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 10 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 center 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 and has 61 in 65 games this season – but better options existed. One of those is Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, who was taken second and has totaled 198 goals and 460 points to Nugent-Hopkins’ 169 and 443. Rising star Mika Zibanejad, ranked No. 2 overall among Europeans that year and taken sixth by the Ottawa Senators, has recorded 98 goals the past three seasons – 41 in 2019-20 – for the New York Rangers and has 75 points in his 57 games this season.
Nugent-Hopkins also finds himself as mostly a winger now, often on the left side of Connor McDavid, which certainly will help anyone’s point totals. With McDavid and Leon Draisaitl occupying the middle as the best one-two center punch in the NHL, the Oilers probably don’t want a top overall pick handling third-line duty in the middle – and Edmonton needs help on the wing anyway. Nugent-Hopkins has been a good pick for Edmonton, not a great one worthy of the No. 1 overall selection.
2014 – Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
Speaking of Draisaitl – the Florida Panthers can’t be unhappy with Aaron Ekblad, the big, strong defenseman whose game has grown this season, as he’s reached the 40-point mark for the first time ever. 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 four straight seasons of 70-plus points and 100-plus each of the past two seasons, with 50 goals in 2018-19 and league-leading totals of 67 assists and 110 points this season. It’s little consolation to the Panthers that the Buffalo Sabres also passed on Draisaitl, now 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 at least somewhat difficult for Florida to consider an alternate reality.
2006 – Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues
This is perhaps more painful than Ekblad over Draisaitl for the St. Louis Blues in numerous ways. The second pick in 2006 was center Jordan Staal by the Pittsburgh Penguins, now the captain and a franchise cornerstone for the Carolina Hurricanes. The third pick? That’s where future Hall of Fame center Jonathan Toews was snapped up by the Central Division rival Chicago Blackhawks, who behind Toews and 2007 top overall pick Patrick Kane went on to win three Stanley Cups in the 2010s.
Fourth overall? Nicklas Backstrom by the Washington Capitals, probably also on his way to enshrinement in Toronto. Fifth? Phil Kessel by the Boston Bruins. Yikes.
Erik Johnson, the top-ranked North American skater that year, spent two-plus seasons in St. Louis before being traded to Colorado, where he’s put together a strong career as a big, dependable defenseman who provides some offense. Not the career of Toews, Backstrom, Staal or Kessel, though, to say the least.
2012 – Nail Yakupov, Oilers
The Oilers made 40 percent of the top overall picks in the past 10 years, and unfortunately for them, they 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 perhaps should 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 166 goals in 458 career games.
It’s not realistic, but… how would 2018-19 Vezina 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. But we’re doing it anyway.
Blame Avalanche rookie defenseman Cale Makar, the fourth overall selection, for Nico Hischier’s inclusion on this list. Hischier, a center, has shown some promise in his three seasons with 51 goals and 135 points, but he’s only played in 127 of 151 possible games the past two years.
Makar, meanwhile, might be ticketed for greatness – his dynamic work from the blue line resulted in 50 points in 57 games for a young and speedy Avs club. He 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. He’s averaged 0.86 points in his career. However, he’s reached 60 points only one other time in his 10 full seasons. Hall is another one who falls into the “very good player” category but isn’t a bonafide star, meaning Edmonton earned three spots on this dubious list.
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. Seguin, who played two seasons in Boston before landing with the Dallas Stars in a lopsided trade, has also been remarkably durable, playing every game for four straight seasons and at least 71 contests in every full season. He also played all 48 during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Hall, in contrast, has averaged 64.7 games per full season.
Seguin has averaged 0.96 points a game 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 of the Decade 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. The Oilers’ experience alone illustrates the extent of the uncertainty – doing fine, but not as well as they could have with Hall (traded to the Devils in 2016, and on to the Arizona Coyotes in December) and Nugent-Hopkins and whiffing completely on Yakupov before finally scoring a generational superstar in McDavid with their final No. 1 pick of the decade. Having the top choice at the right time is also critical.
The 2010s 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 decade 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.