Throughout the history of the NHL, we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some of the greatest talents in the sport of hockey. From the era of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, to “Super Mario” and “The Great One,” we’ve seen records broken that seemed unimaginable only a decade earlier. Moreover, the NHL is getting more skilled every year, and the potential of some of these kids could be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. But that’s not what this list is about. This list is about all those elite players that can’t seem to get it together. I’m talking about the ones that clearly have the skill on the ice to be an elite player, but for one reason or another, they never fulfill their potential. This list will consider those who struggled with drug and/or alcohol abuse, laziness, injuries, a bad attitude, and various other factors. The list below looks at 15 ‘would be’ superstars who wasted their potential.
This list considers current and former NHL players who have shown the potential to have a successful NHL career based on a variety of factors, including: an individual players’ NHL statistics, proven consistency, reputation around the league before, during, and after career, and the reason for the player’s potential being wasted.
16 Alex Burmistrov
Alex Burmistrov is a peculiar case of a would-be superstar who may have wasted his potential. Burmistrov broke into the league in 2010, being selected 8th overall in the draft. The young Russian had a solid start to his career in the NHL, and Burmistrov was lauded by advanced analytics fans everywhere for his possession numbers. However, the relationship between Burmistrov and former Winnipeg head coach Claude Noel became contentious after the 2012-13 season, when Burmistrov was assigned to the Winnipeg’s AHL affiliate, rather than being allowed to take a lucrative deal in Russia during the lockout.
Following the shortened season, Burmistrov became a restricted free agent and signed with Ak Bars Bazan of the KHL, citing his bitter relationship with Noel as a reason for his departure. Fortunately for Burmistrov and the Jets, Burmistrov returned last year on a two-year commitment, in hopes that this one-time franchise player can fulfill his potential.
15 Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is an interesting consideration for this list. Upon being drafted by the Colorado Avalanche, Stewart was praised for having great hands for a big man, and was capable of playing in all situations. Stewart is a big body and a force to be reckoned with, but for some reason he has never fulfilled the expectations placed on him.
In Stewart’s 519 career NHL games, Stewart has amassed 137 goals and 284 points. Moreover, this prospective superstar has only tallied more than 20 goals in a season once in his career.
Over the last three seasons, Stewart has spent time in Buffalo, Minnesota, and Anaheim before being reacquired by the Wild this past summer. While Stewart is still young, he has never developed into the talent that he was projected to be. Stewart has faced injury troubles, but the Wild will be hoping that Stewart can perform to his fullest capabilities this upcoming season.
14 Gilbert Brule
Gilbert Brule was signed sixth overall in the 2005 NHL draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Brule was sought after because of his offensive skill and tenacious physical play. Brule stood 5’10 and weighed 175 pounds, and the physical play took its toll on Brule’s body. However, it wasn’t necessarily the injuries that make Brule a wasted talent; rather it’s the management decisions and handling of Brule that ultimately led to him not fulfilling expectations.
In his third career NHL game, Brule fractured his sternum and missed 17 games. Instead of recognizing that Brule needed to put on some weight and gain some muscle, the Blue Jackets let Brule return to the NHL when his sternum healed. However, 10 days later Brule suffered a broken leg. Following his rehab, Brule finished the season in the WHL.
To further illustrate the negligent handling of Brule by management, look to the 2006 preseason. General manager Doug MacLean and coach Gerard Gallant couldn’t agree on a plan for Brule. MacLean promised Brule was a star and refused to send him down, while Gallant refused to play Brule. Following Gallant's firing, coach Ken Hitchcock was hired, but the situation never improved for Brule. Brule played for the Oilers and Coyotes for a couple years until he refused to report to the Coyotes' AHL affiliate.
13 Ilya Bryzgalov
Ilya Bryzgalov is most well-known for his ridiculous quotes, especially on HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic. Bryzgalov has been in the league since 2001 after being drafted in the second round by the Anaheim Ducks. Moreover, in 2011 after a spectacular season, in which he won 42 games, Bryzgalov signed a $51 million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. However, this was a mistake from the get go. Bryzgalov had two more productive seasons with Philadelphia before returning to a backup role with Edmonton, Minnesota, and Anaheim. Bryzgalov has reportedly faced issues with falling asleep in meetings and not being focused on playing hockey, and subsequently, he was let go.
