 15th spot on this list.
14 Dennis Wideman
There are actually seven active players on this list, so it’s possible some of these guys will eventually end up playing for the teams that drafted them. The first active player to appear is Dennis Wideman, who was originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 8th round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
Wideman played a full six seasons in the OHL, then one full season in the AHL. By the time he finally broke into the NHL, it was in 2005-06 with the St. Louis Blues. His career later took him through Boston, Florida, and Washington before landing in his current city of employment, Calgary.
Wideman has of course put a blemish on his record with that whole cold-clocking-a-referee-while-likely-concussed unpleasantness. Nonetheless, Wideman has proven a reliable offensive defenseman and should have a few more years left in him before he's too old.
13 Jack Johnson
While some of the players on this list are here because they were never given a chance by the team that drafted them, Jack Johnson is here because he never gave Carolina a chance. The Hurricanes drafted Johnson 3rd overall in 2005, and they dealt him in 2006 after two failed ELC signing attempts.
In fairness to Johnson, he simply didn’t want to sign with the ‘Canes because he wished to play one more season of college puck. The Hurricanes needed a young defenseman to come in and help immediately, so they decided to send Johnson to L.A. (along with Oleg Tverdovsky) in exchange for Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger, rather than wait another season for Johnson's arrival.
Johnson hasn’t turned into the top-tier defenseman he was once projected as, but he’s nonetheless a solid defender who has grown into a leader on the Columbus Blue Jackets, his current team.
12 Rick MacLeish
A member of the Broad Street Bullies and two-time Stanley Cup champ, Rick MacLeish never played a single game for the Boston Bruins, the team that drafted him 4th overall in the 1970 NHL Amateur draft.
MacLeish was dealt to Philadelphia along with Danny Shock in exchange for Mike Walton in 1971, and it didn’t take him long to establish himself as an impact player for the Flyers. In 1972-73, his first full season with the club, he notched 50 goals and 50 assists for 100 points.
MacLeish proved to be a clutch player for the Flyers for a decade, highlighted by his consistent playoff performances throughout the ‘70s. In 108 playoff games for the Flyers, MacLeish managed 105 points, which places him fourth all-time for the franchise. The rest of his career included brief stops in Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Detroit before calling it quits after 1983-84.
11 Wade Redden
Defenseman Wade Redden was a top prospect when he was drafted 2nd overall in 1995 by the New York Islanders. In an interesting twist, the Islanders traded Redden to the Ottawa Senators less than a year later in exchange for that same draft’s 1st overall selection, defenseman Bryan Berard. Other pieces were involved, but those were the keys.
It’s difficult to say who won the trade though, as Berard’s career was cut dramatically short thanks to a bad eye injury. Redden’s career had longevity, as he played 1,023 NHL games for the Sens, Rangers, Blues, and Bruins. He was eventually buried in the minors while on a bad contract with the Rangers, which was sort of a sad finish to an otherwise distinguished career.
It should be noted here that Berard came very close to cracking this list. Had he had a little bit longer of a career he would have probably made it.
10 Ryan McDonagh
The third active player to appear on our list is of course another defenseman, this time New York’s Ryan McDonagh. The Montreal Canadiens’ first round pick from 2007 was dealt to the Rangers in 2009 for a package highlighted by Scott Gomez before he ever laced them up for Montreal.
This trade has definitely gone down as one of the most lopsided in Canadiens’ history, as Gomez’s fall from grace upon arriving in Montreal was swift, while McDonagh’s ascension to top-pairing defenseman was also swift. He was playing the role for the Rangers by 2011-12.
McDonagh is only 27 years old, so it’s still technically possible that he ends up playing for the Canadiens before his career ends 10-or-so years from now. As of right now though, McDonagh is projecting as one of the best players all-time who never played for the team that drafted him.
9 Kimmo Timonen
Kimmon Timonen is a huge success story in that he came from nowhere as a prospect (a 10th round pick of the L.A. Kings in 1993), and ended up playing over 1,100 NHL games for three different teams, including a brief stop in Chicago in 2015 that saw him win his only Stanley Cup. It was the perfect ending to a distinguished career.
The Kings held the rights to Timonen until 1998, which is when they dealt him and Jan Vopat to the expansion Nashville Predators in exchange for future considerations. I’m not sure what those future considerations ever became, but I think it’s safe to say Timonen was the hidden gem of that deal.
Timonen retired as the 7th-highest scoring Finnish player in history, and the 2nd-highest scoring Finnish defender (1st being Teppo Numminen, who played most of his games during a time when scoring in the league was much higher).
8 Filip Forsberg
Finally, another forward shows up on our list here at number eight in the form of Filip Forsberg. Forsberg is definitely the youngest player to show up here, as he was drafted by the Washington Capitals 11th overall in 2012.
The Capitals took a big risk the following April at the trade deadline, dealing their most recent first round pick to Nashville for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. From their perspective at the time, they were gearing up for a deep playoff run and needed the immediate help at the sacrifice of a solid prospect.
Today the trade looks to be one of the most lopsided in history, as not only is Forsberg already an NHL star, but Erat almost immediately fell off a cliff in terms of production. There are a lot of years left in Forsberg’s career for him to return to the team that drafted him, but that’s unlikely at this juncture as the Preds look to have a franchise player on their hands.
