NHL Draft: Top 10 Classes of the Last Generation
The Los Angeles Kings have won Lord Stanley's Cup—with the coach and general manager my San Jose Sharks fired, leaving their old team as the last in California without a title. As I congratulate them, I can take solace that I am not a Philadelphia Flyers fan, whose two-star players were deemed the problem last year and won the Cup this year.
And now like most other NHL fans, I can turn my attention to the 2012 NHL draft in Pittsburgh.
How it unfolds is anyone's guess, as perhaps only Major League Baseball has a less precise selection process. For instance, it is so rare for a player outside of the first 50 selections to make an NBA team that they do not even bother having more than two rounds. The first seven "lottery picks" are where almost every frequent All-Star will come from.
By contrast, the NHL can have talent come from anywhere. The 2009 Sharks had the NHL's best record with a ninth-round pick in net and a blue line manned by an undrafted free agent, three fourth-round picks, two second-round picks and one pick each from the fifth and eighth rounds.
A year ago, I did an analysis of the 2006 NHL draft to get an idea of how last year's draft would have changed in hindsight.
In the span of just five years, the re-draft would have put a sixth-round pick (Viktor Stalberg) and a fourth-round pick (James Reimer) in the first round. Four third-round picks made the top 30 players selected that season, including Milan Lucic at No. 3.
In fact, 13 of the last 16 picks in the first round—those awarded to the playoff teams—were not first-round worthy. But how much of a difference is there between those picks and James Sheppard, chosen ninth by the Minnesota Wild (just 50 points in 230 career games including the playoffs)?
The real barometer for how good a draft was is the high-level talent it produces.
How many players in each draft made the All-Star game? How many will make or have already made the Hall of Fame? Where were the generational players taken?
Thus, this slideshow rates the top drafts of the era when the NHL had access to all the best talent—before the 1979 draft, they lost talent to the WHL; after the 2007 draft, the KHL began to compete.
In that 29-year span, 364 players were drafted who received at least one All-Star selection. Players drafted this millennium have not reached their peak yet, whereas players drafted before the mid-90s have, more or less, complete bodies of work.
Thus, to power rank them properly requires taking a look not only at how many players were selected as All-Stars and how many studs were among them, but how they compare to the norm of that time period. Therefore, all drafts were graphed to establish a baseline and those that were most above that were chosen.
The 1984 NHL draft featured 17 players receiving All-Star selections, tied for eighth among the drafts in question. Among them are four Hall of Fame players: Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy.
That is right, two of the greatest NHL players of all time were drafted in the same year. Mario Lemieux averaged almost two points per game in an NHL career with two Stanley Cups. Three-time Cup winner Patrick Roy changed the way the goaltending position was played more than anyone—except perhaps Jacques Plante—by introducing the butterfly technique.
So how does this rate behind nine other drafts? Because most of the other All-Stars selections did not play at that level for enough of their careers, 1984 comes in at No. 10 on the list, with only four drafts before 1990 having fewer studs.
The year after drafting one of the best of all time to man the pipes in Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils put one of the best players of his generation in front of him in Scott Niedermayer.
The 1991 NHL draft featured a whopping 20 players (fifth-most from 1979-2007) selected as All-Stars. However, it was not very deep in terms of studs—other than Niedermayer, only Peter Forsberg and Chris Osgood should make the Hall of Fame from that draft class.
The greatest player of the 1990 NHL draft just announced he will be returning for next season.
Martin Brodeur was two overtime goals away from winning Lord Stanley's Cup for the fourth time in 17 seasons. He is not only a Hall of Fame player, but he also should be included in any rational discussion of the best five goalies of all time.
That draft also had 15 other players who were All-Stars at least once. However, only Jaromir Jagr, Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk have any real chance to be in the Hall to greet Marty when he is finally eligible.
No matter how much Philadelphia Flyers fans whine about his whining, Sidney Crosby is a generational player.
If he can stay healthy, that is. He has missed more than half his team's games over the past two seasons, threatening to derail a career that saw him hoist a Prince of Wales Trophy in 2008, a Stanley Cup in 2009 and a gold medal in 2010.
Getting a player like that can make even a draft of players who only just hit their mid-20s look good. There are already nine players who have been selected as All-Stars—second most among drafts post-1998—and plenty of top-tier talent (Carey Price, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick) to support Crosby.
The first draft to occur after the WHL was absorbed into the NHL was 1979. That draft produced 21 All-Stars, including five Hall of Fame players: Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet and Glenn Anderson.
That places this draft solidly near the top of the 29 in question in every category: It was tied for third in All-Stars and behind just three other teams in both Hall of Famers and generational players, with Messier and Bourque among the 18 players over these 29 years that are the best of the best.
If this ranking was about goaltending, the 1994 NHL draft would be No. 1 with a bullet: Jose Theodore, Marty Turco, Tim Thomas, Evgeni Nabokov and Tomas Vokoun were all All-Stars who came out of this draft.
Perhaps no draft exemplifies the inexact science of the selection process as well, either. Six of the 21 All-Stars from this draft were selected after the eighth round (starting at pick No. 217), meaning they would not even be selected in the draft as currently constructed.
That is a lot of good talent. But while this class is now old enough to predict most of its Hall of Fame candidates, it is unlikely that anyone outside of Daniel Alfredsson and Patrik Elias will make it in.
Even if concussions end his career (appropriate given the number he caused by hits to opponents' heads), Chris Pronger will go down as one of the best of all time on the blue line.
That gives the 1993 NHL draft the generational player the next year lacked. And while it shares it successor's lack of other Hall of Fame talent, it also had the most All-Stars (24) of any class.
The 1997 NHL draft could go down as the greatest of all time depending on the coming years. While few players who have yet to be All-Star selections will make their first after their 32nd birthday, 18 players is still good for seventh among the 29 drafts.
Furthermore, sustained greatness could turn put many in the Hall of Fame. Based on their play right now, it seems likely that Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Marian Hossa are headed there, with Brian Campbell and Roberto Luongo having a good chance, as well.
Imagine how much better this draft would have been had the best goalie in the world been able to play for the Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in 1983.
Thanks to the Iron Curtain (a good nickname for the Soviet standout), Vladislav Tretiak never got the chance to play in the NHL. He had to settle for having a tremendous impact as a goalie coach, and he is the reason you will see so many goalies wearing No. 20.
However, there were 19 other All-Stars drafted that year, giving this draft more than all but five others.
It also has more current or future Hall of Fame players (including Tretiak) than any other draft in this era: Steve Yzerman and Pat LaFontaine can be considered among the best of the best, and Cam Neely would have been if not for a deep thigh bruise calcifying to end his career. Viacheslav Fetisov also wound up in the Hall of Fame from that class, and Dominik Hasek surely will be.
It is not even close. The 2003 NHL draft already rates as the best draft of this generation, among the best drafts in league history and among the best in any sport.
But how can it already be this good when its players are only just beginning to peak?
For one, 22 draftees have already been selected as All-Stars. Moreover, those ranks include four players who are on pace for Hall of Fame careers: Shea Weber, Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Many others should also make it if they continue to improve or can maintain their careers into their mid-30s: Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards and Dion Phaneuf. Even without considering how many other exceptional players are in that list, the 2003 class should finish with the most All-Stars and the most Hall of Fame players drafted between 1979 and 2007.