In order for a team to be successful, it’s essential that it drafts well. Sure, you can round out the roster by making a few savvy trades here and there, but largely, a team’s success depends on its drafting.
Some clubs have built dynasties through drafting. The Detroit Red Wings were a powerhouse for the better part of two decades, and a lot of that had to do with how well they drafted, especially past the first round. But, just like every other team, they’ve had a few duds in their day.
Today’s list hones in on just that: the busts; the players that were highly touted by scouts in their draft years, but simply never panned out. Guys that lit up the scoresheet in major junior hockey, but whose offensive skills didn’t translate well to the NHL. Heck, high picks whose careers were cut short by injury.
In compiling this list, I only went as far back as the 1979 draft, as that was the first one after the WHA/NHL merger. For a player to qualify for the list, they had to have been a first round draft selection (which makes sense, because they’re really the only ones who are fully expected to have a hockey career).
So, here it is: each franchise’s worst draft pick since the 1979 WHA/NHL merger. Some picks were more obvious than others, but every player on this list has one thing in common: they were huge disappointments to the team that drafted them, and to the scouts who watched them before turning pro.
30 Anaheim Ducks: Stanislav Chistov (2001)
In 2001, the Anaheim Ducks held the fifth overall pick in the draft, and with it they selected Russian Stanislav Chistov. The winger only played 196 games in the NHL, racking up 61 points—not nearly satisfactory for a fifth overall pick.
Chistov has since defected to Russia, but he goes down as the worst pick in Ducks history so far. Players picked after him in the first round in 2001 include Mikko Koivu (6th), Mike Komisarek (7th), Dan Hamhuis (12th), Ales Hemsky (13th) and R.J. Umberger (16th).
29 Arizona Coyotes: Patrick DesRochers (1998)
Even if we were to include the original Winnipeg Jets history, this still stands out as the franchise's worst pick. Picking goaltenders in the first round of the NHL draft is always a risky maneuver, and the Phoenix Coyotes’ selection of G Patrick DesRochers 14th overall in 1998 turned out to be a flop.
The Ontario native saw action in just 11 NHL games in his career. Players selected in the first round after him include Robyn Regehr, Simon Gagne and Scott Gomez.
28 Boston Bruins: Gord Kluzak (1982)
I’d like to qualify this by saying—at the time of the selection—nobody could have known that injuries would hold defenseman Gord Kluzak to just 299 NHL games. Still, though; that unfortunate stroke of luck means he’s Boston’s worst pick since the WHA/NHL merger.
Of all first overall picks from 1979 to 1999, the average amount of games played is 916. Kluzak is the only one under 300 games played, and only two other skaters under 500 (they both appear on this list). Players who were picked after Kluzak include Brian Bellows, Scott Stevens, Phil Housley and Dave Andreychuk.
27 Buffalo Sabres: Joel Savage (1988)
Every season, most teams select a player in the first round with hopes that he will become a key building block for the franchise for years to come. When the Buffalo Sabres selected winger Joel Savage 13th overall in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, they were certainly hoping to get more than three games of work out of him.
The 1988 draft wasn’t an embarrassment of riches, but Savage is one of just three players with fewer than 10 NHL games on his resume from the first round that year; the other two were selected after Savage, making him the biggest bomb of the draft.
26 Calgary Flames: Daniel Tkaczuk (1997)
Holding the sixth overall pick can be huge for a franchise. It’s still high enough that a team can reasonably expect to draft an impact player who will contribute for many years. When the Calgary Flames selected center Daniel Tkaczuk sixth overall in 1997, they were let down.
Tkaczuk saw action in only 19 NHL games before defecting to Europe. Later first round selections that the Flames passed up on include Sergei Samsonov and Marian Hossa.
25 Carolina Hurricanes (Hartford Whalers): Fred Arthur (1980)
The Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers franchise hasn’t really made any egregious drafting flubs since the merger, but in 1980 they held the 8th overall pick and with it selected defenseman Fred Arthur.
