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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
5 Tampa Bay Lightning: Alexander Svitov (2001)
Denis Savard. Pat LaFontaine. Scott Niedermayer. Henrik Sedin. Marian Gaborik. Jonathan Toews. Matt Duchene. Alexander Svitov.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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