Ranking the No. 1 Picks in the NHL Draft in the Last Decade

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured Columnist IIIJune 15, 2022

Ranking the No. 1 Picks in the NHL Draft in the Last Decade

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    AP Photo/Alan Diaz

    At best, it's an inexact science.

    At worst, it can hamstring a franchise and cost a personnel boss his job.

    It's the process of prospecting for prospects at the NHL draft.

    Get it right, and you can instantly turn a team from an also-ran into a contender. Get it wrong, and your successor can get another chance in a year or two.

    There's a bit of both across the league each summer, and with this year's July 7-8 event creeping ever closer, the B/R hockey team took a look at the No. 1 overall picks from each of the last 10 drafts and ranked them.

    A player's probable and/or actual performance upon full-time arrival or, in some cases, lack of performance against some of the other options his drafting team passed on in a given year factored in.

10. Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers, 2012

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    AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

    The Edmonton Oilers have picked first overall four times.

    And in three of those cases, they've chosen very well—Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall have combined to play 1,587 games for the franchise while scoring 567 goals and earning seven All-Star Weekend invites.

    But that one other time was, well...not so good. Or, comparatively speaking, really bad.

    Winger Nail Yakupov was the top available North American skater according to the league's central scouting bureau and had torn up the OHL to the tune of 80 goals and 170 points across two seasons. So it's no shock the Oilers jumped at him while picking first for the third straight year after they'd already grabbed Hall and Nugent-Hopkins.

    The Russian-born Yakupov did have a perfectly respectable, albeit brief, 2012-13 rookie season after a lockout, scoring 17 goals and finishing with 31 points in 48 games. But he never made any substantial improvements across three more full seasons that resulted in just 33 more goals before he was dealt to St. Louis before the start of the 2016-17 schedule.

    He lasted one pedestrian season with the Blues and played one more with the Colorado Avalanche before heading back to Russia, where he was still active in 2021-22.

    Forwards Filip Forsberg (No. 11 overall) and Tom Wilson (No. 16) have gone on to All-Star status from the 2012 class, which is difficult enough to recall. But whatever you do, don't remind an Edmonton fan that another Russian, two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, went to Tampa Bay at pick No. 19.

    Call it a Nail Fail.

9. Owen Power, Buffalo Sabres, 2021

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    AP Photo/Joshua Bessex

    It's no insult to Owen Power that he's listed this low.

    Because he won't be for long.

    After all, the 6'6" defenseman has played fewer than 10 games in the league and is still several months shy of his 20th birthday, so there's plenty of room to grow.

    And a small sample size suggests that growth will occur sooner than later.

    Power finished his collegiate career at the University of Michigan and joined the Buffalo Sabres late in the 2021-22 season, getting into eight April games, scoring a pair of goals on 10 shots and finishing with a plus-three rating.

    He also played for Team Canada at both the world juniors and the Winter Olympics and jumped to the NHL only after the Wolverines were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in the national semifinals by the University of Denver.

    He blends his size and reach with agile skating and good hands and seems sure to be among the preseason favorites to contend for the Calder Trophy next season. And his teammates in Buffalo took an immediate liking to him thanks to his attitude.

    "He's a special player. Even his first game in Toronto, seeing a 19-year-old step in the league as a D-man and have that poise and calm with the puck and just look very natural, you know he's only gonna get better," Mattias Samuelsson told the Buffalo News' Mike Harrington. "It's exciting with the 'D' we have. He's a great kid, great personality and definitely a hell of a player."

8. Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers, 2020

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    AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker

    It'd been a while since anyone reached the NHL with a push like Alexis Lafreniere got.

    He'd shredded the Quebec major junior league for 112 points in 52 games for Rimouski in 2019-20 and earned a world junior championship with Team Canada after producing four goals and six assists in five games while securing the tournament's MVP award.

    He and Sidney Crosby are the only pair to have won the Canadian Hockey League's player of the year award twice, and he was the first Rimouski player since Crosby in 2005 to be rated the top available North American skater by the league's central scouting bureau.

    So if you think 31 goals and 52 points in 135 NHL games have been a fairly meh performance by comparison, you're not alone. Rangers coach Gerard Gallant went public early in the 2021-22 season asking for more from his highly touted 20-year-old.

    Lafreniere jumped from 12 goals to 19 in his recently completed second NHL season and contributed nine points in the team's first 20 playoff games as New York advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. He averaged better than 14 minutes of ice time per game in the playoffs and frequently shared a line with fellow youngsters Filip Chytil (22) and Kaapo Kakko (21).

    “Laffy has been really good,” teammate Ryan Strome told the New York Post's Mollie Walker.

    “He’s elevated his game. I think he competes really hard. He obviously has special ability, which is coming out lately in a big way.”

7. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils, 2017

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    AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

    The first of two Devils to be featured on this list, Nico Hischier became the first Swiss-born player to be taken No. 1 when New Jersey got him as an 18-year-old in 2017.

    Like Lafreniere, he arrived to the NHL on the heels of a domination of the major junior ranks in Quebec, where he had 86 points in 57 games and earned leaguewide nods as both its Offensive Rookie of the Year and best professional prospect.

    He was ranked second among available North American skaters by the league's central scouting bureau, trailing Nolan Patrick, who went second overall to Philadelphia.

    Hischier arrived to a Devils team that ranked in the bottom 10 in goals scored the season before and made a respectable impact with 20 goals and 52 points in 82 games.

    And though he's ascended to the team's captaincy and produced years of 17, 14 and 21 goals since, excluding a 2020-21 season limited to 21 games by injuries, he hasn't been consistently dominant on the highest level, topping out at 60 points in 70 games.

    Toward that end, the pick suffers in comparison to fourth overall selection Cale Makar, who went to Colorado, won a Calder Trophy and has become one of the most important players on a team that'll compete for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001.

6. Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils, 2019

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    AP Photo/Nick Wass

    Why settle for one Devils pick when you can have two?

    New Jersey stepped to the podium for the first overall choice again in 2019 and plucked 18-year-old Florida native Jack Hughes from USA Hockey's national development program after he'd led the Under-18 team in 2018-19 with 112 points in 50 games.

    His 154 assists and 228 points across two seasons are program records, and he became the program's fifth No. 1 overall pick, joining Auston Matthews (2016), Patrick Kane (2007), Erik Johnson (2006) and Rick DiPietro (2000).

    His production has ticked upward across parts of three NHL seasons, as he scored seven goals in 61 games as a rookie and then 11 goals in 56 games before averaging better than a point per game in an injury-impacted 2021-22 season that saw him post 26 goals and 56 points in 49 games.

    Still, Hughes was the NHL's youngest All-Star in 2022—and first of his draft class—and seemed aware of the consistent expectations for him thanks to the permanent "No. 1 pick" tag he'll carry.

    He told the New York Post's Walker:

    "Obviously that’s something that’s going to stick with you your whole career. You’re labeled as that guy. It’s special, it’s still something that’s pretty special to me, you know? There’s only one kid a year that’s first overall. But I’m in my third year now, I’m in my first All-Star game, I think I’ve moved away from that notion.

    "Now, I’m just working on my game and trying to become a star in the league.”

5. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers, 2014

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    AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

    Make no mistake: Aaron Ekblad has been a very good NHL player.

    He went first overall to the Florida Panthers in 2014 and has rewarded them with a Calder Trophy and two trips to the All-Star Game, not to mention years of steady play in which he's scored 97 goals, produced 291 points and had heavy ice time against high-end opponents.

    But he's one of the guys on this list who'll suffer the most because of who else was available in his class.

    He was followed in the first round by an eventual league MVP in Leon Draisaitl, who went third to Edmonton; not to mention a perennial All-Star in Boston's David Pastrnak, who's already produced more than 500 points in spite of a late selection at No. 25.

    They're in addition to All-Star Dylan Larkin of Detroit at No. 15 and Brayden Point, who wasn't taken until the third round but has rewarded Tampa Bay with 167 regular-season goals and 38 more in the playoffs on the way to consecutive Stanley Cups.

    Not exactly the company you want to be compared to in an exercise like this.

    In fact, an NHL.com re-do of the 2014 draft had him going fifth behind those players.

    Keeping Ekblad on the ice has been Florida's biggest issue in recent years, as he's missed significant time in both 2020-21 and 2021-22 after playing 80 more games in three of his first five seasons as a full-time player.

    “He is really important for us,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said, according to Colby Guy of the Palm Beach Post. “He is our best guy back there and not just on the defensive side, but the offensive side as well. He sort of dictates the way we play, he’s a big part of our team.”

4. Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres, 2018

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    AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

    Rasmus Dahlin came with a tangible international buzz.

    The 6'3", 207-pound defenseman was picked first by the Buffalo Sabres in 2018 thanks to high-end production from the blue line (20 points in 41 games) in the Swedish Hockey League and an obvious skill set that included smooth skating, shooting, vision and a superior hockey IQ.

    He was the first Swede picked at No. 1 since 1989 and has been a reliable performer for the Sabres ever since, producing 40 or more points in three of four seasons, including career highs in goals (13) and points (53) in 2021-22.

    Among 2018 draftees, only winger Brady Tkachuk (picked fourth by Ottawa) and fellow defenseman Quinn Hughes (picked seventh by Vancouver) have equaled Dahlin's achievement of playing in an All-Star Game.

