Welcome to a brand new series here at The Hockey Writers called “Road to the Draft.” In this series, our draft contributors will count down from 32nd overall all the way to first overall and revisit each player taken with that pick between 2010 and 2020.
The goal of this series is to reflect on some of the biggest steals and some of the biggest busts taken in the first round over the past 10 years, as well as to shine a light on some players who could potentially see themselves taken with the corresponding pick at the upcoming 2021 NHL Draft.
Related: 2021 NHL Draft Guide
To cap off the series, we’re going to take a look at every player selected first overall since 2010. While most of the players have lived up to the hype and are enjoying successful careers, there’s still an anomaly or two. While a couple of defensemen have gone first overall over the past 11 years, the position was mostly dominated by forwards.
2010 – Taylor Hall (Left Wing, Edmonton Oilers)
After a year of the Taylor vs. Tyler debate, Taylor came out on top come draft day when the Oilers used their first overall pick to select him. Hall was dominant in his draft year, tallying 106 points in 57 games for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)’s Windsor Spitfires. He had some productive years in Edmonton, but the Oilers wound up trading him to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson right after Connor McDavid’s rookie year.
He spent three-and-a-half seasons with the Devils, winning the Hart Trophy in 2017-18, before getting traded to the Arizona Coyotes halfway through the 2019-20 season. From there, he signed a one-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres and wound up getting traded once again to the Boston Bruins. Eleven seasons into Hall’s career, and he’s clearly a talented player. But is he first overall pick worthy? Probably not. But hey, Erik Gudbranson went third overall that year. So it could be worse.
2011 – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Centre, Edmonton Oilers)
The Oilers got the first overall pick again in 2011 and used it on a centre in Nugent-Hopkins this time around. He saw similar production in his draft year to Hall the year before, finishing with 106 points in 69 games for the Western Hockey League (WHL)’s Red Deer Rebels. He jumped right into the NHL the year after and gave Oilers fans something to cheer for, tallying 52 points in 62 games and coming up just short of the Calder Trophy.
Nugent-Hopkins is still playing for the Oilers to this day, and has worn a letter on his jersey since 2013-14, which speaks volumes about how the Oilers value his leadership in Edmonton. While his production hasn’t been spectacular, he’s developed into a consistent 55-65 point player, with his career year coming in 2018-19, where he finished with 69 points in 82 games. Much like Hall, he’s a talented player? First overall pick worthy? Probably not, but at least he’s remained an Oiler this whole time.
2012 – Nail Yakupov (Right Wing, Edmonton Oilers)
With the Oilers getting the first overall pick for the third year in a row, they opted to use it on a skilled Russian winger in Yakupov. But boy, was this ever a forgettable pick. Yakupov made an instant impact for the Oilers in the shortened 2012-13 season, finishing with 31 points in 48 games. But after that, it was all downhill for both parties.
Yakupov spent the next three seasons with the Oilers after his rookie year, tallying 24, 33, and 23 points, respectively. He wound up getting traded to the St. Louis Blues for a third-round pick and a prospect right before the start of the 2016-17 season, and would end up signing a one-year contract with the Colorado Avalanche the year after. He’s been playing back in Russia ever since. This is certainly the worst first overall pick in recent memory, but the fact that the next three picks in 2012 were Ryan Murray, Alex Galchenyuk, and Griffin Reinhart should help soften the blow for Oilers fans.
2013 – Nathan MacKinnon (Centre, Colorado Avalanche)
For the first time since 2009, a team other than the Oilers had the first overall pick. MacKinnon had drawn a few comparisons to Sidney Crosby, considering he was from Nova Scotia and attended Shattuck St. Mary’s Prep for minor hockey, just like Crosby did. MacKinnon had a great rookie season for the Avalanche, notching 63 points in 82 games in 2013-14. From there, he had a couple of down years. That is, until 2017-18.
When that season hit, MacKinnon truly established himself as one of the true superstars of the NHL. While he has yet to break 100 points, he’s been well above a consistent point-per-game player since then and has been a key part of their leadership group with Gabriel Landeskog. While the Avalanche have yet to win a Stanley Cup during the MacKinnon era, it’s safe to say they’ve gotten their money’s worth with this pick.
2014 – Aaron Ekblad (Defenseman, Florida Panthers)
Marking the first time a defenseman was drafted first overall since the 2006 draft when the St. Louis Blues selected Erik Johnson first overall, the Panthers selected Ekblad with the first pick in 2014. He was advertised as everything you could ask for in a top-pairing defenseman — good offensive instincts, great defensive awareness, and physicality all in one. And with 53 points in 58 games for the OHL’s Barrie Colts in his draft year, the pick seemed like a no-brainer.
