Takin' a T/O with BT: When Is It Too Early for the Future of the NHL?

xx yySenior Writer IOctober 27, 2008

Every year, there's that can't-miss prospect.

They dominate their junior hockey season (be it OHL, QMJHL, WHL, US-Development Program, etc.), plant themselves at the top of every bottom-feeding fans wish-list, and have everyone drooling over that scary word: potential.

Then come the summer months. In June comes the draft, where the expectations start to fester as an organization finally begins to dub him as "their guy" and "their future." The summer entails off-ice and on-ice training sessions, summer leagues, and preparation for an attempt at an NHL roster.

Once September rolls around, it's time to see if all of the work was worth it. Is your boy going to make the team, or is he hitting the ice at a lower-tier to hone his skills?

Better yet, how can you tell when it's going to help the player, and when it is going to hinder them?

All too often, fans are bombarded with highlight reels of his possible future and what he was able to do at a level in which he can dominate. Unless your name is Ovechkin, Crosby, Lemieux, or Gretzky (who wasn't even drafted due to the adoption of the Oilers into the NHL in the NHL/WHA merger), it's hard to legitimately dominate a league of men at such a young age.

When coaches are faced with the option of working their player into the NHL game, they've got to take a lot of things into consideration. Is the player still too small? Are there commitment issues? What's his attitude towards the team and the game? Is he going to help or hinder the team?

Should practicality outweigh reputation? It should, but sometimes it doesn't.

It's a rare occurrence that a high-end let alone a first overall pick is returned to junior, but perhaps it should happen more often in an attempt to benefit the player.

Flashback to the first-ever first overall draft choice in 1963 by the Montreal Canadiens. The man in question was Garry Monahan, a forward from the St. Michael's Juveniles.

Although he was chosen at the age of 16, Monahan was the first first overall pick to take his time getting to the NHL, playing in the OHA and the CPHL before splitting the 1967/68 season with the CPHL and the NHL, and the 1968/1969 season with the AHL and NHL.

Depending on your opinion, Monahan may have been the first "bust" amongst first overall picks, never quite developing his game offensively (his career-high was 44 points) and turning into a strong defensive forward.

Because of the limited opportunities in the early era of the NHL Entry Draft though, it could be unfair to sell Monahan short. Due to the higher-quality league, Claude Gauthier and Andre Veilleux never even cracked NHL rosters as the next two first overall picks.

It took until the 1966 NHL Entry Draft for the NHL to witness its first quick ascension to the NHL, with Boston Bruins' defenseman Barry Gibbs debuting in the 1967/68 season. Gibbs eventually developed into a bit of a chippy defenseman, averaging 68 penalty minutes per season. He could post between 20 and 30 points per season.

This was about the time that a first overall selection would start to see NHL time no matter what. 1967 marked the last season in which a first overall pick (Rick Pagnutti) didn't see at least a game in the NHL ever.

Two years later, Rejean Houle became the first ever first overall pick to see NHL time the same year he was drafted, playing in nine games for the 1969/70 Montreal Canadiens following his 1969 draft, only registering one assist. The one vice with this is that Houle was 20 years old when he was drafted—the youngest age at which the NHL permitted teams to sign players.

Despite his five Stanley Cup rings, Houle did little to assert himself into the NHL history books, registering just 408 points in 635 games and spending three seasons in the WHL with the Quebec Nordiques.

The following season, the Buffalo Sabres selected Gilbert Perreault first overall, allowing him to become the second player ever to play the same year he was drafted, and the first ever player to win both a Calder Trophy and be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Since Perreault won the Calder, only seven first overall picks have done the same in their first seasons, while only four other players made the Hall of Fame (with Guy Lafleaur being the only entrant not having done both).

Side Note: Don't expect that Hall of Fame stat to remain the same for much longer. Mario Lemieux was the last first overall pick ever inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Mats Sundin and Mike Modano are nearing retirement, while players like Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Thornton, and Ilya Kovalchuk are producing year-in, year-out.

So with early success, some teams chose to experiment with drafting older players to get the immediate impact from the ability to immediately sign them.

Guy Lafleur, Billy Harris, Denis Potvin, Greg Joly, Mel Bridgman, Rick Green, Dale McCourt, Bobby Smith, Rob Ramage, and Doug Wickenheiser were all drafted first overall, garnering three Hall of Famers and three Calder winners—the best ratios of any decade so far.

