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 1st 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 ten 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: THW’s 2021 NHL Draft Guide
After delving into the history of the 32nd through 27th overall picks, the series continues today with the seventh piece and a look at the history of the 26th overall pick. Some of the most notable players drafted 26th overall all-time include Claude Lemieux (1983), Zigmund Palffy (1991), and Martin Havlat (1999).
Like most of the other pieces in this series, forwards dominated the 26th overall pick over the last decade. However, there’s still a little bit of everything. Between 2010 and 2020, seven forwards have been drafted 26th overall, along with three defensemen and one goalie. While some of these players carved out respectable careers, some didn’t see the same fate.
2010 – Evgeny Kuznetsov (C, Washington Capitals)
Because why not come out swinging with the first one? It’s hard to say this was anything but a home run pick for the Capitals at 26th overall. The Russian center split his draft year between Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk of the MHL and Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL. He proved he was too good for the MHL with 16 points in nine games, so he spent most of his time in the KHL and finished with eight points in 35 games. He also captained the Russians at the U18 Worlds, finishing the tournament with 12 points in seven games.
After four seasons in the KHL, where he quickly ramped up his game, he found himself in a position where it was time to bring his talents to North America. He joined the Capitals midway through the 2013-14 NHL season and broke out in 2015-16 with 77 points in 82 games. From that point on, Kuznetsov established himself as a point-per-game (PPG) player and helped them win a Stanley Cup as the NHL’s leading scorer throughout the 2018 playoffs with 32 points in 24 games.
Since then, Kuznetsov has remained a premier player for Washington. He registered 29 points in 41 games during the shortened 2020-21 season that saw him miss some time on the COVID protocol list. His name has been softly mentioned in trade rumors, with the Capitals’ primary focus being re-signing Alex Ovechkin, but his selection remains one of the bigger steals of that draft class.
2011 – Phillip Danault (C, Chicago Blackhawks)
Speaking of good players who were drafted 26th overall, enter Danault. The Victoriaville native had the opportunity to captain his hometown junior team and quickly developed the resume of a relentless two-way center with leadership qualities. After putting together a 67 point in 64 game campaign, the Blackhawks used their first-round pick on him. He remained with the Tigres before getting traded to the Moncton Wildcats midway through the 2012-13 season, finishing with a combined 85 points in 56 games.
Danault made the full-time jump to the AHL in 2013-14, putting up 26 points in 72 games in his rookie season with the Rockford IceHogs. He only played 32 total games with the Blackhawks before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens midway through the 2015-16 season. Now playing for the team representing his home province, he was able to find his game in 2016-17 with a 40-point campaign.
His career year to date, coming in 2018-19 with 53 points, Danault has established himself as a bonafide middle-six two-way center. He’s currently playing in the Stanley Cup Final. While quiet offensively, he has been elite at his task of shutting down opposing stars, including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Mark Stone, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor.
2012 – Brendan Gaunce (C, Vancouver Canucks)
Cut from roughly the same cloth as his 2011 counterpart, Gaunce was a two-way center with good size, who put up 68 points in 68 games for the OHL’s Belleville Bulls during his draft year. The Sudbury native captained the Bulls for the next season and a bit before being dealt to the Erie Otters midway through the 2013-14 season. He finished his final OHL season with 72 points in 65 games.
From there, Gaunce made his AHL debut with the Utica Comets in 2014-15, finishing with 29 points in 74 games. He wound up playing parts of the next four seasons with the Canucks and one game for the Bruins after signing with them following the 2018-19 season. He never really found his footing in the NHL, finishing with 16 points in 118 games. He’s currently playing for the Vaxjo Lakers of the SHL, where he had 12 points in 18 games in 2020-21.
2013 – Shea Theodore (D, Anaheim Ducks)
After a successful draft year with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds that ended with 50 points in 71 games, Theodore took a massive step forward after the Ducks drafted him. Dawning the “A” for the Thunderbirds, he put up 79 points in 70 games, and after capping off his final WHL season serving as the Thunderbirds’ captain, he quickly adapted to the pros.
Theodore made his NHL debut with the Ducks during the 2015-16 season and impressed during his short stint with nine points through 18 games. He never really established a full-time role with the Ducks and was eventually traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for their word that they would select veteran defenseman Clayton Stoner in the expansion draft instead of then-25-year-old Josh Manson.
