1st Overall NHL Draft Picks: Regrets From the 2010s

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?

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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.

Related: 2012 NHL Draft Top 10 – Where Are They Now?

A look back at the NHL drafts of the 2010s reveals some good (or, bad) 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:

2014 – Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

The Panthers can’t be unhappy with Aaron Ekblad, the big, strong defenseman who at age 27 has developed into a top-pair, right-side shutdown guy – a sought-after commodity in the NHL. Ekblad, who won the 2015 Calder Trophy winner as the league’s top rookie that season, helped the Panthers make their stunning run from the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed to the Stanley Cup Final last season.

1st Overall NHL Draft Picks: Regrets From the 2010s

Still … it just can’t be easy for Florida to watch Leon Draisaitl, the No. 3 pick that year by the Edmonton Oilers, night after night. Among the league’s most prolific offensive players, he’s recorded at least 105 points in four of the last five seasons (he had 84 in 56 games of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season), has scored 50 goals three times and set a career-high with 128 points in 2022-23. Draisaitl led the NHL with 13 playoff goals in 2023 despite playing in only 12 games. His partnership with otherworldly superstar Connor McDavid certainly helps his point totals, but there’s little question about Draisaitl’s impact.

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It’s little consolation to the Panthers that the Buffalo Sabres also passed on Draisaitl in favor of Sam Reinhart with the second pick.

Aaron Ekblad Florida Panthers
Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This selection has gone a long way toward mitigating Edmonton’s at least partial misses on two of its four No. 1 overall picks in a five-year span (more on that later). As good as Ekblad has become, 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.

world championship roster
Forward Nail Yakupov playing with the Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

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 239 goals in 616 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

Blame Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, the fourth overall selection, for Nico Hischier’s inclusion on this list. Hischier blossomed into an outstanding two-way center in his sixth season with 80 points and a plus-33 rating, while also establishing a reputation as a top matchup pivot. He’s recorded 111 goals and 177 assists in his career.

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Makar, though, has emerged as the generational talent of this draft, with 260 points in 249 games, capturing the 2022 Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy that same year after powering Colorado to its first Stanley Cup since 2001. The dynamic Makar was ranked ninth among North American prospects that year, while Hischier was second.

New Jersey Devils fans certainly love Hischier, a cornerstone on an exciting and rising Cup contender. Still … would they 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, notching an 80-point season in 2013-14 and a 93-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 time since. Hall is another one who falls into the “very good player” category but probably 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 10 full seasons of at least 71 games played, all 48 in 2012-13 and 69 of 70 in 2019-20.

Taylor Hall, Boston Bruins
Taylor Hall, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

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 NHL drafts of the 2010s 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 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011 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.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 2010s certainly delivered talents worthy of their No. 1 overall status – McDavid, Makar, Colorado teammate Nathan MacKinnon and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews are all 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.