What Was The Best NHL Draft Year?

Over the last 30-plus years, the NHL Entry Draft has served as a stage for teams to select some of the best young players available to them.

As of late, the 2003 NHL Entry Draft has been hailed for the depth and quality of players that it provided, but August 9, 1979 is still a date that stands unrivaled in NHL history.

Not only was the 1979 Draft a very unique event because player eligibility rules were changed to accommodate WHA players and those under the age of nineteen, the amount of talent that was made available for that draft year was something that the NHL had never witnessed before.

While the 2003 draft might have had the best selection of 18 year old players that would eventually make a name for themselves at the professional level, a number of factors must be considered before one comes to a conclusion.

Here are some reasons as to why the 1979 draft has withstood the test of time:

NHL-WHA Merger/Changes to Draft Eligibility

During the early months of 1979, the NHL and the WHA came to an agreement that saw the Oilers, Nordiques, Whalers, and Jets join the NHL ranks as expansion teams.

The addition of the four aforementioned teams might not have seemed like such a big deal since they were all placed at the bottom of the draft order, but the Edmonton Oilers managed to walk away from the 1979 draft in a very profitable fashion. Not only did the Oilers come out of the draft with the likes of Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, and Glenn Anderson, they were also allowed to keep the rights to hockey’s Great One, Wayne Gretzky.

While the NHL-WHA merger had a significant impact on the draft order for expansion teams, changes to draft eligibility made 1979 a year that saw the NHL draft ranks stocked with an unprecedented amount of young talent.

WHA Logo
The NHL and WHA merged in the spring of 1979 and four expansion teams were added to the NHL.

Since the age requirements for drafting were lowered, both eighteen and nineteen year old players were allowed to join the draft. In essence, the 1979 NHL Entry Draft was one of a kind as two years worth of talent was essentially thrown into the mix for NHL teams to dissect. Some might be content to brush off the changes to draft eligibility as the NHL had been contemplating such a move in the past, but such an influx of talent into the draft undoubtedly forced many teams to do an extra bit of homework on the prospects available for selection.

In the modern day, the average person can YouTube highlights and video of most prospects, whether the player is a home-grown or international talent. Scouts in the late 1970s were not privileged to such technological advancements, so preparing for a draft that featured both 18 and 19 year old players was not a task that was easily accomplished.

Despite the fact that the draft was held in August, General Managers still had to prepare themselves for an increased amount of underage talent in the draft pool. Over the last two-plus decades, expansion teams have joined the NHL and have drafted alongside other NHL regulars, but the 1979 NHL Entry Draft featured the addition of four separate teams, something that would likely make it harder for existing NHL GMs to employ the strategies that they had used in years past.

The Blackjack Draft

The first round of the 1979 draft was impressive for the simple fact that all twenty-one first round picks played in at least 200 NHL games.

While all 21 first round picks enjoyed quite a number of games at the NHL level, it is worth noting that more than half (twelve) of the players selected in the first round of the 1979 draft made an appearance at the NHL All-Star game. Additionally, 90% of the first round picks from the 1979 draft played in at least 450 NHL career games.

Yes, the 2003 draft has produced a number of talented players that could very well become Hall of Famers in the future, but the fact that all of the first round picks from 1979 played in at least 200 games speaks for itself. The 2003 draft class is not at all that far behind as most of the first round picks from that year’s draft have played in at least 200 NHL games, but there are a few more points that can be examined in relation to these two drafts.

NHL Draft 2003
The 2003 NHL Entry Draft had some of the best first round talent ever selected.

1979 v. 2003 NHL Entry Draft

The 2003 NHL Entry Draft has been lauded for the vast talent that it provided to NHL teams down the line. Names such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Jeff Carter, and Ryan Suter were just some of the first round selections that highlighted the 2003 draft class, but the talent pool for that draft was also stocked in the later rounds.

However, the 2003 draft featured more than double the amount of players that GMs had to choose from in 1979. The 2003 draft was certainly full of many talented players, but selecting almost 300 players undoubtedly opens up more room for error. As the amount of selections in the NHL draft increased, the chances that more prospects would pan out at the NHL level would naturally decrease, but one should also consider that the 1979 draft had talent levels that General Managers were not used to seeing.