Bryzgalov is now looking to return to the NHL next season, and he’s admitted that being away from his wife and children was difficult and distracted his focus. Sure, the Flyers had to be a little crazy to give Bryzgalov a $51 million deal, but after winning 42 games in a season, you can understand why they jumped at the opportunity to lock down a superstar goalie.
If Bryzgalov can get a contract this upcoming season, it would give him an opportunity to fulfill the expectations he set when he signed that massive deal. I wouldn’t say that Bryzgalov was a NHL superstar, but he was on the fringe for a small period of time, and you can bet he’ll be looking to return to those glory days.
12 Evander Kane
Evander Kane is on the hot seat these days in Buffalo after his latest incident. Kane is an incredibly talented player, but one can’t help but question his decisions after all the trouble that he has found himself in. His attitude and poor life choices lead to Kane regularly getting into trouble, either with his team or with the law. Ultimately, where there is smoke, there’s fire, and Kane is in jeopardy of wasting his talent. This is a guy who said scoring 40-50 goals should be doable while playing with Jack Eichel and the revamped Sabres.
It must be noted that Evander Kane has not been proven guilty for anything more than exercising poor judgment. But his tendency to get into trouble off the ice may lead to him being traded this upcoming year. This is his second criminal incident at a bar in Buffalo, and Kane is facing a civil lawsuit stemming from the first sexual offense investigation.
Evander Kane adds size and skill to the Sabres lineup, and trading him will likely be a last resort. Kane has 129 goals and 257 points in 426 career NHL games. Although Kane still has time to reach his potential, as of now, his poor choices have earned him a spot on this list.
11 Jason Bonsignore
Edmonton Oiler fans generally cringe at the memory of Jason Bonsignore. Bonsignore was a highly sought prospect and drafted fourth overall in the 1994 NHL draft by the Oilers. Keep in mind that at the time, this was the highest draft pick in Edmonton Oiler team history. However, Bonsignore is also considered the Oilers' biggest draft disappointment.
At 6’4” and 220 pounds, many teams were hopeful that Bonsignore would replicate Eric Lindros and Mario Lemieux. However, this wasn’t the case. Bonsignore simply wasn’t as skilled as he was projected to be, and to make matters worse, he had a bad attitude, which didn’t sit well with then Oilers general manager Glen Sather. Ultimately, this led to the developmental mismanagement of Bonsignore.
Bonsignore, himself, has stated that he was naïve about the work ethic it would take to be a professional hockey player and take the step from the AHL to the NHL. Bonsignore has also stated that things could have been different had he been given the same opportunities that teammate and Oiler icon Ryan Smyth received, who was drafted two spots after Bonsignore.
Bonsignore finished his NHL career with 79 games played, 3 goals, and 13 assists.
10 Alex Semin
Alex Semin was a force to be reckoned with only seven years ago with the Washington Capitals. Semin surpassed the 70-point mark three different times in his career, and he scored more than 50-points in five different seasons. If you were watching him in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 playoffs, you knew that this young man was special. And from an analytics standpoint, Semin should have been much better than he was.
Semin’s former teammate Matt Bradley once told Ottawa’s TSN 1200 that Semin could easily be the best player in the league, but he 'just doesn’t care'. Semin eventually developed a reputation for having a bad attitude, and teams didn’t think he was worth the headache. After only two months, and playing only 15 games in Montreal last season, the Canadiens placed Semin on waivers. Subsequently, Semin signed with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL.
Semin’s laziness and bad attitude make him a squandered NHL talent. Had Semin put in the necessary time, he could have had an successful career in the NHL.
