Is the First Overall Pick Always the Best Player in the Draft?

An interesting question indeed. After-all, the league did revamp the draft lottery rules in an effort to stop teams from tanking on purpose. The Oilers are in a unique situation to be sure. Not since the Quebec Nordiques from 1989-1991 has a team chosen first overall in three consecutive years. Edmonton accomplished that feat in the lottery era (2010-12), and won it again this past summer to make it four in six seasons. It’s hardly something to celebrate, because it speaks to the futility and ineffectiveness of an organization. But, with the Oilers once again sitting at the bottom of the standings, there is a possibility they could win the draft lottery this season.

The 2015 draft was a special one, because it held the rights to Connor McDavid, a generational talent, and a true franchise changer. Every team who sat out of the playoff picture hoped to win the right to select him, and the lottery balls fell the Oilers way. It wouldn’t have mattered all that much, except for the fact that they had three first overall picks just a couple of seasons earlier. It put a bad taste in the mouths of other teams (or rather the media that covers them. Okay mostly the Toronto-based media). I can understand why. If you’re going to suffer through terrible play, you may as well get a reward when it’s all said and done. But every team had a chance at that reward. It just so happened the Oilers got the luck of the draw.

Matthews vs. Puljujarvi
Auston Matthews. (Photo: Tom Sorensen)

But if they are in contention for a lottery pick again this season, and actually win it, should the NHL step in? According to the rules, they can’t, because the odds are the odds, there are no stipulations depending on which teams are bad that particular year. I would suppose the people calling for rule changes really want to see Auston Matthews on their squad, because he has the makings of a superstar. Getting the first overall pick is something special. You have first dibs. You can take anyone you want. You have the right to get the best player available. But, very often, the player chosen first doesn’t end up being the best. And in that case, did you really get an advantage?

Famous First Overall Busts

Let’s go back to 1993, when the Ottawa Senators established themselves as the reason why the league implemented the draft lottery. The consensus number one pick was Alexandre Daigle, a flashy hot-shot from Quebec. He put up massive numbers in junior, and was as cocky as he was talented. His rookie season was solid, but his love for the limelight and issues with the team proved his downfall. He never reached the lofty numbers that everyone thought he would, and spent most of his career bouncing around between the pros and minors. He did little to help the Senators to success, and the guy drafted right after him? That would be Chris Pronger.

The 1999 draft was a particularly weak one in terms of star power, save for Henrik Zetterberg who was chosen 210th overall. The Atlanta Thrashers traded up to get the first overall pick where they selected Patrik Stefan. The Vancouver Canucks were their trading partner, who ended up drafting the Sedin twins at second and third overall, and that proved to be the wiser move. But Stefan was highly-touted at the time, and the Thrashers hoped they were getting a game changer. Stefan never scored 20 goals in a single season, and racked up only 177 points in his Thrashers career.

When the New York Islanders drafted Rick DiPietro in 2000, you could argue they were choosing the best player at the time (unless you count Henrik Lundqvist, who was selected 205th overall). Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik were chosen after him. But the reality for the Islanders is that having the first overall pick didn’t exactly change the course of their team. DiPietro is one of the sad stories in NHL history, because he had all the talent in the world but simply couldn’t stay healthy. He also signed one of the longest, and worst contracts ever, that the team was saddled with for 15 years. Everyone would like to forget that ordeal.

Scott Mayfield Admires Erik Johnson (Bridget Samuels
Erik Johnson (Bridget Samuels

Fast forward to 2006. Erik Johnson isn’t a bad player. But for a first overall pick, he is listed in some circles as a bit of a bust. Johnson only played two and half seasons with St. Louis, the team who drafted him, before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche. He is a fine defenceman, but, if you look at the players drafted after him, it’s hard not to cringe if you’re a Blues fan. Jonathan Toews was taken third. Forward Nicklas Backstrom was taken forth and Phil Kessel was taken fifth. Every team wants and needs a top blueliner, and St. Louis thought they were getting that in Johnson. Ironically, they kind of did get one because Kevin Shattenkirk came the other way in the trade. But how would Jonathan Toews have looked in the Blues jersey?

Rating the Oilers First Overall Picks

2010- Taylor Hall

Hall is a star in the NHL, and he just keeps getting better. He wasn’t the consensus first overall pick in every circle, but I think the Oilers did well choosing him. Tyler Seguin was drafted second overall, and while he has a few more accolades, I think their talent levels are similar. Other notables in that draft class are Ryan Johansen, Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov. In retrospect, would you have still taken Hall first?

2011- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Some of the names drafted after the Nuge were Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele, Sean Couturier and Dougie Hamilton. All good players in the their own right, but I don’t know that at this point that any of them are decidedly better than Nugent-Hopkins. I like Landeskog’s game, but there isn’t enough of a separation between the two to say that he’s superior. This draft class had a lot of talent, most of which are fairly equal, and they are all helping their teams.

2012- Nail Yakupov

This will always be the controversial pick for the Oilers. Not because Yakupov isn’t good, but because he has yet to really step forward as an elite talent. But there are reasons for that. He hasn’t gotten top line minutes, and his struggles to acclimate himself as an 18-year old in the NHL set him back a little. There are some decent names that followed him in the draft, such as Morgan Rielly, Jacob Trouba, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl and Teuvo Teravainen. But Yakupov was the top-rated player that year. It’s funny because perhaps the Oilers would have been better served drafting lower, as there were some quality defencemen available, but I’d say we still need some time before judging who is the top talent from 2012.

The Verdict?

Having the first overall pick is an advantage, there’s no doubt. But unless there’s a Connor McDavid available, it’s always going to be somewhat of a crap shoot. Even the “sure things” don’t always turn out as planned. I would argue that good scouting, and shrewd asset-management is the real key to building a successful franchise. Of course every team wants to choose first, but it’s by no means an instant pathway to success. If that were the case, the Oilers would be challenging for the Cup, and not for the lottery.

Obviously there have been a lot of franchise changers taken first, like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Patrick Kane and to a lesser extent, John Tavares and Steven Stamkos. But those guys don’t come around every season. The NHL could prevent the same team from always choosing first, but it might actually help them. Sometimes the real gems are found in later picks. And only smart scouting can guarantee that.