Almost 82% of the 1979 draft class played at least one NHL game in their career, but the selection of 292 players in 2003 will likely make it harder for that draft class to equal the numbers set by 1979’s crop of players. Comparing how many players from each draft managed to get at least one NHL career game under their belt could be considered nitpicking, but one should also look at the amount of Hall of Famers that the 1979 draft produced.

Players such as Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet, and Glenn Anderson all made the Hall of Fame after having spectacular careers in the NHL, but it might be a bit too early to decide which players from the 2003 draft class can potentially be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. A number of star players from the 2003 draft will undoubtedly make it to the hockey hall of fame, but those players will still have to play out the rest of their careers before they are considered for such an honor.

Does History Stand the Test of Time?

I certainly believe that the 1979 NHL Entry Draft withstands the test of time, and should still be considered the single best NHL Draft. The 2003 NHL Entry Draft certainly had one of the best, if not the best, amount of first round talent ever selected, but the 1979 draft wouldn’t trail that far behind if the two were compared.

As previously mentioned, teams and General Managers that draft in the modern day have the advantage of using various technological breakthroughs as coverage of prospects and draft eligible players has been taken to a new extent, especially with the advent of social media.

The addition of four expansion teams from the NHL-WHA merger and the lowering of draft age in 1979 undoubtedly added some extra obstacles for teams and executives that other NHL drafts simply did not experience. The 2003 Draft probably had the best assembly of 18-year old talent that was selected, but such a draft was not conducted under the same conditions that were applied in 1979.

Not only were teams forced to evaluate a combination of 18 and 19-year old talent in 1979, existing NHL teams had to prepare for the arrival of four extra teams into the draft circle. The NHL has expanded at various times throughout its history, but 1979 saw the league grow in a rapid fashion as new teams were introduced into the fold and younger players were allowed to gain entry into professional hockey.

Only time will tell if the 2003 draft is in fact the best draft in NHL history, but until that class finishes their collective tour of duty in the NHL, I’m content believing that history still stands the test of time.

The amount of talent that the 2003 NHL Entry Draft produced cannot be understated, and when all is said and done, the 2003 class might just become the best draft in NHL history, but the ’79 draft undoubtedly had more implications on the NHL hockey world than any other draft before or after it.

Still Not Convinced?

Much like the dynasty that helped the New York Islanders win four straight Stanley Cups from the late ’70s to the early 80s, the Edmonton Oilers also built a dynasty through the NHL Draft.

Among the players that were selected in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, about a third of them have won the Stanley Cup. Having almost ten players from a certain draft class winning the Stanley Cup within nine years of being selected is without a doubt an extraordinary feat, but the success of the Edmonton Oilers in the 1979 draft changed the NHL during the mid-to-late 1980s.

Pelle Lindberg best nhl draft
Pelle Lindberg – Another stellar selection from the 1979 Draft.

Teams such as the Philadelphia Flyers also enjoyed a good draft year in 1979 as they selected Brian Propp and Pelle Lindbergh, but the Oilers certainly got to take their cake home and eat plenty of it as a result on the ’79 draft.

Glen Sather’s stellar work during the first four rounds of the 1979 draft essentially netted the Oilers five Stanley Cups. While

1979 NHL Draft Mark Messier Edmonton Oilers
Mark Messier, along with Kevin Lowe and Glenn Anderson, became one of the instrumental pieces of the Oilers’ dynasty team. {Photo: Gary B – Flickr}

Wayne Gretzky’s rights were retained by the Oilers at the expense of the team being placed in the final draft slot, everything seemingly fell into place for Edmonton in 1979. Players such as Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, and Kevin Lowe won multiple Stanley Cups as members of the Oilers, but the fact that Edmonton selected in the last position of the draft, and was able to keep the rights to Wayne Gretzky, made such an assembly of talent all the more impressive.

Of course, players from the 2003 draft (Marc-Andre Fleury & Eric Staal to name a couple) have been just as instrumental in helping their teams win the Stanley Cup, but the selections from that draft have not produced a dynasty team. One can certainly argue, and rightfully so, that it is harder to build a dynasty team in the modern day, but the fact that an expansion team could be so successful in its first ever NHL draft might be an accomplishment that remains unchallenged for years to come.

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