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First Isn’t Often Best: A Quick Look at Past First Overall NHL Draft Picks

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With the New Jersey Devils selecting first overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, this post looks back at previous first overall selections since 1970 to explain that the first guy isn’t often the best guy in that draft class.

2016 NHL Draft - Portraits
Last year’s first overall pick: Auston Matthews. Arguably the top guy after a mere one year after their draft.
Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images

I don’t know if you know this, but the New Jersey Devils have the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. This Friday, we will learn whether the Devils will choose Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, or someone else entirely. It’s the first time the Devils have ever had the first pick in their history in New Jersey. Given the state of the team and where it is in terms of rebuilding the roster, this selection pretty much has to be a success. In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem. The first player picked would surely be the best prospective player in that year’s draft class.

Perhaps so when it comes time to select the player. However, history and hindsight show that the first overall pick does not often turn out to be the definitive best player in that year’s draft class.

Thanks to HockeyDB, I went through the last 47 drafts from 1970 through to 2016. 2016 is obviously the most recent NHL Draft to identify who the past first overall picks were and quickly see if they were really the best in their draft class. Even though the NHL Draft began as an amateur draft in 1963, teams were still obtaining prospects through a sponsorship system. That is, NHL teams owned a junior team and the players on those teams would effectively be prospects for that team. That system went away in 1969. That was also the last year where Montreal was allowed to draft two Quebec-based prospects ahead of everyone else in the draft. Therefore, I started with 1970 for a true “first overall” pick.

As for determining if they were the best, this was more or less a quick check. There can be - and should be! - arguments made over whether Patrick Roy was really the best player to come out in the 1984 Draft. And Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull were outstanding players. But that was the same draft class led by Mario Lemieux, who is arguably the second greatest player ever. So I would put Lemieux in the definitive category. It’s a quick look, not a full-on analysis of 47 draft classes.

As it turned out, in only 9 out of 47 drafts did the #1 pick really stand out above all else. You may disagree with these choices and want to include others, but the larger point remains. Being first often doesn’t mean being the best:

The 1st Overall Picks That Turned Out to be the Best Player in their Draft Class

  • Gilbert Perreault, C, 1970, Buffalo
  • Denis Potvin, D, 1973, NY Islanders
  • Bobby Smith, C, 1978, Minnesota
  • Mario Lemieux, C, 1984, Pittsburgh
  • Alex Ovechkin, LW, 2004, Washington
  • Sidney Crosby, C, 2005, Pittsburgh
  • Patrick Kane, RW, 2007, Chicago
  • John Tavares, C, 2009, NY Islanders
  • Connor McDavid, C, 2015, Edmonton

Not only is this list somewhat short, it’s also somewhat recent. After the first one, there was one other in the 1970s, one in the 1980s, and none until the Ovechkin-led class of 2005. There’s still some time for some changes (Victor Hedman over Tavares?). Especially with the last one. Although, it’s going to take a lot to jump McDavid since McDavid is one of two players in that recent year that surpassed 100 points and he’s got Jack Eichel beat by 35 points at the moment. Further analysis may break this down further, but it’s not at all common where the first overall pick turns out to be a clear-cut best player.

That said, there were more cases were maybe the first overall pick wasn’t the very best in that draft class but an argument could be made that they were. I counted 15 of those instances, with a good number of them being in recent drafts.

The 1st Overall Picks That Turned Out to be Arguably the Best Player in their Draft Class

  • Guy Lafleur, RW, 1971, Montreal
  • Dale Hawerchuk, C, 1981, Winnipeg
  • Mike Modano, C, 1988, Minnesota
  • Mats Sundin, C, 1989, Quebec
  • Eric Lindros, C, 1991, Quebec
  • Roman Hamrlik, D, 1992, Tampa Bay
  • Joe Thornton, C, 1997, Boston
  • Vincent Lecavalier, C, 1998, Tampa Bay
  • Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, 2001, Atlanta
  • Rick Nash, LW, 2002, Columbus
  • Steve Stamkos, C, 2008, Tampa Bay
  • Taylor Hall, LW, 2010, Edmonton
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, 2011, Edmonton
  • Nathan MacKinnon, C, 2013, Colorado
  • Auston Matthews, C, 2016, Toronto