Arthur played a measly three games for the Whalers, and played 77 more games for the Flyers before calling it a day to pursue a career in medicine. A novel approach for sure, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was a bust for the Whalers.
24 Chicago Blackhawks: Cam Barker (2004)
The Chicago Blackhawks were a pretty bad team in the early 2000s, but those bad teams yielded a lot of great high draft picks that are still contributing to Chicago’s mini-dynasty today. In 2004, however, they held the third-overall pick, and with it they chose defenseman Cam Barker.
Barker’s NHL career actually got off to a decent start, but it fizzled out in a big way. Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were the players selected before Barker that year. The ‘Hawks didn’t have to look too far down the draft list for some much better players; Andrew Ladd was picked fourth, and Blake Wheeler went fifth.
23 Colorado Avalanche (Quebec Nordiques): Daniel Dore (1988)
In 1988, the Quebec Nordiques held the fifth overall pick. With it they selected Daniel Dore, who turned out to be a total flop and only laced up for 17 NHL games. This was a pretty solid draft year, and the Nordiques truly squandered this pick.
Let’s put it this way: the 8th, 9th and 10th picks that year (Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour and Teemu Selanne) combined for 4,298 games and 3,857 points.
22 Columbus Blue Jackets: Nikolai Zhredev (2003)
The 2003 draft is recognized as perhaps the deepest in history. The Columbus Blue Jackets held the fourth pick that season, and they used it to select Russian Nikolai Zherdev.
Zherdev actually had a decent NHL career, but when you look back at what the Blue Jackets left on the table by picking Zherdev, it’s pretty clear that this pick hurt the organization. They chose Zherdev over Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Jeff Carter, Brent Seabrook, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kelser.
21 Dallas Stars (Minnesota North Stars): Brian Lawton (1983)
Brian Lawton was a bust for the Minnesota North Stars after they selected him first overall in 1983. He still managed to play almost 500 NHL games, but for a first overall pick that’s pretty underwhelming. What’s worse is who went third and fourth that year.
With the third pick, the Islanders chose Pat LaFontaine; with the fourth pick, the Detroit Red Wings selected a man named Steve Yzerman.
20 Detroit Red Wings: Kory Kocur (1988)
The Detroit Red Wings have not had very many high picks since the merger, and the ones they did have they pretty much nailed. So, the Red Wings representative on this list is 1988 first round pick Kory Kocur, who went 17th overall that season.
It wasn’t the best draft year, but there were only two players who were selected in the first round that failed to play at least one NHL game, and Kocur was one of them.
19 Edmonton Oilers: Steve Kelly (1995)
Edmonton had an atrocious decade of drafting in the 1990s, and there were a lot of candidates for this spot. In the end I had to go with Steve Kelly, partially based on the circumstance of the pick.
It was 1995, and Edmonton was the host city of the draft that year. When it came time for the Oilers to make their selection (6th overall), the crowd was chanting for GM Glen Sather to call out Alberta boy Shane Doan’s name. Rather, Sather picked Steve Kelly, and Doan went to the Winnipeg Jets (Arizona Coyotes).
Doan has played almost 1,400 games and registered almost 900 points, all with one franchise. Kelly played 149 career games for five different teams and scored nine goals.
18 Florida Panthers: Petr Taticek (2002)
Whenever you “earn” a top-10 pick in the draft, you want to make sure you land a solid player, because you likely need it. The Florida Panthers held the 9th overall pick in 2002, and their selection of Petr Taticek was a swing-and-a-miss.
From 1979 to 2002, only 40 skaters who were picked in the top-10 failed to play at least 250 NHL games. If you set the cut-off at 100 games, just 22 skaters failed to reach that milestone. Taticek saw action in just three games, the fifth-least of all top-10 picks since the merger.
17 Los Angeles Kings: Craig Duncanson (1985)
Much like Taticek in 2002, Craig Duncanson was another bust of a 9th overall pick. His name was called by then-GM Rogie Vachon, and he went on to become the biggest bust in Kings draft history.
The left winger saw action in just 38 games over his career, spread out over eight seasons. His boxcars (5-4-9) are a pretty good indication as to why Duncanson never saw more action. The bulk of his professional career was spent in the AHL and IHL.