7 Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler was a Phoenix Coyotes 5th overall selection in 2004, but the former University of Minnesota star never did end up signing an entry-level deal in the desert, and eventually became a UFA and signed his first NHL deal with the Boston Bruins.
Don Maloney wasn’t GM of the Coyotes when Wheeler was drafted, but he was when the two sides parted ways. Maloney has expressed regret in letting Wheeler go, saying that he wishes he perhaps paid more attention to Wheeler rather than another prospect who he had drafted in 2007 by the name of Kyle Turris.
In the end Maloney was unable to retain the services of either player, as the Turris situation turned uglier than the Wheeler one ever became. Wheeler is now in Winnipeg, where he led his club in points with a career high of 78 in 2015-16.
6 Tuukka Rask
Finally, at number six, we have the first goaltender to appear on our list in the form of Finnish netminder Tuukka Rask. Rask was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs 21st overall in 2005, but they later traded the rights to Rask to Boston for Andrew Raycroft.
The Leafs felt that they were getting a great goalie in return in Raycroft, not to mention that they thought they already had their goaltender of the future in Justin Pogge, who they had picked in the 3rd round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. In a sentence, they felt like they simply didn’t need Rask.
Flash forward to today, and Rask has a Stanley Cup Final appearance as a starter, and a ring as a backup. This is not to mention the Vezina Trophy he took home in 2014 as the best goalie in the NHL. Raycroft, conversely, never grabbed the horns as the legitimate starter anywhere he tried, and Pogge simply never played a single NHL game. Obviously, it was a bad bet by the Leafs.
5 Mark Howe
Mark Howe started his pro hockey career in the now-defunct WHA, playing a total of 426 games for the Houston Aeros and the New England Whalers. When the league merged with the NHL in 1979, Howe went with the Whalers (which became the Hartford Whalers) to the NHL, where he played out the remainder of his Hall-of-Fame career.
The Boston Bruins were the NHL team that first had the rights to the defenseman, but because Howe played in the WHA until the merger, he simply moved to the NHL with his WHA team, which was a condition of the coalition.
The rest of Howe’s NHL career saw him make stops in Philadelphia and Detroit, and he finally hung them up after the 1994-95 season. Howe was one of the great all-time offensive defensemen, compiling 1,246 points in 1,355 professional games between the two leagues.
4 Tim Thomas
Tim Thomas is the second goalie to make an appearance here on our list, at number four. It’s no surprise that Thomas is found on this list since he played his first NHL games in 2002-03, a full eight years after he was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.
After toiling in various European leagues for the better part of a decade, Thomas made his way back to North America and got a shot with the Bruins, and he made it count. He slowly but surely earned the starting job in Beantown, and that eventually led to a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy to go with his two Vezinas he gathered along the way.
Despite the tail end of his career being embroiled in political turmoil (he never really recovered from that bizarre White House snub in 2012), Thomas definitely has an impressive career behind him, and he’s one of the best players to never play for the team that drafted him.
3 Viacheslav Fetisov
This skater comes with a bit of an asterisk, as Viacheslav Fetisov was actually drafted into the NHL twice; once by the Montreal Canadiens in 1978 (he never played for Montreal), and once by the New Jersey Devils in 1983, which is where he started his career.
Fetisov spent most of the 1980s playing for CSKA Moscow in the Russian league, as it was borderline illegal and legitimately dangerous to defect from Russia to play hockey in North America prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. It was considered treasonous, and the KGB were a bunch of real jerks who were to be feared.
Fetisov started his career in Jersey but made a name for himself in Detroit, where he helped the Wings to back-to-back championships in ’97 and ’98. Fetisov was instrumental in normalizing the move from Russia to North America, and his legacy in the NHL has as much to do with that as it does his stalwart defensive play.
2 Eric Lindros
Eric Lindros was coined “The Next One” by the time he was 17 years old, when he was tearing up the OHL with the Oshawa Generals. When the Quebec Nordiques called Lindros’ name with the first overall pick in 1991, he refused to don the jersey, and that started an infamous year-long standoff between the two sides.
Lindros was eventually dealt to Philadelphia for a king’s ransom, a package that included recent Flyers first round pick Peter Forsberg. Forsberg himself would have certainly made this list had he not later played for Philadelphia at the end of his career, disqualifying him.
While concussions cut Lindros’ career short, there’s no denying that the centerman was an elite talent. He’ll finally be recognized for that later this year when he’s inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, which is way overdue if you ask me.
1 Jarome Iginla
When the Dallas Stars dealt their first round draft pick from 1995 to Calgary for Joe Nieuwendyk, it wasn’t an entirely uncalculated move. After all, Nieuwendyk was a key member of the dominant Dallas Stars of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, helping them to their one and only championship in 1999 with a Conn Smythe-winning performance that spring.
However, Calgary still didn’t lose the trade, and a reasonable argument can be made that they won it by a landslide. Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla (yes, that's his real full name) is the Flames' franchise leader in goals (525), points (1,095), and games played (1,219). He’ll be a first ballot Hall-of-Famer thanks to the work he did in Calgary, there’s no doubt about that.
While it’s still possible Iggy’s career takes him through Dallas, it’s highly unlikely. He has one year left on his contract, and he’ll likely retire after it expires as he’ll be 40 when that time comes. Perhaps Dallas nabs him as a rental before the trade deadline, but barring that, Iginla will retire as the best player in history who never played for the team that drafted him.