Who’s Never Picked #1 in the Draft

With the Draft on the horizon, we thought it would be a good time to remind you of which teams have never picked first in the NHL Entry Draft.

Written by former contributor James Tanner and originally published on Sept. 7, 2015.

When the Edmonton Oilers selected Connor McDavid first overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he became the 53rd player picked at the top of the draft. The first was Gary Monahan, back in 1963, selected by the Montreal Canadiens. Monahan isn’t very famous, but he did play 768 NHL games for the Habs, Leafs, Kings and Canucks. You can’t blame the Canadiens for making a bad pick, though — back then, they were drafting 16-year-olds!

Today, a player must be 18 to be selected and the science behind the picks would probably seem crazy to an NHL general manager of the 1960s. All players today are watched by dozens of scouts, dozens of times, videotaped, statistically analyzed, interviewed and psychologically profiled. Even so, there are still busts and let-downs every year. Making the NHL means you’re one of the best 700 or so hockey players in the entire world. Regardless of the depth of today’s scouting, it is still extremely difficult to project how 18-year-olds will develop.

Eric Staal
Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes (THW Archives)

While the draft is a crap-shoot, the top pick usually isn’t. Even the most famous modern-day busts — Patrick Stefan and Alexander Daigle — still managed to play around 500 games in the NHL. The first-overall pick represents a massive chance for teams to become annual Stanley Cup competitors.

The Penguins, Capitals, Blues, Blackhawks and Lightning all picked first overall during a five-year period between 2004 and 2008 and it’s no coincidence that all five teams have been among the NHL’s most competitive in recent times. Sure, you have your exceptions — Detroit and L.A. come to mind — but for the most part, picking first overall is a key component to icing a great team.

The Oilers have had the top pick in the draft four out of the last six years — at the time of writing this. To put how crazy that is into perspective, the Leafs have only ever picked first a single time when they chose Wendel Clark in 1985(Ed. note: Auston Matthews in 2016 was their second in the franchise’s 100 years.) Of course, the Leafs are my team, so that is my go-to response every time I look at the Oilers’ roster, but it turns out that there are actually seven teams that have never had the top pick. Not even once!

Anaheim Ducks

While the Ducks have a Stanley Cup and the pleasure of having dressed Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, Chris Pronger, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Paul Kariya, they’ve never had the top pick.

Now, given that a list of the Leafs’ best players of the last 25 years isn’t anywhere close to as pretty as that one, I can’t say I am too sad for them, but a fact is a fact, and it must be acknowledged. The highest the Ducks ever picked was second, and they did it twice: in 2005 (Bobby Ryan), and in 1994 (Oleg Tverdovsky).

Carolina Hurricanes/ Hartford Whalers

Ron Francis, Hartford Whalers
Ron Francis (THW Archives)

Long live the Whale. Who knows what would have happened if the owners of the NHL’s best all-time jerseys had been a little luckier in the draft? Would they have won more Cups and subsequently saved the Whale? You’ll have to hope someone buys my screenplay about the Time-Traveling Zamboni if you want to find out.

As the Carolina Hurricanes, the highest they ever picked was second in 2003 when they got Eric Staal. Nothing against Marc Andre-Fleury, but that is a de facto first-overall pick and so they make this list on a technicality. (Ed. note: The Hurricanes had another second-overall pick in 2018, selecting right winger Andrei Svechnikov.) As the Whalers, they took Sylvain Turgeon second overall in 1983, Ron Francis fourth in 1981 and Chris Pronger second in 1993.  Like when they picked Staal, both Francis and Pronger are essentially first-overall picks anyways.

One final note: The Whalers/Hurricanes franchise has been in existence since 1979 and are the third oldest team to have never picked first in the draft.

Minnesota Wild

They’ve only been around since 2000-01, so the fact that they’ve never picked first isn’t really a mathematical surprise in a 30-team league. The highest they have picked was when they took Marian Gaborik third in 2000. A look at their list of first rounders suggests that they should have held on to Nick Leddy and Brent Burns, who are two of the best draft picks they’ve made.

Nashville Predators 

They joined the NHL at the same time as the Wild, and like the Wild, they’ve never had the top pick. They did once have the No. 2 pick and selected David Legwand. The best draft they have had, however, is the 2003 draft when they used their first pick on Ryan Suter at No. 7 and Shea Weber at No. 49.

San Jose Sharks

Founded in 1991, the Sharks wasted their (tied for) highest-ever franchise draft pick, second overall, on Pat Falloon that same year.  They would go on to select eight straight middling to terrible first-round picks (including wasting another No. 2 on Andre Zyuzin in 1996) until, in 1997, when they selected Patrick Marleau second overall.

Patrick Marleau (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Since the 1997 No. 1 overall pick ended up joining the Sharks at age 24 (in 2005) for the prime of his career, the Sharks annual status as Cup competitors can be attributed to essentially getting the top two picks in a draft that had two No. 1 worthy top picks. Both players will go to the Hall of Fame and, much like the Ducks, the Sharks’ presence on this list is a mere technicality.

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks joined the NHL in 1970 and are the longest-serving NHL team to never have the top pick in the draft. In their first draft, they picked Dale Tallon at No. 2 and didn’t pick that high again until 1988 when they took Trevor Linden.

In 1999, they made up for never getting the first pick by selecting both Daniel and Henrik Sedin with the No. 2 and 3 selections. That is the year when Patrik Stefan was the top pick, so the Canucks essentially got two No. 1 overall picks that year. Like the Sharks ending up with Thornton and Marleau in the 1997 draft, this was a key factor in the Canucks being so competitive over the last 10 or so years.

Calgary Flames

Brett Hull wrote the forward for 100 Things (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)
(David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated)

The Flames joined the NHL out of Atlanta in 1972 and have never picked first overall. Amazingly, before picking Sam Bennett fourth overall in 2014, the highest they’d ever picked while in Calgary was sixth overall in 1992 when they picked Cory Stillman.

As Atlanta, they picked second the first two years of their existence, selecting Jacques Richard in 1972 and Tom Lysiak in 1973. Overall, the draft has not been kind to the Flames. While the Whalers and Canucks can at least say they picked someone in the early rounds who should have been the top pick, the Flames cannot.

Their best pick was Brett Hull in the 1984 entry draft after he had been passed over with no one taking him in each of the two previous drafts. Unfortunately, that was also the year Mario Lemieux was picked, so we can’t even say the Flames got a de facto No. 1 that year!