16 Minnesota Wild: A.J. Thelen (2004)
The Minnesota Wild was still a young franchise in 2004, so their draft picks were all that much more important. They’d made the playoffs once in their history at this point, but they really needed to find a contributor with their 12th overall pick that year.
Unfortunately, they chose defenseman A.J. Thelen, and he turned out to be a bust. He was a college player when he was drafted, and he never played a single game in the NHL.
15 Montreal Canadiens: Doug Wickenheiser (1980)
In 1980, when the Montreal Canadiens held the first pick in the draft, Habs fans were hoping that GM Irving Grundman would pick budding Francophone star Denis Savard. Instead, the Canadiens picked center Doug Wickenheiser.
Wickenheiser is widely considered to be one of the biggest first-overall busts in NHL history. He only played in 556 games, his career high in points was 55, and he retired from the NHL at the age of 29. Savard, on the other hand, went third overall to the Blackhawks and scored 1,338 points in 1,198 games.
14 Nashville Predators: Brian Finley (1999)
The Nashville Predators franchise had just completed its first season in the NHL, and it held the sixth overall pick in the 1999 entry draft. With it, they grabbed who they hoped was to become their first franchise goaltender, Brian Finley.
The problem with picking goalies so early in the draft is that they’re often difficult to forecast. Such was the issue with Finley, and he only ended up suiting up for four NHL games: two with the Preds, and another two with the Bruins. He retired without a single NHL win.
13 New Jersey Devils: Neil Brady (1986)
It was 1986, just two years after Wayne Gretzky famously referred to New Jersey as a “Mickey Mouse” organization, and the Devils held the third overall pick. They didn’t do themselves any favors when they used it to pick centerman Neil Brady from the Medicine Hat Tigers.
Brady saw action in just 89 NHL games, and he spent the bulk of his pro career bouncing around various teams’ farm clubs. A few picks after Brady, both Vincent Damphousse and Brian Leetch were selected.
12 New York Islanders: Dave Chyzowski (1989)
First round picks are important for every team, every draft year. But if you hold the second overall pick, you better pick up an impact player. The New York Islanders have had a lot of draft busts, but their second overall selection of Dave Chyzowski is probably their biggest. (Honorable mention goes to Rick DiPietro, of course.)
After an incredible junior career with the Kamloops Blazers, Chyzowski never panned out in the NHL. A junior-level offensive dynamo, he notched just 31 points in his 126 games of NHL action. After spending years struggling to stick in the NHL, Chyzowski finally cut his losses and went to Europe in 2000 to finish his playing career.
11 New York Rangers: Pavel Brendl (1999)
For some reason, the first round of the 1999 draft yielded more than its fair share of busts, and Rangers’ fourth overall pick Pavel Brendl definitely qualifies as one.
Brendl enjoyed a stellar junior career with the Calgary Hitmen, producing 245 points in 129 games over two seasons. His offensive instincts didn’t translate well to the NHL game, however, and he went to play in Europe after a brief NHL career of just 78 games.
10 Ottawa Senators: Alexandre Daigle (1992)
“Nobody remembers who was chosen no. 2.”
That was what Alexandre Daigle said just days before the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. He ended up going first overall to the Ottawa Senators, and a guy named Chris Pronger went second. Which one do you remember best?
Daigle has gone down in history as one of the most disappointing first overall picks ever. Touted as a can’t-miss prospect, turns out he was quite a miss. He played in 616 games, and recorded only 327 points—not close to even average first overall production.
9 Philadelphia Flyers: Ryan Sittler (1992)
Sometimes, players get selected higher in drafts because of who they are, and not necessarily what they did. I wasn’t a pro scout in the early 1990s (or ever), but something tells me Ryan Sittler was picked 7th overall by the Flyers in 1992 partially because of who his father is.
The son of Leafs legend Darryl Sittler, Ryan never managed to lace up the skates in the NHL for a single game, which is a monumental disappointment for a 7th overall pick, making him the biggest bust for the Flyers since the merger.
