Ranking the 10 Worst No. 1 Overall Picks in NHL Draft History

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistOctober 5, 2020

Ranking the 10 Worst No. 1 Overall Picks in NHL Draft History

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    It's a pre-draft cottage industry.

    As a new crop of professional-eligible prospects come into view, we writing types can't resist a look back at what might have been or, in many cases, what never was.

    The guys projected as stars and chosen No. 1 overall in their respective sports who, for whatever reason, didn't complete the transition from prospect to superstar.

    They're sometimes memorable for the money they made. They're sometimes memorable for the executives they torpedoed. They're sometimes memorable for the players chosen after them.

    They're sometimes memorable for all three—and more.

    And in recent years, new names have been added to the ignominious lists.

    Football has JaMarcus Russell. Basketball has Greg Oden. Baseball has Brien Taylor.

    Yes, hockey has its dubious collection, too.

    So as the run-up to the 2020 NHL draft gets into its final few hours, the B/R ice hockey team looked at all the No. 1 overall picks since the draft began in 1963 and put together a list of the 10 biggest misses teams have made while selecting in the spotlight position.

    The list includes the year the player was chosen first and the team that made the pick, along with an assortment of statistics and mentions of the eventual stars chosen later in the same draft.

    Read through to see if your team's biggest faux pas is included, and we apologize in advance if we stir up any horrifying draft-night memories. But, hey, that's what the comments section is for, right?

10. Rick Pagnutti, 1967 (Los Angeles Kings)

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    Why They Picked Him

    He scored 80 points in 39 games for the Garson Falconbridge Native Sons (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey Association) as a 20-year-old in 1966-67


    What He Did for Them

    Not a thing.

    Pagnutti's numbers plummeted when he went to the Kings' affiliate in the AHL, and he never played a single game in the NHL. He did become a serviceable minor league player, however, and wound up playing 396 games with two teams over six AHL seasons. He was also named the IHL's best defenseman in 1971-72.


    Who They Could Have Had

    To be fair, no one of any great substance.

    Only three players from the 1967 draft even made it to the NHL at all, and the small group is highlighted by journeyman second-rounder J. Bob Kelly, who played 425 games with the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Still, a No. 1 pick who never plays a game is a big whiff no matter what comes after him.

9. Erik Johnson, 2006 (St. Louis Blues)

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    Johnson was big, strong and talented, and he seemed ideally suited to play physically—with a 6'4", 230-pound frame—while contributing on the offensive side, too.

    He had 24 points in 41 games as a freshman at the University of Minnesota before signing with the Blues.


    What He Did for Them

    If he had been picked anywhere other than first overall, the reviews on Johnson wouldn't be so harsh.

    He's had 12 seasons as a full-time NHL player, but his 80 goals and 303 points haven't exactly reminded people of Bobby Orr. The Blues shipped him to the Colorado Avalanche in his third season—he had missed the entire 2008-09 schedule with a knee injury—and he's been there ever since, including 59 games in 2019-20.


    Who They Could Have Had

    Loads of still-relevant offensive players were selected early in 2006, including three-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Toews at No. 3, Philadelphia's Claude Giroux at No. 22 and Boston's Brad Marchand at No. 71.

    Elsewhere in the top five were Jordan Staal (No. 2), Nicklas Backstrom (No. 4) and Phil Kessel (No. 5).

8. Doug Wickenheiser, 1980 (Montreal Canadiens)

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    Gene Puskar/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    A 6'1" center, Wickenheiser put up video game numbers in the 1979-80 season with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, scoring 89 goals and 170 points in 71 games.

    He was named player of the year in Canadian junior hockey and led the Pats to a berth in the Memorial Cup.


    What He Did for Them

    He registered 115 points in 202 games for the Canadiens across three-plus seasons before a trade to the St. Louis Blues in the 1983-84 season.

    He later played for the Vancouver Canucks, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals through 1989-90 and finished with 111 goals in 556 NHL games.


    Who They Could Have Had

    Ah, there's the rub. The draft was held at the Montreal Forum that year, and Canadiens fans were especially excited about the prospect of fleet-footed Quebec native Denis Savard joining the team.

    Savard, chosen third by Chicago, is in the Hockey Hall of Fame after scoring 473 goals in the NHL, as are three other players from that draft: Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri.