Following his trade to Vegas, Theodore would establish himself as a key part of their defensive core, with his offensive totals improving every year. The Langley native played a huge part of their 2020 playoff run in the bubble with 19 points in 20 games and truly broke out offensively in 2020-21 with 42 points in 53 games.
2014 – Nikita Scherbak (LW, Montreal Canadiens)
Leading the Saskatoon Blades in scoring by 35 points, the Canadiens used their first-round pick on the Russian offensive juggernaut, who finished his season with 78 points in 65 games. He was dealt to the Everett Silvertips ahead of the 2014-15 season and kicked his offensive production up a hair with 82 points in 65 games.
From there, Scherbak proved that he was no joke in the AHL. He put up 41 points in 66 games for the St. John’s IceCaps in 2016-17. He also took the team’s name change in stride, finishing with 30 points in 26 games for the Laval Rocket in 2017-18. Despite his improvement in the AHL, Scherbak could never get it going in the NHL, managing only seven points in 29 NHL games for the Canadiens.
Scherbak was placed on waivers by the Canadiens in December of 2018 and subsequently claimed by the Los Angeles Kings. He appeared in eight games for the Kings, scoring one goal, but never solidified a roster spot. After a failed KHL stint in 2019-20, he signed a one-year AHL deal with the Texas Stars, affiliate of the Dallas Stars, where he remains to this day.
2015 – Noah Juulsen (D, Montreal Canadiens)
For the second year in a row, the Canadiens had the 26th overall pick, but they opted to go with a defenseman this time. And I wish I could say this pick worked out for them, but…yeah. A teammate of Scherbak’s in 2014-15, Juulsen looked promising heading into the draft, fresh off a 52-point campaign in 68 games.
But his post-draft year saw a massive plummet, mustering only 28 points in 63 games. He managed to recover in 2016-17 with 34 points in 49 games and dipped his feet in the pros the following year. He played parts of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons with the Habs but never held down a roster spot, finishing with only eight points in 44 total games with Montreal.
He was placed on waivers at the start of the 2020-21 season, and after being claimed by the Florida Panthers, his time with the Habs came to an end. He missed most of the 2020-21 season with an undisclosed injury, playing in only nine games between the NHL and the AHL.
2016 – Tage Thompson (C, St. Louis Blues)
Coming into his draft as a towering 6’5 centerman who just finished his freshman season with the University of Connecticut, Thompson‘s 32 points in 36 games were enough to warrant him a selection by the St. Louis Blues at 26th. He would spend the following season at school before joining the AHL’s Chicago Wolves at the end of the year.
He made his NHL debut with the Blues in 2017-18 after quickly proving he belonged in the pros and finished the season with nine points in 41 games. That offseason, he was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres along with Vladimir Sobotka and a first-round pick in a deal that brought Ryan O’Reilly back the other way. After an electric start with the AHL’s Rochester Americans in 2019-20, the Glendale native underwent shoulder surgery which caused him to miss the rest of the season.
Now standing at a hulking 6’7, Thompson signed a three-year contract extension with the Sabres prior to the 2020-21 season. He was one of the only somewhat bright spots on a horrid Sabres team, finishing the season with 14 points in 38 games. Still only 23, he has the makings to develop into a quality center for the Sabres.
2017 – Jake Oettinger (G, Dallas Stars)
While there’s typically only one goalie taken in the first round each year, Oettinger was the guy in 2017 after an incredible freshman season with Boston University. The top-ranked netminder finished the year with a record of 21-11-3 with a goals-against-average (GAA) of 2.11 and a save percentage (SV%) of .927.
The Minnesota native would spend two more seasons with Boston U before getting his first taste of AHL action at the end of the 2018-19 season. He became an AHL regular in 2019-20 and put up a respectable 2.57 goals-against average (GAA), and a .917 save percentage (SV%) to go along with a record of 15-16-8. He made his NHL debut in March of 2021 and finished the 2020-21 season strong with a 2.36 GAA and .911 SV%, giving him a solid case to challenge for the starter’s role next season.
2018 – Jacob Bernard-Docker (D, Ottawa Senators)
Instead of going the WHL route like most Western Canadian players, Bernard-Docker opted to spend his draft year with the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), where he registered 41 points in 49 games. Having committed to the University of North Dakota, the Canmore native would put together 60 points in 95 games across three NCAA seasons.
