It’s been said that National Hockey League players can be divided into three categories: overrated, properly rated, and underrated. While what player falls into which category can, and does, change from year to year, what about the players that could have been better than what they were? The guys who, for some reason, never ended up getting past a hump in their career or plateaued early?
How do you classify a one year wonder, for example? Or someone who’s good for one year, terrible the next, then all of a sudden an All-Star?
Athletes are humans and their playing quality can change year to year for any number of reasons. Maybe they were injured or their teammates made them better than what they really were. Perhaps they’re dealing with personal issues off the ice that are affecting them or any other multitude of potential issues that are affecting them.
Whatever the reason, there are always guys in every sport that never lived up to their full potential. They’re not entirely to blame for this, as the media certainly has a habit of hyping athletes up from a young age and calling them the next best thing. But even the most casual fan can sometimes see when a player doesn’t quiet live up to their past accomplishments.
Unlike “bust,” “overrated” or even “underrated,” saying someone wasn’t as good as they could have been doesn’t necessarily mean the player was good or bad. Even Hall of Famers might have achieved more under different circumstances, and there are plenty of truly great players whose careers were cut short due to injury.
So, grab a glass of maple syrup and check out the Top 20 NHL Players That Should Have Been Better Than They Were.
20 Pavel Bure
While head injuries dominate the discussion in hockey, it was actually knee injuries that derailed Bure’s career. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012, many of us wondered how good Bure might have been if he wasn’t forced to retire in 2005 due to injury.
He retired in 2005, but he actually played his last game in 2003. That’s how bad knee injuries derailed his career.
A seven time All-Star, Bure was briefly a dominating force in the NHL. He scored 60 goals in 1994 with the Canucks and came close to that mark in 2000 and 2001 with the Panthers. For several seasons through his NHL career, he scored close to 100 points or more.
Sadly, three times in his 13 year NHL career, he played 15 games or less in a season and often struggled to return to form.
19 Erik Cole
After 13 seasons in the NHL and two different stints with the Carolina Hurricanes, Cole’s career might have come to an end with a spinal contusion injury. Cole is a legend in Carolina, but he never lived up to the expectations he created for himself.
Coming in to the league, much wasn’t expected of him, taken 71st overall in the 1998 Draft. But the Hurricanes made it to the playoffs in his rookie season and he would score 6 goals in the postseason. Four years later, he was chosen to represent Team USA in the 2006 Winter Olympics.
But injuries always kept him out. In 2006, the year the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup, Cole missed a majority of the season and only entered the Finals in Game 6. After being selected to play in the Olympics and winning the Stanley Cup, Cole’s career seemingly reached it’s ceiling, and he didn’t make much of an impact on the league since.
18 Wayne Babych
In the 80-81 season, Babych scored a whopping 54 goals for the St. Louis Blues. It seemed like dropping a #3 overall pick on him was a great idea for the Blues. It was his third season with the team and he was getting better every year.
However, after that wonderful season, Babych went downhill fast. He would never again score more than 20 goals in a single season and became a journeyman in the league, playing for now long non-existent teams such as the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers.
17 Bobby Carpenter
Carpenter was taken 3rd overall in 1981 and was the first American born player to be taken in the first round. Luckily, his play over the years didn’t diminish the accomplishments of American born players too much.
In a long 18 year career, he scored 320 goals, but 54 of them came in a single season, back in 1984-85. He won a Stanley Cup in 1995 with the Devils and holds the record for the quickest assist by a player in their first game.
These are all impressive stats for any player, but considering he was taken so high in the draft, his skill greatly diminished after only four/five seasons.
16 Pat LaFontaine
You can’t score 1,013 points in 865 games if you’re not any good. At the same time, you don’t miss 60 games or more four times in your career and retire early if you’re not chronically injured. LaFontaine is one of the most underrated players in history and you can see why.
The most he can brag about, besides the points, is his five All-Star selections. He played in the 1984 Olympics for Team USA, but didn’t win a medal, nor did he ever win a Stanley Cup or even play in the Finals.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003, but less injuries could have got him in sooner and with a lot more awards to show off.
15 Ron Francis
Francis is another legend in Carolina, as well as Pittsburgh, but he never earned the respect he deserved outside those two teams. He won two titles with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992, and played in another in 2002 with the Hurricanes. If he didn’t retire at the end of 2004, he could have won a title in 2006.
Some would argue the captain was in the right place at the right time (winning his titles with Jagr/Lemieux), even though his stats are eye popping (1,798 points in 1,731 games).