This list contains some Hall of Fame players, some potential Hall of Fame players, and some really good players in between. How could they not be considered the very best in their respective draft classes? Simple. There were other top tier players around. For example, Guy Lafleur is a Montreal legend and sure-fire all-time great. Marcel Dionne, who didn’t get to enjoy playing on one of the best dynasties in the world, also was picked in 1971 and finished in the top-ten all-time in scoring. That year also saw Larry Robinson, one of the greatest defensemen ever. It isn’t clear cut, so he’s on this list.

In some of these player’s cases, there was one player that stood out that could be easily or not-so-easily argued to have been a better player. 1981 was led by Dale Hawerchuk, who is a Hall of Famer. That class also included Chris Chelios, Al MacInnis, and Ron Francis, who each could be argued as the superior player. In 1989, there was Sergei Fedorov in that class. Kovalchuk hasn’t gone away, but Jason Spezza may have ended up being the better pick. The 2002 class was led by Rick Nash, but it also gave the NHL Duncan Keith, one of the best contemporary defensemen. We’ve seen Stamkos score a ton since 2008, but we’ve also seen the magic of Eric Karlsson from that same class. While Nathan MacKinnon won a Calder, it’s arguable that Sean Monahan is superior given that he has more goals and points. Even Auston Matthews hasn’t (yet) pulled away from Patrick Laine in his very young career.

In others, there’s a group of players that could be called better. Modano turned out to be one of the best American players ever, but the 1988 draft class also had one of the best Finnish players ever in Teemu Selanne on top of the awe-inspiring production of Mark Recchi. Eric Lindros may have been the can’t-miss prospect, but Scott Niedermayer, Peter Forsberg, and a wizard named Ray Whitney turned out to be studs from the 1991 class. Roman Hamrlik turned out to be a work horse of a defender, but Sergei Gonchar was superior in production and Jere Lehitinen became an ace defensive forward. Joe Thornton is a future Hall of Famer, but so should be Marian Hossa - and one shouldn’t discount Roberto Luongo either from 1997. Vincent Lecavalier ended up being the top scorer in the 1998 class but was he truly better than Pavel Datsyuk or fellow Lightning teammate, Brad Richards? It remains to be seen if Nugent-Hopkins ends up ahead or with a small group of Gabriel Landeskog, Johnny Gaudreau, and Mark Schiefele.

You may disagree with some of these quick assessments. You may even disagree; that some of these arguably the best players were really the best. Again, the larger point is that being the very best is not common. And even if you combined this group of fifteen with the other group of nine, it totals just over half of the last 47 NHL Drafts.

So what of those other 23 drafts? We can split it up between those players that weren’t the best but were still good and those that really weren’t. You may call the latter, the busts.

The 1st Overall Picks That Turned Out to be Good but Not the Best Player in their Draft Class

  • Billy Harris, RW, 1972, NY Islanders
  • Mel Bridgman, C, 1975, Philadelphia
  • Rick Green, D, 1976, Washington
  • Dale McCourt, C, 1977, Detroit
  • Rob Ramage, D, 1979, Colorado
  • Wendel Clark, LW, 1985, Toronto
  • Joe Murphy, RW, 1986, Detroit
  • Pierre Turgeon, 1987, Buffalo
  • Owen Nolan, RW, 1990, Quebec
  • Ed Jovanovski, D, 1994, Florida
  • Bryan Berard, D, 1995, Ottawa
  • Chris Phillips, D, 1996, Ottawa
  • Marc-Andre Fleury, G, 2003, Pittsburgh
  • Erik Johnson, D, 2006, Colorado
  • Aaron Ekblad, D, 2014, Florida

This list of 15 players includes some seriously good players. Turgeon nearly cracked the 1,400-point plateau. Nolan had a long career and appeared in five All-Star games. Rob Ramage - Colorado’s first and only first overall pick - was long-standing defender in the NHL. Ditto for Jovanovski and Phillips. Wendel Clark is a cult hero of sorts in Toronto. Fleury has been a building block for the Pittsburgh franchise that we now see as one of the better teams in the league. Others were just solid NHL players for quite some time, like Johnson, Bridgman, Harris, McCourt, and Murphy. The jury may be out on Ekblad, but we’ll see.

