Second-guessing is always easy – especially when it comes to amateur drafts in professional sports. How could my team take this player over that one that year? Wasn’t it as obvious at the time, when they were fresh-faced teenagers, as it is now, years later?
The answer, of course, is generally no – even when it comes to the NHL draft, which seems to deliver stars or at least very good players with its top picks more consistently than other major sports. Plenty of examples of drafter’s regret in hockey exist, when even if the top pick turns out to be a good player, a sometimes considerably better one goes to a team drafting a few picks later.
A look back at the past 11 NHL drafts reveals some good ones. We’ll limit our list of better alternatives to each No. 1 pick to the top players listed in that year’s final NHL Central Scouting report – not sleepers or players that turned out to be underrated and most teams passed on.
Without further ado, and in no particular order:
2011 – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers
The Edmonton Oilers’ selection of the forward has hardly been a bad one – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top-ranked North American skater that year, turned in his best season in 2018-19 with 69 points – but better options existed. One of those is Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, who was taken second and has totaled 218 goals and 512 points to Nugent-Hopkins’ 185 and 478. Mika Zibanejad, ranked No. 2 overall among Europeans that year and taken sixth by the Ottawa Senators, has scored 122 goals in 267 games over the past four seasons – 41 in 2019-20 – for the New York Rangers and had 75 points in his 57 games in 2019-20.
Nugent-Hopkins, drafted as a center, also finds himself as mostly a winger now, sometimes on the left side of Connor McDavid, which certainly will help anyone’s point totals. However, with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl starting to pair up on the same line, Nugent-Hopkins has moved to the second line and remained on the wing, rather than playing in the middle. Nugent-Hopkins has been a good pick for Edmonton, not a great one worthy of the No. 1 overall selection. Still, Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers are in it for the long haul, with the 28-year-old eschewing free agency to sign a below-market, eight-year, $41 million extension last month.
2014 – Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
Speaking of Draisaitl – the Florida Panthers can’t be unhappy with Aaron Ekblad, the big, strong defenseman who reached the 40-point mark for the first time ever in 2019-20. A top-pair, right-shot defender is a sought-after commodity in the NHL, especially one that won the 2015 Calder Trophy winner as the league’s top rookie that season.
Related: Oilers with 100-Point Seasons
Still … it just can’t be easy for Florida to watch Draisaitl, the No. 3 pick that year, night after night. He’s recorded five straight seasons of 70-plus points, scored 50 goals in 2018-19, posted league-leading totals of 67 assists and 110 points in 2019-20 and piled up 84 points in 56 games this past season – with an average of 1.4 points per game since the start of 2018-19. It’s little consolation to the Panthers that the Buffalo Sabres also passed on Draisaitl, one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players, in favor of Sam Reinhardt with the second pick.
This selection has gone a long way toward mitigating Edmonton’s at least partial misses on three of its four No. 1 overall picks in a five-year span (more on that later). As good as Ekblad is becoming, it has to be difficult for Florida to consider an alternate reality.
2012 – Nail Yakupov, Oilers
The Oilers, unfortunately for them, dominate this list. Edmonton came out of the 2010s with McDavid (No. 1 overall in 2015) and Draisaitl, so its efforts in the draft during that period can hardly be deemed a failure. Still, the greatness of those two players obscures the fact that the Oilers could have had even more, given that they picked at the top of the draft four times in five years.
Nail Yakupov, one of the biggest failures in draft history, has been largely forgotten in northern Alberta, which is perhaps the best the franchise can hope for when it comes to the 2012 draft. The Russian forward, gone from the NHL for two seasons now, represents a rarity for a top overall NHL draft pick: A near-complete bust, a player who not only failed to establish himself as an upper-echelon talent, but one who was unable to carve out any semblance of a productive career. Yakupov, who received top rankings from NHL Central Scouting and other scouting services that year, lasted 252 games and recorded 50 goals and 61 assists. He bounced from Colorado to St. Louis in his final two seasons before returning to Russia to play in the KHL.
What makes this selection perhaps slightly more tolerable for the Oilers now is the fact that they didn’t miss out on another franchise talent in a first-round that’s hardly proven to be star-laden. The biggest disappointment for Edmonton here might have been passing on top-ranked European skater Filip Forsberg, who fell to the Capitals at No. 11 and was traded to the Nashville Predators in April 2013. Forsberg has scored 178 goals in 497 career games.
It’s not realistic, but… how would 2018-19 Vezina Trophy winner and 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, the top-ranked goaltending prospect in 2012 who was taken 19th by the Tampa Bay Lightning, look in net for the Oilers right now?
2017 – Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils
Is it too early to judge drafts this recent? Of course, it is. We’re doing it anyway.
Blame Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, the fourth overall selection, for Nico Hischier’s inclusion on this list. Hischier, a center, has shown some promise in his four seasons with 57 goals and 146 points, but he’s only played in 148 of a possible 208 games in the past three.
Makar, meanwhile, might be ticketed for greatness with 94 points and a plus-29 rating in 101 career games. One of the NHL’s elite skaters who fits right in with a speedy Avs club, Makar was ranked ninth among North American prospects that year, while Hischier was second.
Again, it’s early to fully assess this draft. Still … would New Jersey Devils fans pass on a do-over if they had one?
2010 – Taylor Hall, Oilers
Easy, everyone – Taylor Hall was, of course, anything but a bad pick 10 years ago, notching an 80-point season in 2013-14 and a 95-point effort in 2017-18 – when he won the Hart Trophy as league MVP with the Devils. However, he’s reached 60 points only one other time in his nine full seasons. Hall is another one who falls into the “very good player” category but isn’t a bonafide star.
Better options were available, most notably No. 2 pick Tyler Seguin, who was selected by the Bruins. The center, the top-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting that year, has recorded five 30-goal seasons, including 40 in 2017-18. Hall has only reached the 30-goal mark once.
Seguin, who played two seasons in Boston before landing with the Dallas Stars in a lopsided trade, has also been remarkably durable, with eight full seasons of at least 71 games played, all 48 in 2012-13 and 69 of 70 in 2019-20. The injury bug finally caught up to him, as he underwent hip surgery last fall and was limited to three games in 2020-21. Still, Hall has averaged just 64.7 games per full season in his career.
There was also a pair of Russians that made for pretty good options for the top pick that year: Vladimir Tarasenko, ranked second amongst Europeans, who fell to 16th where he was scooped up by St. Louis; and a diminutive left-wing named Artemi Panarin, who somehow wasn’t drafted at all (OK, mentioning Panarin breaks the rules of only looking at highly ranked prospects stated earlier, but an unpicked player who in hindsight would have made a strong No. 1 overall pick begs for an exception).
Top Picks Since 2010 Were a Rollercoaster
Sometimes teams nail the top pick, sometimes not. The past 11 NHL drafts provide ample reminder that acquiring the first overall selection hardly guarantees a franchise-changing talent – a far cry from the seven drafts from 2003-2009, which delivered Marc-Andre Fleury, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares in a wave of superstars.
The Oilers’ experience alone illustrates the extent of the uncertainty – doing fine, but not as well as they could have with Hall and Nugent-Hopkins and whiffing completely on Yakupov before finally scoring a generational superstar in McDavid with their most recent No. 1 pick. Having the top choice at the right time is also critical.
The last 11 years certainly delivered talents worthy of their No. 1 overall status – McDavid, Colorado’s Nathan McKinnon, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews are all young superstars who made immediate impacts and could be on the road to the Hall of Fame. The rollercoaster results of that stretch of top selections is destined to be remembered for just how well teams can do when picking first – and just how badly they can miss.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.