In order to be successful at the NHL level, it’s extremely important that a team drafts well. Sure, teams have been able to pick up key pieces via trade and free agency in the past, but the foundation of any good team is largely built through the draft.
If you look at a team like the Detroit Red Wings throughout the '90s and 2000s, most of their success was built through the draft. Even today, they still have late-round gems on their roster that contribute regularly (Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were 7th and 6th round picks, respectively).
The Edmonton Oilers had a dynasty in the 1980s, and much of that team was built via the draft. Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson were all drafted by the Oilers in 1979 or 1980—quite remarkable, isn’t it?
Unfortunately for Edmonton and its fans, the deft drafting of Oilers management pretty much came to an end in the 1980s, during the dynasty days, and they’ve never really re-discovered the magic touch. Sure, there have been a few good picks here and there over the past 30 years or so, but for every good selection there have been a few duds. That’s not a recipe for success in the NHL, and the way the Oilers are floundering these days is proof of that.
In today’s list we’ll take a look at some of the biggest errors Edmonton has made in the NHL Entry Draft since it joined the league in 1979. These will all be first round blunders, because anything beyond the first round is largely based on luck and development, which are factors that are much more difficult to quantify.
With that said, here they are: the top 15 worst draft mistakes made by the Edmonton Oilers.
15 Jason Bonsignore
In 1994, the Edmonton Oilers held the 4th and 6th overall picks. With the 6th overall pick, they made an incredible selection by taking Ryan Smyth. Smyth scored 296 goals for the franchise over two stints with the team that drafted him.
The 4th overall pick? Well, that’s a different story. The Oilers selected Jason Bonsignore. He ended up playing 21 games with the Oilers and just 79 in his entire NHL career. It wasn’t the deepest of draft years, but 5th overall pick Jeff O’Neill played 821 games and scored 496 points.
14 Tyler Wright
When the Oilers selected Tyler Wright with their 12th overall selection in 1991, they left a lot of talent on the table. Wright still had a decent NHL career—he went on to play over 600 games (just 41 with the Oilers)—but considering what was available to them, it’s still a huge blunder.
Later in the first round, Alexei Kovalev was selected 15th overall, Markus Naslund 16th, and Glen Murray 18th. Luckily, the Oilers had a second first-round pick that they used on Martin Rucinsky, so it was a completely wasted draft for Glen Sather and company.
13 Kim Issel
The Oilers held the 21st and final pick in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft, so it’s not like they were expected to knock it out of the park. Indeed, many selections were made prior to the Oilers selection of Kim Issel 21st overall (who played just four games with the club) who never made a name for themselves.
Adam Graves, however, went 22nd overall to the Red Wings. He’s obviously the superior player in hindsight, but this one gets a little spicier, because the Oilers acquired Graves from the Red Wings in a blockbuster that included Petr Klima and Jimmy Carson. After a few lackluster seasons, though, the Oilers sent Graves to the Rangers, which is where his career took off.
12 Jason Soules
The 1989 draft took place shortly after rival Calgary Flames won their first (and only) Stanley Cup, so the franchise wanted to bounce back and have a strong draft followed by a strong season. Well, we all know they had a strong season, but it wasn’t much thanks to their first round selection of Jason Soules 15th overall.
The Oilers weren’t the only team to err in the first round in ’89, but Mike Sillinger, Bobby Holik and Olaf Kolzig were all selected after Soules, who went on to play exactly zero NHL games.
11 Magnus Paajarvi
The 2009 first round selection (10th overall) of Magnus Paajarvi seemed like a great pick in the early days. Paajarvi put up a respectable 15 goals in his rookie campaign with the Oilers, and expectations were high for the young Swede to build on this strong debut.
Well, that was back in 2010-11. Since then, Paajarvi has only added 19 goals to those 15, with six being the most he’s scored in one season. Rubbing salt in the wound is that the Nashville Predators selected defenseman Ryan Ellis 11th overall. No biggie—not like Edmonton desperately needs defense or anything.
10 Michael Henrich
The Oilers were pretty terrible at drafting throughout the 1990s, and in ’98 they spent their first round pick (13th overall) on a guy named Michael Henrich. You haven’t heard of him because he never played a single game in the NHL.
When Glen Sather called out Henrich’s name, a handful of great players were still up for grabs, including Robyn Regher, Simon Gagne, and Scott Gomez.
9 Scott Allison
The Oilers were the defending champs at the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, and Glen Sather and co. held the 17th overall selection. With it they selected Scott Allison, who never even played a single NHL game in his hockey career.
Blowing the 17th overall pick normally isn’t the end of the world, but when Keith Tkachuk and Martin Brodeur (!!!) are the 19th and 20th picks (respectively), it’s easy to see how the Oilers erred with the Allison selection.
8 Jesse Niinimaki
The early 2000s was surely the worst era of drafting for the Edmonton Oilers. It seemed they had a knack for blowing first round selections, and the 2002 pick of Jesse Niinimaki is no exception.