Since then, Ekblad has delivered in just about every aspect for the Panthers. He’s seen his offensive ability increase in recent years, and with the experience gained since he was drafted, he’s certainly one of the better defensemen in the league. While, on paper, he’s not the best player to come out of the 2014 draft, the Panthers got their best defenseman out of it, so it’s hard to imagine they aren’t happy with their pick.
2015 – Connor McDavid (Centre, Edmonton Oilers)
I guess two years was the longest the Oilers could go without picking first overall. All jokes aside, Oilers fans were cheering in the streets following the result of the draft lottery in 2014-15. McDavid was the first true generational talent the league had seen since Crosby in 2005. And with 120 points in 47 games in his draft year, his production at the junior level was simply ridiculous.
So, yeah, the selection of McDavid was about as much of a no-brainer as you could get. He’s been a consistent 100-point player and beyond since entering the league, with his career-high coming in the form of a 115-point campaign through 78 games in 2018-19. He was well on pace to shatter that record in 2020-21, too, finishing the season with 105 points in 56 games. The Oilers haven’t had much postseason success since then, but McDavid has pretty much accomplished everything else.
2016 – Auston Matthews (Centre, Toronto Maple Leafs)
With the selection of Matthews in 2016, the Maple Leafs gave their fans something they had been clamouring for since the Mats Sundin days — a true number one centre. After years of trying to force players into that role, including everybody from Tyler Bozak, to Mikhail Grabovski, to Nazem Kadri, they finally got their guy when they won the draft lottery in 2016. And so far, Matthews has delivered. While the postseason success has not been there, that’s a team effort, and Matthews has succeeded in just about every other aspect.
He was three goals shy of 50 in 2019-20 before the league postponed the season due to COVID-19, and he finished the shortened 2020-21 season with 41 goals in 52 games, eight above Connor McDavid, who finished with 33. The Maple Leafs seem to have drafted the league’s best goal scorer since Alex Ovechkin, and if they ever find postseason success, his legacy in Toronto will be one to reflect on for years and years.
2017 – Nico Hischier (Centre, New Jersey Devils)
While Hischier was not nearly as flashy of a name as McDavid or Matthews, I have a hard time believing the Devils aren’t happy with the player he’s become since then. Hischier made history in 2017 as the first-ever Swiss player drafted first overall. And despite not having the same media hype as the guys in the previous two drafts, he was probably as safe a pick as you could get.
His offensive totals in the NHL thus far haven’t been mind-blowing, and he’s battled some injuries along the way too. But he has a very strong two-way game and clearly has some high-end leadership value, as the Devils named him team captain ahead of the 2020-21 season at the age of 22. He sort of strikes me as a Patrice Bergeron type of number one centre in the sense that he’s not some offensive dynamo, but rather, he succeeds equally in every area of the game. Between this and the fact that the 2017 draft was rather weak compared to previous years, the Devils should be happy with this pick.
2018 – Rasmus Dahlin (Defense, Buffalo Sabres)
After the Sabres fell one slot short of the first overall pick in both 2014 and 2015, they finally got a kick at the can in 2018. And with a defenseman like Dahlin on the board, who pundits compared to Victor Hedman with the skating ability of Erik Karlsson, it was an easy choice for Buffalo.
However, it’s truthfully been hard to judge how much Dahlin has developed since the Sabres drafted him, simply because of how bad the Sabres have been. He was productive offensively in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, with his best output coming in the form of a 40-point campaign through 59 games. However, he had a down-year in 2020-21, as most of the Sabres did. He’s still far too young to determine whether this was the right pick, but I think everybody hopes for his sake that the Sabres turn it around soon.
2019 – Jack Hughes (Centre, New Jersey Devils)
The second-eldest of the talented Hughes brothers, Jack was drafted the highest with youngest brother Luke going fourth overall in 2021, also to the Devils, and oldest brother Quinn going seventh overall to the Vancouver Canucks in 2018. The Florida native spent his minor hockey days playing in for the AAA Toronto Marlboros before coming back to the United States in 2017-18.
Hughes hasn’t exactly been a game-changer at the NHL level since his draft year. He finished his rookie season with 21 points in 61 games, and tallied 31 through 56 games in 2020-21. However, this definitely shouldn’t be looked at as a cause for concern as not every first overall pick comes into the league firing bullets. Hell, Joe Thornton had only seven points in his rookie season. With his brother Luke now in the fold along with other talented prospects, Hughes will lead the pack of a young Devils team that will be exciting to watch for years to come.