Francis somehow never played in the Olympics and only has two Stanley Cups, something keeping him out of the “greatest of all time” discussion. If he won a few more Cups and went to the Olympics, no one would have any trouble comparing him to the Gretzky's and Lemieux's.
14 Cam Ward
Not to pick on Hurricane fans, but Cam Ward’s performance has steadily dropped over the last five years. After winning the Cup in 2006, got better as a goalie, putting together some good years between 2006 to 2009.
Since then, Ward has fallen apart. He lost more games than he won for the first time in 2010 and had a good return in 2011, before losing it in 2012 and failing to come back. In the 2013-14 season, he was demoted to the AHL after injury, ranking 47th out of 51 goaltenders in save percentage in 30 games. There's still time for time to turn it around at the age of 30, but if he continues on this path, he'll definitely be deserving of his inclusion at the end of his career.
13 Brandon Sutter
I swear, I’m not picking on you Hurricane fans, you’ve just had a lot of underperforming players on your team over the last few years.
Sutter would replace Jordan Staal with the Penguins in the 2012-13 season. In three years, he’s failed to hit 40 points, something Staal did four times with the Penguins and has done once with the Hurricanes.
The young center’s had a great career outside the NHL. He played for Canada twice in the Under 18 Tournament, reaching the Bronze medal game both times. He played in the 2008 World Junior Championship where he helped Canada win a gold medal.
Sutter has been known to flourish late in the season with the Penguins and helped with the playoff push this last season. Given his success outside the NHL and the initial success in his first few years, there’s no good reason Sutter isn’t a young icon and All-Star yet.
12 Steve Moore
It’s fair to say that Steve Moore’s career was stolen from him by Todd Bertuzzi. Moore was in his third season in the NHL and was just finding his feet in the league, when he was attacked by Bertuzzi.
Todd Bertuzzi tried to incite a fight with Moore, but when he failed, he struck Moore in the back of the head, sending him flying to the ground. Moore’s head bounced on the ice. Bertuzzi was then attacked by Moore’s teammate, sending Bertuzzi falling on to the unconscious Moore.
Moore was unconscious for ten minutes before he was taken off the ice on a stretcher. The attack resulted in three broken vertebrae and a concussion. The injury was so bad it ended Moore’s career.
11 Eric Lindros
The Philadelphia Flyers traded most of their team in order to acquire Eric Lindros. By the time he retired, you could see why they believed in him. He averaged more than a point per game in his career, was a six-time All-Star and won a gold medal at the Olympics for Canada.
However, Lindros had a long history of concussions. His first came in 1998 and for the following two years he missed a handful of games because of it. He retired in 2007, but his last great year came in the 2001/02 season. After that, it was a rash of injuries and missed time. Another really good player, who could have been great.
10 Al Montoya
Al Montoya is a bust in every sense of the word. He was selected 6th overall by the Rangers in 2004, the first Cuban-American to be drafted by the NHL. He was a star at the University of Michigan and was a wall in the 2004 World Junior Hockey Championships, helping the team win gold.
Despite being drafted by the Rangers, he never played a game for them, as his career in the minor leagues was so mediocre. He was eventually picked by the Coyotes and bounced around with them, the Islanders, the Jets, and now the Panthers as a backup. His success early on didn’t translate to an NHL career.
9 Benoit Pouliot
The year after the Rangers grabbed a bust in Montoya, the Wild did the same with Benoit Pouliot, taken even higher at #4.
After nine seasons in the NHL, he’s scored 194 points and 95 goals. He was supposed to be a goal scoring machine after his time in the OHL, even nabbing the Canadian Hockey League rookie of the year award over Sidney Crosby in 2005. But that’s when the awards stopped coming for Pouliot.
Since then, he’s had a middling career in the NHL, becoming a decent checking line forward to save himself from the bench. Since he was drafted, he’s played for the Wild, Canadiens, Bruins, Lightning, Rangers, and Oilers, quite an accomplishment for someone in the league nine years.
8 Jim Carey
Jim Carey (no. not that one) is either a case of a one hit wonder or an elite rookie failing to live up to the hype. Carey gave the Capitals with a great season in 94-95, winning 18 games and being named to the All-Rookie team. The next year, he was shutting down teams and winning an impressive 35 games, capping his year off with the Vezina Trophy.
After those first two years, it looked like Carey was going to keep his pace and become one of the top goalies in the sport. Unfortunately, his career took a nose dive after that and he wasn’t able to be that injection of talent for his team again.
He was traded to Boston midway through his third year and that’s when the wheels fell off. He won only eight games for the Bruins while losing fifteen. After an abysmal stint in the minor leagues, he briefly made a comeback with the Blues, but again, he wasn’t able to provide anything useful.