    And given the recent additions of other young talents to the Sabres' defensive corps, it's not hard to imagine Dahlin and Co. providing the backbone as the team seeks to end better than a decade's worth of irrelevance.

    Teammate Mattias Samuelsson told the Buffalo News' Lance Lysowski:

    “It’s been a ton of fun playing with [Dahlin]. It makes my job a lot easier. Just give him the puck. He’s an incredible player. I think he’s a superstar in this league. He’s a great guy where if you do make a mistake, he’s not going to say anything to you.

    "It’s always an adjustment period playing with someone new and his tendencies. We’re getting through that right now, but it’s a lot of fun. I love playing with him.”

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche, 2013

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    AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

    It's a good time to buy Nathan MacKinnon stock.

    In fact, a couple of weeks from now, there may be plenty of legitimate arguments suggesting he ought to be bumped up a spot (or even two) on this list.

    The speedy forward has helped get the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001 this spring, and he's done so in part by beating a team led by a guy you'll see in a couple of clicks.

    But whether you think MacKinnon deserves top billing or not, there's no question he's an elite player, and the organization has zero regrets about picking him first in 2013.

    Still just 26, the 200-pound Nova Scotia native learned the ropes through his first several NHL seasons before breaking out in 2017-18 with 39 goals and 97 points to earn a finalist nod for the Hart Trophy and help get Colorado into the playoffs after it was last overall a season before.

    The Avalanche have been a fixture among the elites since, and MacKinnon has followed suit, having averaged better than a point per game for five straight seasons. His 11 goals are second among playoff participants this year, and his 18 points in 14 games are seventh.

    He has more goals, assists and points than anyone else drafted in 2013 and has climbed to sixth on the franchise's all-time list in points (648), where he trails only Hall of Famer Joe Sakic (1,641), Hall of Famer Peter Stasny (1,048), Hall of Famer Michel Goulet (946), Milan Hejduk (805) and Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg (755).

2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2016

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    AP Photo/Nick Wass

    There are goal scorers. And there are gifted goal scorers.

    And then there's Auston Matthews.

    The burly California native has had the Midas touch from the instant he reached NHL ice following his selection at No. 1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016.

    He scored 40 goals in 82 games as a rookie in 2016-17, followed with 34 and 37 in the next two seasons while playing 62 and 68 games, respectively, and then ramped back up to 47 in 70 games in 2019-20 and 41 in 52 games in 2020-21.

    But it all seemed prelude to this past season, when Matthews became the first American player to reach 50 since John LeClair in 1997-98, the first Toronto player to pass 50 since Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94 and the first player in any uniform to score 60—yes, he wound up with 60—since Steven Stamkos did so a decade ago.

    His 259 goals are more than 80 ahead of anyone else from his draft class and four better than anyone else in the NHL since the start of his rookie season. In fact, only nine players have scored more often across the last 10 seasons than Matthews, and he's only played six.

    Alex Ovechkin, who's on track to become the NHL's all-time goal-scoring leader, had just 17 more goals in his first 407 games (276) than Matthews does.

    "Matthews just seems really special," Wayne Gretzky, who holds the league's record at 894, told NHL.com. "What he's doing is very similar to what Ovechkin did when he was younger, so I think they are a lot alike.

    "They're both outstanding goal scorers."

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, 2015

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    AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

    The 2015 NHL draft was pretty good.

    In fact, no fewer than 12 first-round picks from that year's event have been recognized with All-Star Game invitations since beginning their playing careers.

    Still, even among such lofty company, Connor McDavid stands alone.

    The Oilers won a predraft lottery to earn the right to select him in 2015, made him the team's captain after a single season and have enjoyed the show since, as he's stockpiled individual awards and started warranting comparisons to the franchise's legends.

    He won the first of three Ted Lindsay Awards—presented to the league's best player as voted by the NHLPA—following his second full season, added another the following year and picked up a third in 2021 to go with four scoring titles and two MVP awards.

    McDavid's 105 points in a 2020-21 season shortened to 56 games by COVID-19 concerns translated to a per-game scoring average bettered by six players in the previous 50 years (minimum 50 games played), and he ramped up to a career-high 123 points in 80 games this season before leading Edmonton's postseason run to the Western Conference Final with 33 points in 16 games.

    No player selected in 2015 is closer than 242 points off his career total of 697 points, which has prompted far more connection to historic names such as Gretzky and Mario Lemieux than to fellow draftees Mitchell Marner (selected fourth, 455 points), Mikko Rantanen (selected 10th, 408) and Jack Eichel (selected second, 380).

    "I pull for Connor every night to get eight or nine points," Gretzky told Sports Illustrated's Alex Prewitt. "I hope he breaks some of my records. I want to see him excel to a point where people go, ‘Oh, my God, this guy’s better than Wayne Gretzky.’”


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