2020 – Alexis Lafreniere (Left Wing, New York Rangers)
Marking the second year in a row that the Rangers got some serious luck through the draft lottery, they held the first overall pick in the unconventional 2020 draft, which was held virtually due to the pandemic. While his draft season was canceled early, the Rangers had certainly seen enough of Lafreniere to be comfortable drafting him first overall.
Much like Hughes, Lafreniere didn’t come flying out of the gates in his rookie season. He finished with 12 goals and 21 points in 56 games for the Rangers, who missed the playoffs in 2020-21. However, this is a team on the brink of being one of the best teams in the Metro. When Lafreniere and 2019 second overall pick Kaapo Kakko both find their games, the Rangers will be a force to be reckoned with.
2021 – Owen Power (Defense, Buffalo Sabres)
The Sabres had one of the most embarrassing seasons in NHL history in 2020-21, tying the NHL record for the longest losing streak at 18 games. Even though the draft lottery determines the first overall pick, I feel like it would have been unfair to give anybody but the Sabres the pick after that dumpster fire of a season.
While most first overall picks waste no time jumping into the NHL the year after they’re drafted, Power will be returning to the University of Michigan to form a star-studded team of fellow 2021 draft picks that includes Seattle Kraken second overall pick Matthew Beniers, fourth overall pick Luke Hughes, and Columbus Blue Jackets fifth overall pick Kent Johnson. If the Sabres turn it around within the next five years, they’ll have a really nice looking defensive corps led by Power and Dahlin. But, of course, that’s a big if.
ALL-TIME PLAYERS TAKEN 1ST OVERALL
1963 – Garry Monahan (C, Montreal Canadiens)
1964 – Claude Gauthier (RW, Detroit Red Wings)
1965 – Andre Veilleux (RW, New York Rangers)
1966 – Barry Gibbs (D, Boston Bruins)
1967 – Rick Pagnutti (D, Los Angeles Kings)
1968 – Michel Plasse (G, Montreal Canadiens)
1969 – Rejean Houle (RW, Montreal Canadiens)
1970 – Gilbert Perrault (C, Buffalo Sabres)
1971 – Guy Lafleur (C, Montreal Canadiens)
1972 – Billy Harris (RW, New York Islanders)
1973 – Denis Potvin (D, New York Islanders)
1974 – Greg Joly (D, Washington Capitals)
1975 – Mel Bridgman (C, Philadelphia Flyers)
1976 – Rick Green (D, Washington Capitals)
1977 – Dale McCourt (C, Detroit Red Wings)
1978 – Bobby Smith (C, Minnesota North Stars)
1979 – Rob Ramage (D, Colorado Rockies)
1980 – Doug Wickenheiser (C, Montreal Canadiens)
1981 – Dale Hawerchuk (C, Winnipeg Jets)
1982 – Gord Kluzak (D, Boston Bruins)
1983 – Brian Lawton (C, Minnesota North Stars)
1984 – Mario Lemieux (C, Pittsburgh Penguins)
1985 – Wendel Clark (D, Toronto Maple Leafs)
1986 – Joe Murphy (RW, Detroit Red Wings)
1987 – Pierre Turgeon (C, Buffalo Sabres)
1988 – Mike Modano (C, Minnesota North Stars)
1989 – Mats Sundin (C, Quebec Nordiques)
1990 – Owen Nolan (RW, Quebec Nordiques)
1991 – Eric Lindros (C, Quebec Nordiques)
1992 – Roman Hamrlik (D, Tampa Bay Lightning)
1993 – Alexandre Daigle (C, Ottawa Senators)
1994 – Ed Jovanovski (D, Florida Panthers)
1995 – Bryan Berard (D, Ottawa Senators)
1996 – Chris Phillips (D, Ottawa Senators)
1997 – Joe Thornton (C, Boston Bruins)
1998 – Vincent Lecavalier (C, Tampa Bay Lightning)
1999 – Patrik Stefan (C, Atlanta Thrashers)
2000 – Rick DiPietro (G, New York Islanders)
2001 – Ilya Kovalchuk (LW, Atlanta Thrashers)
2002 – Rick Nash (LW, Columbus Blue Jackets)
2003 – Marc-Andre Fleury (G, Pittsburgh Penguins)
2004 – Alexander Ovechkin (LW, Washington Capitals)
2005 – Sidney Crosby (C, Pittsburgh Penguins)
2006 – Erik Johnson (D, St. Louis Blues)
2007 – Patrick Kane (RW, Chicago Blackhawks)
2008 – Steven Stamkos (C, Tampa Bay Lightning)
2009 – John Tavares (C, New York Islanders)
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.