7 Mike Bullard
Mike Bullard is one of those players whose numbers suffered when a great player arrived. In his case, it was Mario Lemieux. In the 83-84 season, the year before Lemieux got to Pittsburgh, Bullard led the team with 92 points and 51 goals. The next year, he was down to 63 points and 32 goals.
He only played three more years with the Penguins before bouncing around with the Flames, Blues, and Flyers. Even when Lemieux was stealing his spark, he still had a few good seasons. Arguably his best season came not with the Penguins, but the Flames when he scored 103 points.
But leaving Pittsburgh affectively ended his career. He was always inconsistent and he never got much of a chance at any one place, for whatever reason.
6 Josef Vašíček
Vašíček was drafted 91st overall by the Hurricanes in 1998. He hit his stride in the league in the 2001-2002 season and only got better from there. He was there when the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup, but he didn’t play much that year due to a major knee injury.
Injury cut his time with the Hurricanes short in 06-07 and he signed with the Islanders.
He had a few good seasons in the NHL and he was always on the cusp of being great, but injuries kept holding him back.
He was playing for the Russian team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in 2011, when a plane carrying the team to their opening day match crashed, killing everyone on board. He was only 30 years old and never got that last chance at the NHL.
5 Viacheslav Fetisov
Fetisov was a dominating force in the days of the Soviet Union. He was part of the Soviet team that lost to the US in the Miracle on Ice game. However, other than the famous upset, the Soviet team was the best team in the world.
He wanted to play in the NHL later in his career, but his country wouldn’t let him.
It wasn’t until he was 31 that he was able to enter the NHL and get drafted by the Devils. He scored 42 points but only 8 goals, which ended up being his career highs in the league. By the time he finally got drafted, he was well past his prime. What could have been if he were allowed to play in the US (or Canada) ten years earlier?
Fetisov is now a senator in Russia, where he’s good friends with Vladamir Putin. Oddly, he’s all in favor of bring back the old Soviet rules that restrict players from playing in the NHL. If that’s not bitterness, I don’t know what is.
4 Vladimir Konstantinov
Vladimir Konstantinov was a former teammate of Fetisov’s, both in Soviet Russia and with the Detroit Red Wings. He too suffered the same problems getting into the NHL, but he was drafted by Detroit in 1991 and was 24 when he played his first game.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 1997, Konstantinov was partying with teammates in a limo, including Fetisov. The driver of the limousine was driving with a suspended license when he lost control of the vehicle and crashed. His teammates walked away with a few injuries, but Konstantinov wasn’t so lucky.
He was in a coma for several weeks and when he woke up doctors discovered he was paralyzed. Sadly, his career was over then, but he remains an inspiration for how he's lived his life.
3 Joé Juneau
In his second year in the league, Juneau scored 102 points behind 32 goals and 70 assists for the Bruins. The next year he had 72 points. He looked like he was well on his way to becoming an All-Star when the Capitals traded for him.
The Capitals had no idea they were trading for a two hit wonder. Juneau scored more than 50 points once more in his journeyman career and he missed multiple games throughout his career due to injury or getting benched outright.
Perhaps you can’t expect much from someone taken in the fourth round, but after they put up a couple of great seasons like he did, your expectations start to rise. Sadly for Juneau, he wasn’t able to keep it up.
2 Nikita Filatov
The 6th overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Filatov played only eight games in 2008. He was angry about the lack of playing time, so he convinced the team to let him go back to Russia to play. He would spend the next three years going back and forth between the Blue Jackets, Russia, and the minor leagues.
Finally, Columbus traded him to the Senators where he played nine games.
Filatov hasn’t done anything in years, no matter where he is, to show he’ll ever be worth the sixth overall pick. If he could've got over his attitude problem in the NHL, he might have been a decent player, but, instead, he’s arguably the biggest draft bust in NHL history.
1 Rick DiPietro
Filatov is thanking his stars that Rick DiPietro is around because he’s more likely to be considered the biggest bust of them all.
DiPietro was the second goalie in NHL history to be taken #1 overall in 2000. DiPietro was lauded for his speed and maneuverability, which is why the Islanders took him so high. He struggled when he got in the league, winning only three games his rookie year while losing fifteen. He was sent to the minor’s for two years, where he improved a little, but that improvement didn’t translate to the pros.
On top of that, he was constantly dealing with knee and groin injuries that kept him out of the lineup.
Despite his mediocrity, the Islanders were forced to hold on to him, given how much they’ve invested. How much, you ask? Not only did they spend the first overall pick on him, but the team also traded away another young goalie to make room for him, Roberto Luongo.