Ah, the NHL Entry Draft. It’s when hockey season is unofficially back on. Without the constraint of the salary cap, deals fly left and right as every team thinks they have a shot at the Stanley Cup. After all, no one has lost a game yet and the future is bright.
Future stars and busts pull on their first NHL jersey and for a moment, the dream has been realized. How it goes from there is another story. A player may dominate his pre-NHL league for years but taking the next step is a different game altogether. Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan are in the back of every GMs mind when they make the final call on who gets picked.
Comparing OHL numbers to Swedish Elite League stats is hockey’s version of apples and some kind of Swedish vegetable. Predicting how a defender’s body and mind will mature is hardly a science. And don’t even get started on the crapshoot that is goaltending.
Some of the players who retroactively deserve the no.1 spot were just a few spots off in their draft year, but others were way off the charts. The budget put into world-wide scouting has grown exponentially since the first Euro-wave but it’s still a guessing game. How did Datsyuk fall so far? Why was Jagr picked AFTER Mike Ricci? How were Stefan and Daigle so bad?!
What keeps modern sports so damn interesting is that their isn’t a fool proof way to form a dynasty team. A few years ago most NHL fans would have pegged Edmonton’s string of high picks as a sure-fire recipe for success. Turns out there’s a lot more to building a team than young talent. I’m sure 29 other GMs took notes.
It’s great fun to look back with 20/20 hindsight and see where teams went right and wrong. How a lottery ball could have changed the fortunes of an entire franchise. Without Crosby, Pittsburgh might not have their Penguins.
So let’s wind back the clock to the times these superstars couldn’t even grow a playoff beard and pick the Top 15 Players that should have went no.1 in their respective draft year.
15. Ryan Murray – 2012
Original Pick – Nail Yakupov
From 2010-2015, the Oilers have had a whopping FOUR First-Overall picks and a Third-Overall (Leon Draisaitl) to boot. One of those precious picks was used in 2012 on Nail Yakupov. It was a strange pick considering Edmonton have been downright pathetic on the blueline for the past several years. The Oilers taught the NHL a valuable lesson that forgoing veteran leadership will leave you with a team that still plays like they’re in Junior.
Ryan Murray may not have been the most talented player in the Draft that year but I’m sure Edmonton would gladly trade Yakupov today for any kind of defensive help.
14. Zdeno Chara – 1996
Original Pick – Chris Phillips
Ottawa had awful luck drafting in the 90s. Although Phillips has been solid for over 1,000 games, he’s not an elite game changer.
Chara – drafted at no.656 – is most certainly a game changer. The towering defenseman is perhaps the crowning jewel on Mike Milbury’s idiot hat. Mad Mike traded not only Chara, but the pick to draft Jason Spezza for none other than Alexei Yashin.
Chara is the type of franchise D-man that most Stanley Cup teams always seem to have. His physical dominance over the Sedins was a huge key to Boston’s Championship. Any team would have traded all of their 1996 picks for a Chara.
(This was a fairly weak year. Daniel Briere and Matt Cullen lead the Class in points.)
13. Marian Hossa – 1997
Original Pick – Joe Thornton
Thornton may lead this class in points at 1,273, but Hossa’s three Stanley Cups easily trump the 208 point gap. What good is regular season dominance if it’s consistently followed by playoff disappointment?
Hossa fought through playoff disappointment of his own, taking three straight Finals appearances to finally bag his first Championship. His relatively low cap-hit has been a godsend for a Chicago team constantly shedding salary to maintain their winning ways. Having his elite two-way presence on either of the top two lines is downright unfair for a team that also boasts Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook.
Thornton can keep his assists, we’re going with Hossa every time.
12. Jarome Iginla – 1995
Original Pick – Bryan Berard
This might be an unfair comparison as Berard suffered a career-altering eye injury, but we have to go with the facts.
Iginla was picked 11th that year by Dallas, who traded the youngster away for the proven veteran Joe Nieuwendyk. A win-win trade as old Joe won a Conn Smythe for Dallas in their first championship and young Jarome gave Calgary their franchise player for years to come.
Iginla still hasn’t kissed the Cup, but he’s still the best of 1995.
11. Tyler Seguin – 2010
Original Pick – Taylor Hall
Hall is a dynamite player and I’d love to see what he could do as the #2 on a competent team, but so far Seguin has had the more impressive career.
A part of the Bruins’ last championship, Sequin went on to prove his case as a true elite player in Dallas, helping Jamie Benn do the same along the way. In hockey, a center is traditionally more valuable than a winger, so he’s got that going for him as well.
Hall does show flashes of pure brilliance that exceed Seguin and who knows what he could accomplish with an elite center, but for now I’m sticking with Tyler over Taylor.
10. Pavel Datsyuk – 1998
Original Pick – Vincent Lecavalier
With a Stanley Cup and 932 points, Lecavalier could have made a much stronger case for top spot until his disastrous stint in Philadelphia. This terrible situation has seriously hurt his legacy as his stock has dropped dramatically.
Datsyuk however, is appreciated more each year. His consistent high level of play is astonishing, posting over a point a game in 2014-15 at age 36. His elite two-way play and ability to control the game gives him our top spot for 1998.
9. Brian Leetch – 1986
Original pick – Joe Murphy
Joe Murphy that’s who. The Murph may not be a household name or have great stats (528 points in 779 games during the high flying era) but damnit the man was opportunistic. Remember that Cup the Oilers won without Gretzky? Murphy does because he was there. Turns out they didn’t need the ‘great one’ if ‘drafted higher than Gretzky’ was on the case. And get this, Murphy and Gretzky are tied for playoff overtime goals with four apiece.