9 Patrik Stefan
Patrik Stefan was the first overall pick in the 1999 NHL draft by the Atlanta Thrashers, during the team’s inaugural season. Stefan was a highly touted prospect from the Czech Republic, was regularly compared to countryman Jaromir Jagr, and was supposed to bring his tenacity and playmaking skill with him to Atlanta. For years people thought that Stefan was bound to break out and become the player he was advertised to be.
Unfortunately for the Thrashers, Stefan failed to meet expectations. In his first year, Stefan scored only five goals and posted 25 points. It wasn’t until his fifth season that he reached the 40-point mark, with 14 goals and 26 assists. Ultimately, Stefan finished his NHL career with 188 points in 455 games.
Stefan was considered an elite playmaking center, and was described as a mix between Mike Modano and Sergei Federov, by his former coach John Van Boxmeer. However, Stefan failed to live up to the hype in Atlanta, and was eventually dealt to Dallas for a bag of hockey pucks. If you want to see Stefan’s biggest moment in the NHL, do yourself a favor and click here.
8 Dan Blackburn
Dan Blackburn was the former backup to Mike Richter in New York, and was taken 10th overall in the 2001 NHL draft by the Rangers. Keep in mind that the Rangers had their now-franchise goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, in their development system. But Blackburn was a highly praised prospect that was made more appealing because of his impressive reputation in the Canadian Hockey League and the fact that he was named the CHL’s goalie of the year in 2001. Despite all Blackburn’s accolades and promise, in September 2002, he suffered a nerve injury to his left shoulder. The injury was so severe that he lost the ability to rotate his glove hand.
Blackburn never fully recovered from the nerve injury and eventually tried to make a comeback in professional hockey sporting two blockers. However, this went just as you would have imagined…terrible. Blackburn had the potential to become a NHL superstar had it not been for a nerve in his shoulder. Blackburn retired in 2005 having played 63 games with the New York Rangers and posting a 3.22 goals against average.
7 Alexander Radulov
Alexander Radulov has been a headache since he entered into the NHL in 2006-07 with the Nashville Predators. Upon entering the league, Radulov’s offensive skill has been lauded. He could snipe a corner with near-pinpoint accuracy. However, Radulov’s own worst enemy may be himself. After his first departure from the NHL in 2008, the Nashville Predators brought Radulov back towards the end of the 2011-12 season, in hopes of gaining a playoff push. However, Radulov broke curfew with then teammate Andrei Kostitsyn, and both were suspended for a game. But it’s not just a problem with Radulov not getting to bed on time, it’s a character issue that has detrimentally affected the way general managers around the league perceive Radulov.
Radulov has 47 goals and 102 points in his NHL career, and he is poised to add more to these totals after signing a one-year, $5.75 million deal with the Montreal Canadiens this past summer. However, at that price tag, you can bet that the Canadiens are expecting a matured and focused Radulov entering next season.
6 Rick DiPietro
Rick DiPietro was the first ever goalie to be taken first overall in the NHL draft, and by none other than Mike Milbury. Before the draft, DiPietro was essentially put on a pedestal by Milbury and the New York Islanders organization. Goaltender Wendell Young once told Sport’s Illustrated’s Michael Farber that “Rick’s going to need two seats on that plane: one in coach for his body, and one in first class for his ego.”
DiPietro’s first two seasons with the Islanders were average, despite the lockout and DiPietro starting in net for the U.S. Olympic team in the Torino Olympics. To show the organization's investment in DiPietro, general manager Garth Snow and DiPietro agreed on a 15-year $67.5 million contract in 2006. However, by 2008, injuries had rendered DiPietro relatively useless, and he spent the majority of the next five seasons riding the pine.
DiPietro could have been a superstar talent, but his own ego and injuries got in the way. DiPietro played only 50 total NHL games in his last five seasons until the Islanders exercised their compliance buyout of DiPietro’s contract.
5 Alexandre Daigle
Alex Daigle was drafted first overall in the 1993 NHL draft. Daigle is a bad memory for Ottawa Senators fans. At the time, Daigle was considered the next Mario Lemieux, and he was given the largest starting salary in NHL history. To put this into perspective, Daigle was perceived to be the next great French-Canadian athlete. However, Daigle is now considered the biggest waste of NHL talent, with critics pointing to the former first overall draft pick never contributing more than 26 goals and 51 points in a season.