Selected 15th overall by the Oilers, Niinimaki never made it to the NHL, and in fact played just 24 games of professional hockey in North America (2004-05 Edmonton Roadrunners of the AHL, where he collected just one point). When the Oilers chose Niinimaki, Alex Steen and Cam Ward were still up for grabs, the latter beating the Oilers for the Stanley Cup just four years later, winning the Conn Smythe in the process. Ouch.
7 Alexei Mikhnov
Ah yes, Alexei Mikhnov. This is definitely a pick the Oilers fans would like to forget, but unfortunately I’m here to remind you of it. Mikhnov was the Oilers' 2000 first round selection (17th overall), and he would play just two games with the Oilers.
The Oilers left a lot of useful hockey players on the table when they selected Mikhnov, including Brooks Orpik, Alexander Frolov, Brad Boyes, Niklas Kronwall and Justin Williams—just to name a few.
6 Rob Schremp
For several years after the Oilers selected Rob Schremp 25th overall in 2004, Oilers fans were calling on coach MacT and GM Kevin Lowe to give the talented forward a shot in the big league. The only problem with this plan is that Schremp was never really all that good.
Adding insult to injury, one of the best goalies in the league today (Cory Schneider) was selected just one pick later by the Canucks at 26th overall. The first round wasn’t a complete waste for the Oilers in ’04, as they picked G Devan Dubnyk 14th overall; nonetheless, I bet they’d like a redo on the Schremp pick.
5 Joe Hulbig
The early ‘90s is when the true ineptitude at the draft table started for Edmonton. In 1992 the Oilers selected Joe Hulbig with the 13th overall pick, and you only need to look one spot down on the list to see just how badly they screwed up here. Yes, it was Sergei Gonchar who went 14th overall that year.
Hulbig played just 55 NHL games in his career, whereas Gonchar saw action in over 1,300 games. Needless to say, I can imagine Sather taking a do-over on this if given the opportunity.
4 Nail Yakupov
This pick will certainly cause distension among Oilers fans, as there are still droves of Yak apologists out there on the internet. However, in hindsight, I don’t think it’s even debatable: the 1st overall selection of Nail Yakupov was a bad pick for the Oilers in 2012.
Yes, the Oilers were only doing the sensible thing at the time by picking the consensus best player available, but having already selected Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 1st overall in each of the two previous drafts, the need for help on defense was already obvious.
It’s safe to say they should have traded down to select a D-man in 2012, as eight of the top 10 selections in 2012 were defensemen. If Ryan Murray or Morgan Rielly were wearing Oilers silks today instead of Yakupov, no doubt they’d be a better team.
As a side note, I do realize that Griffin Reinhart, who is an Oiler today, was picked 4th overall, but he's been passed developmentally by at least six of the other seven D-men picked in the top-ten that season.
3 Sam Gagner, Alex Plante, Riley Nash - 2007
The Oilers held three picks in the first round, making it a very important draft for a squad which, at the time, was just one year removed from their Cinderella trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in '06. With their three picks they chose Sam Gagner (6th), Alex Plante (15th), and Riley Nash (21st).
The Gagner pick wasn’t awful or anything, but they could have selected Jakub Voracek, Logan Couture, Ryan McDonagh or Kevin Shattenkirk instead. And rather than picking both Plante and Nash—the latter of which never played a single game for the Oilers—they could have had Max Pacioretty, who went right after Nash at 22nd.
2 Marc-Antoine Pouliot
The 2003 NHL Entry Draft is widely recognized as one of the deepest of all time. Looking back at the selections that were made that year, it’s tough to argue with that claim. The Oilers held the 22nd overall pick that year, and they really blew it by calling out Marc-Antoine Pouliot’s name.
Pouliot’s junior career finished on a positive note after the Oilers picked him, mostly due to the fact that he was tethered to Sidney Crosby in Rimouski for most of it. In his final season with the Oceanic, he put up 114 points in 70 games.
Of course, as has been well-documented, his skills didn’t translate well to the NHL level, and he moved his “talents” to Europe in 2012 after short stints in Phoenix and Tampa. The list of players selected in the first round after Pouliot, however, includes Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards and Corey Perry.
1 Steve Kelly
It was July 8, 1995. Northlands Coliseum played host to the NHL Entry Draft for the first time ever, and only time to date. The hometown Edmonton Oilers held the 5th overall pick, meaning Sather had the opportunity to pick a player that could impact his team for the next decade and beyond.
It just so happens that Alberta-boy Shane Doan was ranked as a top-10 prospect that season, and he was projected to go somewhere around that fifth overall slot that Edmonton held. After the Tampa Bay Lightning used the fourth-overall selection on Daymond Langkow, the stage was set for Sather to make history.
With the crowd chanting Doan’s name in support of the local farm boy, Sather stepped in front of the mic, cleared his throat, and proudly selected… Steve Kelly of the Prince Albert Raiders. The Winnipeg Jets called Doan’s name just moments later with the 6th overall pick.
Kelly went on to play just 27 games with the Oilers, and only 149 in his NHL career before defecting to Europe. Just the other day, Doan passed Mike Gartner for 25th all-time on the NHL games played list (1,433), all with the franchise that drafted him in ’95. Only seven other players in history have played more games with a single franchise than Doan has with the Jets/Coyotes.
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