The NHL Draft was established in 1963 and has been used by NHL clubs as a major way to add talent to their teams. For the teams that have been able to secure the first-overall pick, chances are they are drafting an exceptional player that can change the outlook of the team’s future.
Sometimes though – that’s just not the case.
You never truly know how a prospect will develop, if they’ll be able to translate their game to the NHL, or if they’ll “bust.” This was especially true when NHL teams were first starting to scout and analyze players for the draft, but it’s still evident in today’s game as well.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the 10 worst first-overall picks in NHL history and why they’ve earned the right to be on this list.
Spoiler: there’s a three-way tie for first.
10) Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa Senators (1993)
NHL Career: 616 Games, 129 Goals, 198 Assists, 327 Points
Ottawa Senators were the next great NHL superstar when they drafted Alexandre Daigle. Alexandre Daigle, the Ottawa Senators’ No. 1 prospect in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, was selected. They thought so.
Similar: Alexandre Daigle’s Last Stand?
Daigle joined the league after he had scored 247 points during 119 QMJHL games played for the Victoriaville Tigres. His popularity was so high that he was named the “Best Player in the League”. Quebec Nordiques provided playersOwen Nolan, Peter Forsberg and Ron Hextall are just a few of the draft picks that were used to draft the next great French Canadian. (from: “HOCKEY; As Expected, Senators Make Daigle Top Pick” – NYTimes – June 27, 1993). The Senators rejected this offer and chose him as their top choice.
His first season saw him score 20 goals and collect a record-breaking 51 points. He did it twice more throughout his career. But it’s safe to say he never blossomed into that player that was supposed to be. He was offered a five-year, $12.5 million contract to begin his career. Later, the salary caps were put on entry-level contracts.
“I’m glad I got drafted first because no one remembers number two.”-
Alexandre Daigle after being drafted. Chosen No. 2 was Chris Pronger, future Hall of Famer
Daigle is likely to be higher up on this list because of the hype surrounding his draft. But he did play 616 NHL games and collect 327 points. Not exactly what was expected of him, but better than many players have in their NHL careers – and those on the rest of this list.
9) Brian Lawton (1983), Minnesota North Star
NHL Career: 483 Games, 112 Goals, 154 Assists, 266 Points
While Brian Lawton finds himself on this list, it doesn’t change the history that he made. The centreman was the First American-born player to ever be drafted first overall and he’s the only first-overall pick to ever be selected out of a U.S. high school.
Lawton was drafted after scoring 171 points in two seasons at Mount St. Charles Academy. He also played for Team USA at both the World Juniors’ and World Championship. Lawton was chosen by the Minnesota North Stars ahead of players such as Steve Yzerman, Pat LaFontaine and Cam Neely. Whoops.
Lawton was convinced by the team that he should go professional and made the leap straight to the North Stars. Although he played five seasons for North Stars, Lawton put up respectable numbers (162 point in 303 games), but never achieved the first-overall ranking.
He was traded to the New York Rangers, where he spent the remainder his career jumping from one league to another. From 1987 to 1993 he was a member of seven NHL teams, three IHL and one AHL teams. In 1989-1990, he was a member of four teams (three NHL).
8) Patrik Stephan, Atlanta Thrashers (1999).
NHL Career: 455 Games, 64 Goals, 124 Assists, 188 Points
It is arguably the worst NHL Draft in history, and it begins with Atlanta Thrashers selection Patrik Stephan. It’s even worse when you take a look at the two players taken after him: Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Related: 1999: What is the Worst NHL Draft Class?
Czech centreman, Stefan, played in the Czech league for HC Sparta Praha and the Long Beach Ice Dogs of IHL before joining the NHL. The IHL was then considered the second-best league in the world and Stefan – despite being held to just 33 games in his draft year due to a concussion – was an all-star.
After that, he spent seven seasons in the NHL. Six of those were with the Thrashers. One was with the Dallas Stars. He will always be remembered for his role as one of the greatest players ever to play the game. The NHL’s worst errors. His career highs were 14 goals and 40 points.
Overall, Stefan disappointed in his NHL career but he can’t be entirely held at fault. Stefan shouldn’t have been taken first overall and wouldn’t have been if it wasn’t for Brian Burke. Burke made a series of trades to ensure that he landed the Sedin twins for the Vancouver Canucks and in those dealings, he got the Thrashers the first-overall pick with the assurance that they wouldn’t select a Sedin. Stefan would still have been a bust but he was not on this list.
7) Greg Joly Washington Capitals (1974).
NHL Career: 365 Games, 21 Goals, 76 Assists, 97 Points
We’re going back a number of years for this one, back when the draft was still referred to as the NHL Amateur Draft. The 1974 draft saw the Washington Capitals join the NHL as an expansion club and receive the first overall pick. They selected Greg Joly.
Related: The Worst 1st Overall Draft Pick…Ever
Joly came into the draft hot, coming off a 92-point season with the WHL’s Regina Pats, followed up with a 20-point playoff performance in 16 games. He was named Memorial Cup MVP after leading the Pats to a Memorial Cup Championship. He was a hot commodity.
First Capitals’ general manager, Milt Schmidt, was the man at the helm of this decision, touting Joly as the “next Bobby Orr.” With 97 points in 365 games, I think it’s safe to say that Joly did not live up to that hype. His entire career was spent in bounce between the AHL NHL and NHL, with most of his time in the AHL.
It also wasn’t with the Capitals. Joly played 98 games with the team that drafted and only scored 33 points. He also had a minus-116 record. He spent the remainder of his career with Red Wings, winning two Calder Cup titles with the Adirondack Red Wings. He finished his NHL career with a plus-165 plus/minus.
6) Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers (2012)
NHL Career: 350 Games, 62 Goals, 74 Assists, 136 Points
Nail Yakupov is the most recent drafted player on this roster. Everyone knows his story. The Edmonton Oilers took Yakupov as their third-straight top-overall pick after dominating the OHL with Sarnia Sting, scoring 170 points in 107 matches and terrorizing international teams.
After being drafted, Yakupov headed to the KHL’s Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk for the half locked-out 2012-13 season, collecting 18 points in 22 games. It wasn’t bad, but things were still good for the young player. In the NHL, he scored 31 points in 48 contests.
The Russian winger was then left in a rut. He was only able to play three more campaigns for Oilers and only crossed 30 points once (33 points during 2014-15). They traded him to St. Louis to get Zach Pochiro who had never played in an NHL game.
The Blues allowed him to walk into free agency after he only scored nine points in his 40 games. He was offered a one-year contract by the Colorado Avalanche, where he scored 16 points in 58 games. Yakupov was relieved. Heading back to the KHLFor the 2018-19 season. He was there the past three seasons for SKA St Petersburg Khabarovsk Amur Omsk Avangard. There he scored 39 goals in 126 games.
5) Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders (2000)
NHL Career: 318 Games, 2.87 GAA, .902 SV%
Rick DiPietro is another first-overall selection. He last played in an NHL hockey game in 2012-13, before being bought out in 2013. But he will still be paid by New York Islanders up to the end of 2028-29.
DiPietro’s case is interesting because it was only three years after the Islanders had drafted Roberto Luongo as fourth overall goaltender. The Islanders feltDiPietro saw a better future than Luongo, so he traded Luongo to the Florida Panthers. It didn’t work out that way.
After dominating the 2000 World Juniors, DiPietro was thought to be the NHL’s next best keeper. While he did play 318 games with the Islanders, DiPietro looked at times like a good starting goaltender. However, more often than not, he was a terrible in the net.
To make matters worse and pile on to the hype that he simply couldn’t live up to, in 2006 the Islanders signed him to a massive 15-year contract worth $67.5 million. But between the contract, his struggles, the team’s struggles, and a series of injuries that seriously limited his play, there was simply no living up to the first-overall pick standards.
4) Gord Kluzak, Boston Bruins (1982)
NHL Career: 299 Games, 25 Goals, 98 Assists, 123 Points
Gord Kluzak, the 1982 first-overall draft pick, might not have made it to this list if not for his injuries. The warning signs were evident from the other players who were available due to injuries that preceded Kluzak’s draft selection.
The defender played in the WHL for the Billings Bighorns. He put up a remarkable 71 points in 106 games over two seasons. He also missed half of the draft due to ligament tears. Harry Sinden, general manager of the team, believed in the young star and chose him as the top pick.
Some of these players They were created after KluzakIt was even worse for the selection. Brian Bellows was immediately followed by Scott Stevens and Phil Housley in the top 10. Later, players such as Pat Verbeek and Ray Ferraro, along with Doug Gilmour, were taken. This was a very good draft year, but Kluzak didn’t help that.
He played 299 games in seven seasons, but nine years. Two seasons in the middle (1984-1985 and 1986-1987) saw him miss entire campaigns due to knee injuries. He played just 3-8 games in his last three seasons, and only 2 before he retired from skating. Had it not been for injuries, perhaps he might not be on this list, but looking at the names taken after him, it especially doesn’t help his case.
These are the 3 worst first-overall picks in NHL History
These top three players came in the early years of the NHL Amateur Draft, but that doesn’t discount the fact that these were the worst first-overall picks in history. These three picks are the only ones in history to not play one game in the NHL.
The teams were just beginning to understand what to look for in the draft and for the first few years, it really didn’t go well. The top three teams are tied for the worst spot in draft year order.
Claude Gauthier, Detroit Red Wings (1964)
In full fairness to Claude Gauthier, the first four picks in this draft didn’t play an NHL game. Nineteen of the 24 players selected in this draft played in a game. This did not include Hall of Famer Ken Dryden (14) and Syl Apps (21). The stats from this time are pretty barren, but no NHL stats make it pretty clear: Gauthier was the first NHL Draft bust, coming in just the league’s second draft.
Andre Veilleux, New York Rangers (1965)
It seems that the New York Rangers didn’t learn from the Detroit Red Wings from the previous draft, because they drafted right-winger Andre Veilleux first overall, never to play an NHL game. However, once again the top-four players draft didn’t play a single game. Only 11 players were drafted this year – only two played a single NHL game. Veilleux is a draft flop, but the whole draft is a failure.
Rick Pagnutti, Los Angeles Kings (1967)
After you have completed the following: Very successful 1966 NHL DraftThe 1967 edition was reintroduced to 1964 and 1965. Rick Pagnutti was among the 18 selected players, only three of whom made it to the NHL. Pagnutti at least went on to have a fairly lengthy professional career, seeing time in the AHL, IHL, CHL, WHL, and NAHL, winning the IHL’s Best Defenseman in 1971-72. He didn’t reach the NHL, but at least he did continue on professionally.
With the advancements in scouting and player development, we’re unlikely to see this list change very much moving forward. However, we’re not that far removed from Yakupov being selected by the Oilers so you never really know. It is possible for anything to happen that leads to a first-overall selection not being successful at the next stage.
What do you think about this list? Who’s missing? Who doesn’t deserve to be on this list? What would you do to re-arrange the list? Please leave your comments below!
Josh began his career as a Ottawa Senators contributor to The Hockey Writers. He is now an editor/at-large contributor and focuses on prospects, NHL Draft, hockey history and breaking news stories.