At the age of 25, Daigle reportedly said that he never wanted to play hockey, but he kept playing because it was his natural talent. It was clear that his heart was not in the game anymore, and he retired after the 1999-00 season. During his brief retirement he pursued being a Hollywood celebrity, briefly dating Pamela Anderson and playing on Cuba Gooding Jr.’s beer league hockey team.
Daigle returned to hockey in 2003 where he played one season with the Pittsburgh Penguins and two seasons with the Minnesota Wild. Daigle finished his career with 129 goals and a measly 327 points.
3 Real Cloutier
The name Real Cloutier is likely foreign to many hockey fans born within the last 30 years. But Cloutier was a skillful young skater who played with the Quebec Nordiques in the 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, the Nordiques were part of the World Hockey Association, a rival league, which later merged with the NHL. Cloutier played in the WHA for five seasons and was regarded as one of the top players in the league, scoring 283 goals and 566 points. Subsequently, in 1976, he was retained by the Nordiques when the WHA and NHL merged.
During the first three seasons that the Nordiques were in the NHL, Cloutier’s heavy drinking and party lifestyle became a burden on the Nordiques’ organization. Subsequently, Cloutier was the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade, orchestrated by legendary coach Scotty Bowman, which sent Cloutier to Buffalo in exchange for three players. Cloutier only played one full season in Buffalo because of his inability to put hockey before the booze and babes.
Cloutier retired at the age of 28 without ever fulfilling his potential.
2 Ilya Kovalchuk
I don’t think that there is any doubt that Kovalchuk was one of the top players in the NHL from 2002-2012, but from a management standpoint, his potential was wasted. Kovalchuk entered the league in the 2001-02 season with the Atlanta Thrashers. During his rookie season, Kovalchuk posted 29 goals and 51 points. Four years later, he had a career high 52 goals and 98 points. He was capable of completely taking over a game, and he should have set more records than he did. However, looking back on his NHL career, he was rarely surrounded by enough talent, and that was partly his own fault.
In July 2010, Kovalchuk was set to become a free agent. After engaging in talks with New Jersey Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello, Kovalchuk signed a 17-year, $102 million deal with the Devils. Ultimately, this was blocked by the league, and upon being denied by a neutral arbitrator, the NHL and NHLPA approved a 15-year, $100 million contract. However, due to the fact that the NHL found that the Devils tried to circumvent the salary cap, the Devils forfeited a third-round draft pick in 2011 and first round draft picks in the 2011 and 2012 drafts. These penalties undoubtedly hindered the Devils ability to provide Kovalchuk with young talent from the draft, and Kovalchuk’s greed may be partly to blame.
Kovalchuk is still playing in the KHL, where he signed a four-year deal worth nearly $15 million USD per year, with SKA St. Petersburg. Although there’s been some tension between Kovalchuk and his KHL team, and despite the collapse of the Russian Ruble, it doesn’t look like Kovalchuk will be returning to the NHL anytime soon.
1 Kent Nilsson
Kent the “Magic Man” Nilsson played nine seasons in the NHL and is currently a scout with the Florida Panthers. Wayne Gretzky called Nilsson the most skilled player he’d ever seen. There is no doubt that the Magic Man was a great hockey player - he had 131 points in his second year in the NHL. But he was lazy, and he would even admit it. Nilsson faced criticism for how he disappeared during big games when things got tough, especially during the playoffs. In fact, he rarely worked out and relied on his natural talent.
Nilsson won his first and only Stanley Cup with the Oilers in 1987, before returning to Europe to continue his playing career. Nilsson made a brief return to the NHL during the 1994-1995 season, but that only lasted six games. Nilsson scored 264 points and 422 assists during his time in the NHL. But one has to wonder what the Magic Man could have been had he been as dedicated and motivated as Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.