7. Greg Joly, 1974 (Washington Capitals)

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    William Smith/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    The Capitals were an expansion team making their first pick and looking for a player around whom they could build a franchise. Joly had scored 92 points with the Regina Pats in the 1973-74 junior season and added a Memorial Cup championship, following it up with recognition as the tourney's MVP.

    Milt Schmidt, Washington's general manager at the time and a former Boston GM, labeled Joly as the "next Bobby Orr." 


    What He Did for Them

    It didn't help that the Capitals were historically awful, but Joly was not exactly a juggernaut himself.

    He spent just 98 games over two seasons with Washington before being shipped to the Detroit Red Wings, for whom he played parts of seven seasons while splitting time with the team's AHL affiliate. In 365 career NHL games, he scored 21 goals and had an inglorious plus/minus rating of minus-165.


    Who They Could Have Had

    Three Hall of Famers were chosen within the first 25 picks in 1974, including Clark Gillies at No. 4, Bryan Trottier at No. 22 and Mark Howe at No. 25. With the pick immediately following Joly, the expansion Kansas City Scouts grabbed three-time All-Star and career 356-goal scorer Wilf Paiement.

6. Gord Kluzak, 1982 (Boston Bruins)

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    Dave Tenenbaum/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    Kluzak was a 6'4", 220-pound defenseman who had produced 71 points across 106 games for Billings of the Western Hockey League, drawing the attention of Boston GM Harry Sinden.

    He spent part of his final season on the shelf with a knee injury, but it didn't dissuade the Bruins from pulling the trigger on him ahead of two players rated ahead of him by The Hockey News: Brian Bellows and Gary Nylund.


    What He Did for Them

    Yes, about that injury. Kluzak wound up playing just 299 games across seven seasons with the Bruins through 1990-91, missing two entire seasons along the way and playing three, eight and two games across his final three seasons before retiring.

    He scored 123 regular-season points and added 19 more in 46 playoff games, including a run to the 1988 Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers.


    Who They Could Have Had

    Three other defensemen went in the top six in Kluzak's draft year, and it probably doesn't help Boston fans to remind them that two of those three—Scott Stevens and Phil Housley—are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    Also in the Hall from that first round is No. 16 pick Dave Andreychuk.

    None of the players selected by the Bruins that year ever made an NHL All-Star team.

5. Brian Lawton, 1983 (Minnesota North Stars)

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    The 18-year-old Lawton made hockey history as the first U.S.-born player to be drafted first overall and the only No. 1 pick ever selected out of an American high school.

    He scored 171 points in his final two high school seasons and played for the U.S. National Team at both the World Junior Championship and the World Championship, before going pro with Minnesota instead of playing in the 1984 Winter Olympics.


    What He Did for Them

    He topped out with 21 goals and 44 points in 1986-87 during a five-season stint with the North Stars and was traded to the New York Rangers after refusing an assignment to the AHL.

    Lawton later played with the Hartford Whalers, Boston Bruins, Quebec Nordiques and San Jose Sharks, eventually finishing his career with 112 goals in 483 games.


    Who They Could Have Had

    Each of the next six players drafted after Lawton played in at least one NHL All-Star Game, which Lawton never did. Two of those players, Pat LaFontaine and Steve Yzerman, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, as is No. 9 selection Cam Neely.

    Four more players picked in Rounds 7, 8, 10 and 12—namely Vladislav Tretiak, Viacheslav Fetisov, Dominik Hasek and Sergei Makarov—are also Hall of Famers.

4. Patrik Stefan, 1999 (Atlanta Thrashers)

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    Why They Picked Him

    Stefan was a 19-year-old Czech center with significant international experience as well as a 58-game stint in the highly regarded IHL, where he was an All-Star.

    The expansion Thrashers chose him after Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke orchestrated a series of trades to get assurances he would have Daniel and Henrik Sedin available to the Canucks with the second and third picks.


    What He Did for Them

    Considering he was the first pick in the draft, Stefan was a disappointment.

    He spent six seasons with Atlanta and never scored more than the 14 goals he netted in 2003-04. He scored 10 more with the Thrashers in 2005-06 after returning from a season overseas during the NHL lockout.

    Stefan was sent to the Dallas Stars in a 2006 trade and played 41 games in his final NHL season. 


