Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, and Auston Matthews lead a long list of first-overall picks playing critical roles in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The three superstars have made their way into the spotlight as some of the most recognizable faces in the league and the most important foundational pieces for their respective franchises.
While former first-overall picks and long-time playoff mainstays Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin watch from home, the list of first-overall picks rising to stardom continues to grow. Jack Hughes has become the offensive catalyst for the New Jersey Devils while Taylor Hall has reentered the spotlight as a key contributor for the Boston Bruins. The focus on players taken with the first pick in the NHL Entry Draft will only grow with prospect phenom Connor Bedard set as an overwhelming favorite to become the top pick in June.
Changing of the Guard from Crosby, Ovechkin
The 2004-05 lockout created a unique opportunity for two first-overall picks to break into the league together as rookies. Although individual rivalries aren’t as significant in the NHL as in other professional sports, the stardom of Crosby and Ovechkin and the storyline of two franchise cornerstones who broke into the league in the same division in the same season played a huge part in building a new era in the league’s history.
The Pittsburgh Penguins played in 16 straight postseasons beginning in 2007, and the Washington Capitals had appeared in 14 of 15 beginning in 2008. Both Metropolitan Division powerhouses missed the postseason in 2023. Now, the two former first-overall picks will creep into the twilight years of their careers on teams that don’t currently look like they have a prime opportunity for Stanley Cup contention.
The book isn’t closed on either superstar. Crosby and long-time teammates Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang still have significant term left on their current contracts and an opportunity to salvage a difficult situation in Pittsburgh. Ovechkin will remain in the spotlight as he chases down Wayne Gretzky’s coveted record as the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer. However, the two legends of the game have already seen their best years.
McDavid, Matthews, MacKinnon
Another unique circumstance came along when three franchises landed superstar talents with the first-overall pick in four seasons from 2013-2016. MacKinnon, McDavid, and Matthews have already helped begin a new generation of the NHL. Their growing star power demonstrates the allure of the first-overall pick and the importance of acquiring star players for the teams that hold the top spot.
MacKinnon faced tremendous pressure entering the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche had lost in the second round in three consecutive postseasons despite entering each year as one of the favorites in the Western Conference. They continued their dominance during the regular season in 2021-22, but it wouldn’t have meant anything if they hadn’t captured their first Stanley Cup in over two decades.
The pressure isn’t burning as hot on MacKinnon and the Avalanche in 2023, but the prize of the 2013 draft isn’t slowing down. Two goals and two assists in four games against the Seattle Kraken in the opening round have brought his total to 97 points in 74 career playoff games. His speed in transition keeps defenders up on their skates at all times, and he is one of the most dangerous gamebreakers in the NHL.
McDavid is arguably the most talented player ever to lace up a pair of hockey skates. His outrageous regular season with 153 points makes him a virtual lock for his third Hart Trophy at age 26. The Edmonton Oilers finished the 2022-23 season with the most successful power play in the history of the NHL at 32.4%. They haven’t lost any rhythm with eight goals in 14 opportunities in the playoffs.
Matthews has become the face of the most prominent franchise in the NHL. He won the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy and the Hart Trophy in 2021-22, but the intense scrutiny that comes with being the star of the Toronto Maple Leafs will always dominate the conversation. The perception of the 2016 first-overall pick isn’t tied to his incredible poise with the puck or the dangerous attack of Toronto’s top line. It’s about the playoff fate of the Leafs.
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While McDavid and Matthews haven’t played on teams with memorable playoff success, the trajectory of Crosby and Ovechkin suggests that things might change pretty soon. Although Crosby won his first Cup in his fourth season with Pittsburgh, he took heavy criticism for his maturity level and his style of play in the postseason after the Penguins struggled to make it back to another Stanley Cup Final for the next six seasons. He silenced the doubters with Stanley Cups and Conn Smythe Trophies in 2016 and 2017.
The critics wrote off Ovechkin for long parts of his career as a player who could only contribute on offense and couldn’t lead a team deep in the playoffs. He finally broke through with a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy in his 13th season. MacKinnon similarly overcame criticism last year when his team finally got the job done, and it’s now up to McDavid and the Oilers and Matthews and the Maple Leafs to do the same.
Other Top Draft Picks
Former first-overall picks Hall, Hughes, Marc-Andre Fleury, Erik Johnson, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Aaron Ekblad, Nico Hischier, and Alexis Lafrenière have all appeared in games during the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Nail Yakupov is the only player taken with the first pick from 2006-2017 not on an active postseason roster.
A superstar talent doesn’t come along in the NHL Entry Draft every single year. However, the group outside of McDavid, Matthews, and MacKinnon includes two players in Kane and Stamkos that have played roles as primary scorers for championship teams. Kane narrowly edged Crosby and Ovechkin for the most regular-season points in the NHL from 2010-11 through 2019-20. He became one of the faces of the league along with teammate Jonathan Toews during a run of dominance for the Chicago Blackhawks with Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013, and 2015.
Stamkos lived with the criticism for a lack of team success even after the Lightning won a Stanley Cup without him in the 2020 playoff bubble. However, he hit the ground running with an excellent regular season in 2020-21 and captained the Bolts to their second straight Cup in 2021. The 33-year-old is far from finished in the NHL, as he showed by dropping the gloves with Matthews on April 22.
The rest of the list includes a 100-point scorer in Nugent-Hopkins, a former Hart Trophy winner in Hall, and two of the best young centers in the NHL with Hughes and Hischier. Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power helped the Buffalo Sabres into playoff contention in 2022-23, and they also look primed to take the next step and join the group of franchise cornerstones in the near future.
The Connor Bedard Effect
A prospect with as much anticipation as Crosby and McDavid will break into the league in 2023-24. Connor Bedard is all but guaranteed to become the first-overall pick at the 2023 NHL Entry Draft in June. The hope for a franchise-altering player on the level of some of the superstars in the Stanley Cup Playoffs caused multiple NHL franchises to change their team-building strategy in 2022-23.
“Nobody tanks because we have a weighted lottery,” Gary Bettman insisted in January. “You’re not going to lose games to increase your odds by a couple of percentage points. That’s silly. And frankly, suggesting tanking, I believe, is inconsistent with the professionalism that our players and our coaches have. Nobody tanks.”
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The logic of tanking extends a lot deeper than identifying one great prospect. However, looking around the NHL at which players bring the most value to their teams, it’s easy to see why teams are directly contradicting the commissioner’s words. Whether tanking works or not, teams have fallen for the allure of the outstanding star power of first-overall picks in the NHL. When fans watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s easy to see why.