With another NHL season in the books, 16 lucky teams are preparing for a long grind through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The other 15 teams are hoping their luck comes through in the draft lottery.
Getting that coveted No. 1 selection can be life-changing for a franchise (and its fans). Your team gets to select the best player of an age group; odds are that should lead to better days.
But as recent history shows, not all first-overall picks are created equal. Some are generational talents, others are solid NHLers, and some are just disappointments.
There have been 15 drafts in the NHL since a lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. Below is a ranking of those 15 first-overall picks, to offer some hope (and warning) to the lucky team that wins this year’s draft lottery.
The Generational Talents
This group are the best of the best, and don’t come along very often.
Crosby isn’t just one of the best players of his generation, he’s one of the greatest players of all-time. Through 943 games, he’s averaging 1.29 points per game and his 1,216 points are five more than Alex Ovechkin for the most in the post-lockout era, despite Ovechkin playing 141 more games. He’s led the Penguins to three Stanley Cups and 13 consecutive playoff appearances, while also winning two Hart Memorial Trophies, two Conn Smythe Trophies and multiple shelves worth of other hardware.
One of the greatest goal scorers of all time, and someone who has a (long-shot) chance of passing Wayne Gretzky’s 894 goals record. Ovechkin now has eight seasons with at least 50 goals, something only Gretzky and Mike Bossy did more times. He also holds the record for most overtime goals (22), is fourth all-time in power-play goals (247) and seventh all-time in game-winning goals (107).
The leader of the next wave of NHL talent, McDavid is the only player with a higher points-per-game average in the post-lockout era than Crosby. He already has two Ted Lindsay Awards, a Hart trophy and three seasons with over 100 points. And he’s still only 22.
The top scorer on a Blackhawks team that dominated the NHL for years. Kane has never had less than 64 points in any full season, and has two seasons over 100 points. He’s also a dominant playoff performer with 50 goals and 123 points in 127 playoff games, helping lead the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups.
This group covers the most likely scenario for a first-round pick. They are solid top-line players who are consistently among the best at their positions.
Stamkos is the second-best goal scorer of his generation, with one 60-goal season on his resume and another four with at least 43. He’s also evolved into a talented playmaker, crossing the 50-assist mark in the each of the last two seasons. The Lightning have reached the conference finals three times, and the Stanley Cup Final once, since drafting Stamkos.
Tavares is a reliable centre that could slot in on any team’s top line. He’s never scored less than 24 goals in a season and has crossed 80 points four times in his career. He also has a reputation for making his wingers (Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, Anders Lee among others) better, which is the type of extra value teams expect from a player taken with the first pick.
After McDavid, Matthews is the model for what the next generation of top centres look like. He mixes a lethal shot — he’s hit at least 34 goals in all three of his seasons — with a smart hockey sense to become a threat to score anywhere on the ice. His role has been reduced a bit by the addition of Tavares, and some injuries, but that hasn’t slowed him down.
MacKinnon combines blazing speed with a big body to become an unstoppable force. He’s gotten better every year since he broke into the league, and just set a new career high with 41 goals and a second consecutive season with over 97 points. The Avalanche have plenty of exciting young talent on the roster and in the pipeline, and MacKinnon will be the one leading them to potential playoff glory in the near future.
9. Taylor Hall, 2010, Edmonton Oilers, Left Wing
Injuries have kept Hall from being a consistent star in the NHL, but when he’s healthy, he’s one of the top wingers in the league. The reigning Hart Trophy winner, Hall has the ability to beat teams with his speed and powerful shot, making him a safe bet for 20 goals and 50 points every season. Even this year, he was producing at a 27-goal and 92-point pace before injuries cut his season short in December.
Dahlin is coming off his first season in the NHL and while it’s a small sample, he’s shown flashes of the star player the Sabres are expecting him to be. His 44 points rank second behind only his now former head coach, Phil Housley, for most by an 18-year-old defenceman. He’s also averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game, and plays close to three minutes a game on the power play, numbers that will only go up as he continues to develop.
Ekblad has room to grow, but at age 23 is already the best defenceman on the Panthers, and an important contributor in all situations. His 30.1 shifts per game are tied with the Canucks’ Alex Edler for most in the NHL this season, and for his career he’s skated an average of 22 minutes per game. He’s also the Panthers’ most used penalty killer and his 66 goals are the most in team history by a defenceman.
The Average NHLers
These players have had perfectly fine NHL careers, but haven’t risen to the elite level expected of the very top draft pick.
Hischier has yet to emerge as a dominant offensive force when compared with other recent top picks. The 20-year-old has only 37 goals and 99 points through his first 151 games, respectable numbers but far fewer than what his peers have produced. Hischier is still only 20 so the Devils can afford to be patient with him for a bit longer.
13. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 2011, Edmonton Oilers, Centre
Nugent-Hopkins has never emerged as a star player in Edmonton, especially relative to his No. 1-pick status. While other top picks are chasing scoring titles, it’s taken Nugent-Hopkins eight years to break the 60-point mark, and he’s still never had a 30-goal campaign. The most telling stat of his career might be this: his teammate McDavid has recorded 10 fewer points than Nugent-Hopkins’ 382, in 252 fewer games. That’s disappointing for a spot in the draft that’s supposed to produce game-changing players.
14. Erik Johnson, 2006, St. Louis Blues, Defence
The only player on this list who didn’t break into the NHL the season after he was drafted, Johnson hasn’t lived up to his top-pick selection over his 11 seasons in the league. He’s a career minus-38 player, only has 77 goals in 717 games, and has only appeared in seven playoff games, which will change this week. He still leads the Avalanche in defencemen ice time this season, but by only two seconds over Tyson Barrie. With a youth movement coming to Denver, Johnson’s role will only continue to shrink.
The worst-case scenario for any team with the No. 1 pick.
15. Nail Yakupov, 2012, Edmonton Oilers, Right Wing
The only player on this list no longer playing in the NHL, Yakupov had 17 goals in his rookie campaign and never got more than 14 in any season after that. In six seasons and 350 games, he posted a disappointing 50 goals and 136 points. Even though he’s still only 25, Yakupov spent the 2018-19 season in the KHL, where he collected 23 goals and 33 points in 47 games. But that came after being traded to St. Louis only four years after being the top pick for a player who’s spent most of his career in the ECHL.