    Who They Could Have Had

    Though the 1999 draft wasn't particularly laden with stars or all that deep after the first few picks, it will always be recalled that Stefan was selected ahead of the Sedin twins, who combined for 633 goals in their NHL careers.

    Stefan, meanwhile, is best known for blowing an opportunity at scoring an empty-net goal on a breakaway against the Edmonton Oilers.

3. Rick DiPietro, 2000 (New York Islanders)

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    This pick was a combination of overreaching on one player and giving up too soon on another.

    The Islanders chose DiPietro after he'd been a standout for the U.S. team at the World Junior Championship and with Boston University, where he was named MVP and best goaltender at the Beanpot Tournament in 2000.


    What He Did for Them

    The Islanders chose DiPietro just three seasons after selecting another goaltender, Roberto Luongo, with the fourth pick in the 1997 draft. They traded Luongo to Florida on DiPietro's draft day, and the rookie went 3-15 with a 3.49 goals-against average in the 2000-01 season.

    He wound up playing 318 games with the team across parts of 11 seasons, winning 130 times against 136 losses. That said, the biggest cost to the team was financial given that it signed DiPietro to a 15-year, $67.5 million deal in 2006 and ultimately bought out the contract in 2013.

    As a result, he will be paid $1.5 million a year through 2029.


    Who They Could Have Had

    The decision to go with DiPietro cost New York the services of Luongo, who went on to win 489 games and a Jennings Trophy in a career that also included two Olympic gold medals.

    Meanwhile, the remainder of the first round in 2000 included future All-Stars Dany Heatley, Marian Gaborik, Scott Hartnell and Justin Williams.

    Adding salt to the New York metropolitan area wound, longtime Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist was chosen in the seventh round, with pick No. 205.

2. Nail Yakupov, 2012 (Edmonton Oilers)

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    It wasn't a stellar draft crop, but Yakupov was clearly the top prospect after scoring 80 goals across two seasons with Sarnia of the OHL and playing well internationally.

    The pick marked the third straight year the Oilers selected No. 1 overall after picking Taylor Hall in 2010 and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011. But only Nugent-Hopkins remained by the time Edmonton next reached the playoffs in 2016-17.


    What He Did for Them

    The Russian was actually a respectable player in his first NHL season, scoring 17 goals in just 48 games to lead all rookies and finishing fifth in the Calder Trophy voting while receiving 11 first-place votes.

    But he never again reached those heights with the desperate-for-skill Oilers, scoring just 33 times in 204 games over three more seasons before a preseason trade to the St. Louis Blues. Yakupov played 40 games with the Blues and 58 more with the Colorado Avalanche the following season before heading back to Europe.

    He wound up with 62 goals in 350 NHL games.


    Who They Could Have Had

    Yakupov is the most recent draftee on this list, so the players selected after him haven't gone on to decade-long careers and Hall of Fame inductions.

    Still, Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was picked at the No. 19 spot in the first round, while three other forwards—right winger Filip Forsberg, center Zemgus Girgensons and center Tomas Hertl—have been NHL All-Stars.

1. Alexandre Daigle, 1993 (Ottawa Senators)

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    MARK HUMPHREY/Associated Press

    Why They Picked Him

    Unlike some players on this list, Daigle was by far and away the top prospect in his draft year and was expected to be the sort of franchise cornerstone the Senators could build around after they refused several offers to move out of the top spot.

    He scored 247 points in 119 games with Victoriaville in the QMJHL and signed an initial contract that paid him $12.5 million over five years, ushering in an era of entry-level salary caps.


    What He Did For Them

    Daigle was a 51-point scorer as a rookie in a year Teemu Selanne won the Calder Trophy, but the biggest issue for Senators fans was that he never exceeded that total and often had his effort questioned.

    He reached 51 points once more in Ottawa and was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers during the 1997-98 season after scoring 74 goals in 301 games with the Senators. Later NHL stops came with the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild.

    Daigle's final stats included 129 goals and 327 points in 616 games.


    Who They Could Have Had

    Daigle's biggest NHL takeaway might be the comment he uttered upon being selected No. 1: "I'm glad I got drafted first because no one remembers No. 2."

    In fact, No. 2 that year was Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, followed by another inductee, Paul Kariya, at No. 4.


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