Bernard-Docker’s junior season saw him finish with 18 points in 27 games. He signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Senators after the NCAA season finished, and he got a brief glimpse of NHL action where he was held pointless through five games. With the Senators’ rebuild slowly starting to heat up, expect him to challenge for a full-time spot with the team in 2021-22.
2019 – Jakob Pelletier (LW, Calgary Flames)
Pelletier was one of those token players that flew under the radar in his draft year because of his size. Standing at only 5’9 and 160 pounds, he had an impressive 39 goals and 89 points in 65 games with the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats in 2018-19 and was named captain of the team for the 2019-20 season.
The Flames wasted no time signing Pelletier to an entry-level contract, putting pen to paper only two months after being drafted. After being traded to the Val-d’Or Foreurs before the shortened 2020-21 season, he was promptly named captain there as well. He also made his mark for Team Canada’s World Junior team at the 2021 tournament with seven points in seven games.
2020 – Jake Neighbours (LW, St. Louis Blues)
The fourth 26th overall pick in a row named Jake, Neighbours spent his first season after being drafted by the Edmonton Oil Kings in AAA but got his first taste of WHL action that same year with an 11-game look with the team. He had a solid full rookie season that saw him put up 24 points in 47 games but took a real step forward in his draft year with 70 points in 64 games.
Enter the 2020-21 season, and the Airdrie, AB native, certainly made the most of the COVID-shortened season. He was named an alternate captain in 2020-21 and led his team with 33 points through 19 games. He likely has one junior season left in him, and I also expect him to be a pivotal part of Team Canada at the 2022 World Juniors.
Players Who Could Be Drafted 26th Overall in 2021
ALL TIME PLAYERS TAKEN 26TH OVERALL
1969 – Michel Briere (C, Pittsburgh Penguins)
1970 – Robert Guindon (LW, Detroit Red Wings)
1971 – Dave Kryskow (LW, Chicago Blackhawks)
1972 – Pierre Guite (LW, Detroit Red Wings)
1973 – Brent Leavins (LW, Philadelphia Flyers)
1974 – Bob Hess (D, St. Louis Blues)
1975 – Rick Bowness (RW, Calgary Flames)
1976 – Bob Manno (D, Vancouver Canucks)
1977 – Mike Keating (LW, New York Rangers)
1978 – Don Maloney (LW, New York Rangers)
1979 – Tomas Jonsson (D, New York Islanders)
1980 – Bob McGill (D, Toronto Maple Leafs)
1981 – Rich Chernomaz (RW, Colorado Rockies)
1982 – Mike Anderson (C, Buffalo Sabres)
1983 – Claude Lemieux (RW, Montreal Canadiens)
1984 – Brian Benning (D, St. Louis Blues)
1985 – Kay Whitmore (G, Hartford Whalers)
1986 – Greg Brown (D, Buffalo Sabres)
1987 – Rob Murphy (C, Vancouver Canucks)
1988 – Murray Duval (D, New York Rangers)
1989 – Jarrod Skalde (C, New Jersey Devils)
1990 – Nicolas Perrault (D, Calgary Flames)
1991 – Zigmund Palffy (RW, New York Islanders)
1992 – Drew Bannister (D, Tampa Bay Lightning)
1993 – Stefan Bergkvist (D, Pittsburgh Penguins)
1994 – Dan Cloutier (G, New York Rangers)
1995 – Maxim Kuznetsov (D, Detroit Red Wings)
1996 – Jesse Wallin (D, Detroit Red Wings)
1997 – Kevin Grimes (D, Colorado Avalanche)
1998 – Mike Van Ryn (D, New Jersey Devils)
1999 – Martin Havlat (C, Ottawa Senators)
2000 – Brian Sutherby (C, Washington Capitals)
2001 – Jason Bacashihua (G, Dallas Stars)
2002 – Martin Vagner (D, Dallas Stars)
2003 – Brian Boyle (C, Los Angeles Kings)
2004 – Cory Schneider (G, Vancouver Canucks)
2005 – Matt Pelech (D, Calgary Flames)
2006 – Leland Irving (G, Calgary Flames)
2007 – David Perron (LW, St. Louis Blues)
2008 – Tyler Ennis (LW, Buffalo Sabres)
2009 – Kyle Palmieri (RW, Anaheim Ducks)
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 Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. 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.