8 Pittsburgh Penguins: Roger Belanger (1984)
It was pretty difficult to find a high draft pick that the Penguins truly failed on since the merger, so I went with 1984's 16th overall pick Roger Belanger. Belanger was a centerman who battled injuries for most of his career and was forced to retire just four years after being drafted.
He did manage to play in 44 NHL games, although they weren’t productive (he managed just eight points). Immediately after the Pens picked Belanger, all-star Kevin Hatcher went off the board to the Washington Capitals.
7 San Jose Sharks: Teemu Riihijarvi (1995)
Although playoff success has eluded the Sharks for the franchise’s entire history, the organization has been well-run for many years, and they’ve rarely missed on their high draft picks. In 1995, they held the 12th overall pick, and with it they took a chance on Finn Teemu Riihijarvi, which did not pay off.
Riihijarvi is one of just two first round Sharks draft picks from 1991 to 2013 who never appeared in a single NHL game.
6 St. Louis Blues: Keith Osborne (1987)
The St. Louis Blues only made 12 first round selections from 1979 to 2002, so there wasn’t a lot to choose from. In 1987, they selected Keith Osborne 12th overall.
The right winger only saw action in 16 games, which is underwhelming for a first round draft choice regardless of where he was chosen. He managed just four points in his NHL career before playing out his days in various farm leagues. Just to rub it in, I’ll mention that Joe Sakic was selected three picks later.
5 Tampa Bay Lightning: Alexander Svitov (2001)
Denis Savard. Pat LaFontaine. Scott Niedermayer. Henrik Sedin. Marian Gaborik. Jonathan Toews. Matt Duchene. Alexander Svitov.
All of these players have one thing in common: they were selected 3rd overall in their draft year. Unfortunately for the Lightning, Svitov was a bust, playing in only 179 NHL games before being spit out the bottom of the minors and finishing his playing career in Europe. That makes him the biggest draft bust in Lightning history.
4 Toronto Maple Leafs: Brandon Convery (1992)
The Toronto Maple Leafs have had a lot of brutal trades in recent history, but you have to look a little harder to find high draft busts (often because they’ve traded a high pick away for a lesser return, but I digress).
In 1992, the Leafs selected center Brandon Convery 8th overall. Playing in only 72 NHL games (50 with Toronto), Convery is one of just 22 skaters who went in the top-10 from 1979 to 2002 to not play in at least 100 NHL games.
3 Vancouver Canucks: Jason Herter (1989)
In 1989, the Vancouver Canucks selected defenseman Jason Herter 8th overall in the draft. As with any top-10 pick, they were hoping they found a key building block for the club’s future. What they actually found was a dud.
Herter played one lonely game in the NHL, and it was in the 1995-96 season with the New York Islanders. After Herter was picked, names like Bobby Holik, Mike Sillinger and Olaf Kolzig went off the board in the first round.
2 Washington Capitals: Alexander Volchkov (1996)
If you look at the Washington Capitals draft strategy in years past, it seems they have a propensity to pick Russians. In 1996 they held the 4th overall pick and with it they chose Russian Alexander Volchkov.
Now, 1996 was by far (IMO) the weakest draft year since the merger (only two selections from the first round have even played in an all-star game—Marco Sturm and Daniel Briere), but to have your 4th overall selection appear in just three NHL games is still a major disappointment, regardless of the year.
1 Winnipeg Jets (Atlanta Thrashers): Patrik Stefan (1999)
You know it’s bad when a first overall pick is more remembered for the above gaffe than he is for his playing prowess.
Patrik Stefan was selected first overall in 1999 by the Atlanta Thrashers, and he’s easily one of the biggest busts of all first overall picks since the merger. Selected right after them were the Sedin twins, and the fact that they have, between them, two Art Ross trophies and a Hart, I’d say they’ve faired a bit better than Stefan.
After struggling to put up even decent numbers for his whole career (455 GP, 64-124-188), Stefan retired from the NHL in 2007, just eight years after he was the most highly anticipated prospect in his age group.