So early on in the draft process, making the jump straight to the NHL was starting to look like a quality solution for a player looking for success.

As time wore on and first overall picks started gaining notoriety, things started to slide a bit. During the '80s, only two players (Mario Lemieux and Dale Hawerchuk) won Calder trophies after being taken first overall. (And ironically both are in the Hall of Fame now)

Joe Murphy had only one point in five games and Pierre Turgeron and Wendel Clark were the leaders (aside from a pair of 100-point seasons from Mario and Hawerchuk) for points in rookie seasons (for first overall picks) with 42 and 45 points respectively.

Supporting the "let's give them a few years" frame of mind, both Mike Modano and Mats Sundin delayed their debuts in the NHL after being drafted first overall (1988 and 1989 respectively), with Modano posting 75 points in 1989/90 and Sundin with 59 points in 1990/91.

Entering the '90s, the "First Overall Frenzy" got even crazier. Owen Nolan (first overall in 1990) spent the 1990/91 season with the Quebec Nordiques, struggling to put up 13 points in 59 games. Eric Lindros took a year after his 1991 draft year and delayed his debut until 1992/1993, coming out with a huge 40-goal, 70-point debut.

Roman Hamrlik had a fairly strong showing in '92 with the Tampa Bay Lightning (21 points). Following him was super-bust Alexandre Daigle (Need I say more?), while Ed Jovanovski was another player with a delayed debut.

While some picks were panning out (Lindros and Nolan) and some picks weren't (Daigle), it seemed like the delayed mindset was working for the NHL.

Then came one of the best young defenseman in first overall pick history. Bryan Berard was coming off of two huge seasons in the OHL (75 and 89 points) and he didn't slow down once he made it to the NHL (with 48 and 46 points in his first two seasons following a trade from Ottawa to the New York Islanders).

It seemed that, despite his fast start, Berard's success was encouraging for future No. 1s.

Chris Phillips was brought on by the Senators to be their top defensive option. Following another solid season in the WHL, Phillips was brought on the following year. While he's developed into a good defenseman, he's not the top-flight kind of guy you'd want with your No. 1.

Then followed a few tough seasons. Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier were drafted back-to-back at No. 1 in 1997 and 1998. Both debuted following their draft, and both struggled (Thornton with seven points, Lecavalier with 26).

Each player also had hefty expectations placed on him as the go-to-guys for their respective franchises, and each faced his fair share of scrutiny as the years wore on. (Thornton continued to face it in Boston even after he hit his stride at the NHL-level.)

Patrik Stefan also had those expectations for a fledgling Atlanta Thrashers' franchise. But instead of turning it on once he was getting surrounded by a little bit better talent, Stefan failed to hit an empty net, and has since undergone an exodus from the NHL.

Since then, the NHL has seemingly been gifted with able-bodied, impact-making first overall picks. Ilya Kovalchuk has been a threat with 30 goals since he was drafted in 2001, Rick Nash won a Maurice Richard trophy his second season in the league, and of course there are now Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

So what's up with guys like Steve Stamkos and Sam Gagner?

Both Gagner and Stamkos have flopped when it comes to expectations this season. Gagner has just one point in six games this season following a 49-point 2007/08, and Stamkos has no points in seven games.

There have been whispers about sending Stamkos back to the Sarnia Sting due to his underperformance, while the Edmonton Oilers (who don't have the option of sending Gagner back to junior hockey like they did last season) have responded the exact opposite way: Let's give the kid more ice time.

So which is the right solution? Well, as with so many things in the sports world, the answer has to be tailor-made to the specific player.

There's no telling whether sending Stamkos back to the OHL will hurt his confidence or help him with his game, and we also don't know if Gagner's expanded role in Edmonton's offense will help him or hurt him. (Common knowledge says that it will, but common knowledge also said that Sergei Samsonov could've been good again this season.)

The only thing that's for certain, is that no one's a bust after one, two, or even three seasons—it's just too early to tell.

Keep preaching patience, Tampa fans. If you get too impatient you may just end up with a Patrik Stefan or an Alexandre Daigle. At least he got into more NHL games than Rick Pagnutti though.

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.

This article was written in preface to Alan Bass' article tomorrow.


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