Problem is that there were just vastly superior players in the same years they went first overall. Bill Barber came out in 1972. Dave Taylor and Dennis Maruk were late picks in 1975, but they turned out to be the better players. Bernie Federko turned out to be the star out of the 1976 draft class (plus Mike Liut and Kent Nilsson among others). Mike Bossy came out in 1977. Joe Nieuwendyk and Igor Larionov was picked in 1985 and did more than Clark ever did. Jovanovski’s class included Daniel Alfredsson and Patrik Elias; Berard’s class provided the league with Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla; and Phillip’s year wasn’t strong but it had Zdeno Chara. Ramage, Nolan, and Fleury each led draft classes that ended up being loaded with talent that out-shined them then and perhaps now. As for Ekblad, I don’t think he’s really become a top defender and that class includes Dylan Larkin, David Pasternak, Leon Draisaitl, and Nikolaj Ehlers - who are all hitting their stride.

Some of these players are much better than others, but what should be agreed upon is that all fifteen of them did better than these eight:

The 1st Overall Picks That Turned Out to Be Not So Good

  • Greg Joly, D, 1974, Washington
  • Doug Wickenheiser, C, 1980, Montreal
  • Gord Kluzak, D, 1982, Boston
  • Brian Lawton, LW, 1983, Minnesota
  • Alexandre Daigle, RW, 1993, Ottawa
  • Patrik Stefan, C, 1999, Atlanta
  • Rick DiPietro, G, 2000, NY Islanders
  • Nail Yakupov, RW, 2012, Edmonton

Blame it on injury (definitely in the case of DiPietro and Kluzak). Blame it on the situation they entered into (probably in Joly’s case). Blame it on expectations just not bearing out (Wickenheiser, Lawton, Stefan, Daigle, and Yakupov). Blame it on what you like. These players just didn’t measure up as first overall picks. So much so that so many other player surpassed them that it would not be worth it to mention them all.

Yakupov is still in the NHL and could still salvage his status. I’d like to think he still has some talent. But after this past season and realizing he has a lower point per game rate than Erik Johnson, I have to include him in this ignoble group.

The Larger Point, Revisited

From the headline of those post, the main point of this post is to highlight that the first overall pick in the NHL Draft is usually not the best player in that draft. History and hindsight of the last 47 drafts have borne that out - even with a good number of those draft classes being so recent that things could conceivably change in a few years. I counted 9 out of 47 and you may not even agree with that number. Maybe more, maybe even less. But it isn’t common that #1 is better than all of the 200+ young men being picked in their respective year. With respect to this year’s NHL Draft, it’s not a guarantee that Nico or Nolan (or someone else) would end up being the best guy to come out of the 2017 class.

But it is also true from hindsight and history that it is more common and more likely that the first overall pick will become at least a good, solid NHL player at first overall. Disappointments are not as common as out-right successes. Some other prospect ending up as the best player in the 2017 draft does not mean that whoever the Devils will take won’t be an all-star caliber player. Or that they won’t become a long-standing fixture of the team to help them re-build and eventually triumph. Or that they won’t be a franchise legend. Provided the first overall pick isn’t beset by injuries and doesn’t develop to anything like they were projected, history and hindsight suggests they’ll be somebody good for the Devils. That should be what determines if Friday’s pick was a success. That should be the expectation for this historical selection for the franchise. That is the larger point.