But seriously Brian Leetch was in this draft, and actually fell to ninth. He wasn’t even the first defensemen picked either, that honor going to Shawn Anderson (255 NHL games).
I’m from Vancouver and Leetch will always be remembered as the best player in a heart-breaking postseason. Is it fair to say he started the riot of 1994? Probably not, but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are still looking for the Conn Smythe winner to this very day.
8. Henrik Sedin – 1999
Original Pick – Patrik Stefan
When the NHL cracked down hard on obstruction after the 2004 lockout, it seemed like no other players benefitted more than the Sedin twins. Neither fast or powerful, the skilled Swedes were finally free to pass the puck and create magic without fear of being obstructed to a halt. They rocketed to the top of the league, taking turns leading it in scoring.
Stefan is widely considered one of the worst busts in draft history. His career can be summed up in one play that is one of the funniest hockey bloopers around. If you haven’t seen Stefan flub an empty netter only to have the opposing team storm back and win, you must rectify that immediately or turn in your fan card.
7. Ray Bourque – 1979
Original pick – Rob Ramage
Drafted by Colorado, Ramage had a fairly productive career but is most remembered now as what Calgary got in return for the Brett Hull trade.
Ray Bourque is constantly in talks as the greatest overall defender of all time….after Orr of course. Bourque kept a less-than-powerhouse Boston team competitive for two decades before finally getting his Stanley Cup wish in Colorado. He’s so respected that Sakic broke tradition and let Bourque raise the Cup first in that Avalanche win. A classy guy that also happens to have 1,579 points in 1,612 games while keeping the puck out of his own net better than just about anyone.
6. Joe Sakic – 1987
Original pick – Pierre Turgeon
Pierre Turgeon was a hell of a player – a poor man’s Joe Sakic if you will – but let’s go with the real deal.
Sakic set a new standard for skill, class, and longevity. Other than the immortal Gordie Howe, Sakic is the oldest player to score 100 points (age 36).
Two Cups (as Captain), a Conn Smythe, Hart, Lady bang, Lester b. pearson, and the MVP during Canada’s Olympic gold medal win in 2002.
5. Steve Yzerman – 1983
Original pick – Brian Lawton
This one was easy.
Yzerman’s combination of offense, defense, leadership and everything else that makes an elite player is hard to beat. He racked up points with the best of them in his early years, and then sacrificed the short-term personal glory for long-term team success; who else has transformed their game so completely?
Three Stanley Cups, sixth-overall in all-time points, and the longest serving team captain in North American Major League history, Yzerman is most definitely better than Brian Lawton.
4. Jonathan Toews – 2006
Original pick – Erik Johnson
Defenseman are much harder to predict than forwards and take longer to develop. Erik Johnson is an above average defender that’s finally starting to achieve his potential but he’s hardly the franchise stud a first-overall pick is expected to be.
Toews however, is arguably the best player on the planet. He’s already led his team to three Stanley Cups and he’s still just 27; he could actually get better! A two-way force of leadership and skill, he may be the best captain in the game today.
If the rest of the league and the current GMs had to re-draft their teams, there’s a good chance Toews would go first in that draft too.
3. Nicklas Lidstrom – 1989
Original pick – Mats Sundin
Wow, what a year for talent!
Sundin made good on his selection as he’s still first in goals and points for the Class of ’89. To give you an idea of the talent in that draft, Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Bill Guerin, and of course Lidstrom aren’t too far behind.
Even with all of this talent, we have to give the spot to Lidstrom. If Bobby Orr is in a class of his own, then Lidstrom is the best of the rest. He definitely lived up to the nickname “perfect human” with his multiple championships, flawless play, and leadership. He even spoke perfect English!
After 20 NHL seasons he has four Cups, seven Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe, and an Olympic gold medal. He had at least 49 points in 14 of his last 16 seasons, even cracking 60 points at 40 years old!
2. Jaromir Jagr – 1990
Original Pick – Owen Nolan
Nolan is no slouch with 885 points and 1,200 games, but this is Jagr we’re talking about. It’s hard to believe four teams passed on him. That Nolan, Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau, and Mike freakin’ Ricci all looked more enticing than Jags.
Of course this was a different time. Players defecting from Eastern European countries were more of a risky proposition. There were far fewer scouts watching European games as well. When picks 1-4 all had 150+ points in only 60 Junior games, they seemed like a much safer bet.
Jagr’s 50 points in 51 Czech league games might not have seemed as impressive in comparison. But you have to consider that he was playing against the country’s toughest competition, and had been doing so since the age of 16.
Number one since 1995 and still piling up points in 2015.
1. Chris Pronger – 1993
Original Pick – Alexandre Daigle
Daigle is always in the running for worst #1 ever. After racking up 137 pts in only 53 QMJHL games he could only muster an NHL career high of 51. Ottawa, Philadelphia, Tampa, New York, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota all tried and failed to find his sniper potential.
Chris Pronger is an easy pick. He proved that a dominant, snarly, franchise defenseman is the best ingredient for Playoff success. Edmonton and Philadelphia had no business being in the Finals without Pronger leading the charge. Anaheim’s duo of Pronger/Neidermayer was an unbeatable combination that walked all over the competition en route to their Stanley Cup.
Pronger is our number one as he already knocked out the competition with a swift elbow.
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