The first ever NHL Draft was held in 1963 and it took teams a little while to figure out how to make the most of their draft picks. Three times in the first five drafts the #1 overall pick never played a single game in the NHL. Now this is back in the day when there weren’t very many teams. So how that can happen three times in five years is amazing.
As the years went by teams got a little better in their choices and the picks got better. But even today it’s not an exact science. Plenty of times a team will waste a top or high draft pick on a player that doesn’t even come close to producing at the level that was expected. And in some cases that wasted pick can doom a franchise for many years to come.
The worst ever picks have to be those three of the first five drafts. In 1964 the Detroit Red Wings selected Claude Gauthier #1, and the very next year the New York Rangers chose Andre Veilleux with the top pick. In 1967 the Los Angeles Kings took Rick Pagnutti with the first overall pick and none of the three ever played a single game in the NHL.
Since we are focusing on more recent times, here are some of the worst Top 5 overall picks since 1974, in no particular order.
15 Alexandre Volchkov, Washington Capitals (#4 overall)
In 1996 the Washington Capitals were looking to make up for the mistake they made the previous year with their first round draft pick. They chose Brad Church at #17 overall and he ended up playing only two games in the NHL. They chose Alexandre Volchkov, who had lit up the OHL in scoring, at #4 overall. They couldn’t wait to see what he could do in the NHL. It turned out the answer was nothing. He played just three NHL games and didn’t register a single point. So back to back first round picks totaled up 5 games played. And people wonder why the Caps were bad for such a long time. There you go.
14 Jason Bonsignore, Edmonton Oilers (#4 overall)
In 1994 the Edmonton Oilers had the #4 and #6 overall draft picks. One would think that would be enough to turn around a franchise in a single year. But the Oilers didn’t get it right. With the #6 pick they chose Ryan Smyth and that one turned out well. But with the fourth overall pick they chose Jason Bonsignore who turned out to be a major bust.
He was graded as having A+ skills and an F- hockey sense. That turned out to be correct as he lasted only 21 games in the NHL before he was cut. Later on he admitted that his immaturity played a large factor in his failure and the results seem to back that up.
When they chose Bonsignore, the Oilers passed on Smyth, Jeff O’Neill, Jeff Friesen, Mattias Ohlund, Jose Theodore, Patrik Elias, Daniel Alfredsson and many other future All Stars. Oh what could have been.
13 Daniel Dore, Quebec Nordiques (#5 overall)
When you own the #5 overall draft pick you have to make it count. In 1988 the Quebec Nordiques held that pick but they didn’t make it count. Anytime your fifth overall pick plays in only 17 NHL games it’s going to be considered a major bust. Daniel Dore was a total bust in what was otherwise a pretty strong draft year.
How strong was it? Well within the next five picks the following were chosen: Teemu Selanne, Rod Brind’Amour, and Jeremy Roenick. Selanne only scored 76 goals in his rookie year and topped the 30 goal mark in a season eight different times. Can you imagine what a powerhouse the Colorado Avalanche would have been if they had chosen Selanne and had him during those early years?
Quebec got screwed out of a Stanley Cup when the Nordiques moved to Colorado, but it would have hurt even more if Selanne was on the squad. He, Brind’Amour, and Roenick combined for nearly 4,000 points in the NHL. Almost anybody would have been a better pick than Dore was. What a waste.
12 Dave Chyzowski, New York Islanders (#2 overall)
First round draft picks are an important part of building a franchise. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the first overall pick or the twenty first. Obviously more stock is put in higher picks but everything that is done in the first round is very important for a franchise. It could be the difference between years of winning or years of losing.
In 1989 the New York Islanders held the #2 overall pick and if it weren’t for the Rick DiPietro draft pick that we will talk about later, this could be considered the biggest bust in the team’s history. New York chose Dave Chyzowski with that second overall pick and he wasn’t the impact player that they hoped he would be.
He played his junior hockey with the Kamloops Blazers and he put up some sensational numbers down there. But he only lasted 126 games up in the NHL and scored just 31 points. Obviously he couldn’t hang with the big boys. He had many chances in the NHL but couldn’t take advantage of any of them and eventually he went over to Europe to play in 2000.
11 Nikolai Zherdev, Columbus Blue Jackets (#4 overall)
Nikolai Zherdev didn’t have a bad career after the Columbus Blue Jackets chose him #4 overall in the 2003 NHL Draft. The problem for Columbus is that they could have done much better. That 2003 draft is widely considered one of the best and deepest ever in NHL history.
Look at some of the players that they could have chosen instead of Zherdev: Ryan Kesler, Corey Perry, Thomas Vanek, Brent Seabrook, Ryan Sutter, and Jeff Carter. All of those players had much better careers than Zherdev and the Blue Jackets could have started winning hockey games much sooner than they did. All it took was one good draft pick decision that they failed to make. Oh well.
10 Neil Brady, New Jersey Devils (#3 overall)
Coming into the 1986 NHL Draft the New Jersey Devils franchise hadn’t done much in the NHL. They were horrible when they were the Kansas City Scouts, and just as bad as the Colorado Rockies. The move to New Jersey didn’t do anything to change that and just two years prior was when Wayne Gretzky made his famous “Mickey Mouse organization” comment about them.
They had the #3 overall draft pick and could have taken a huge step in turning things around. But they failed. They chose center Neil Brady, who had put together a pretty good career with the Medicine Hat Tigers. Brady played in just 89 NHL games and most of his career was spent in the AHL going from farm club to farm club.
The Devils passed on Brian Leetch and Vincent Damphousse to take Brady. Leetch had a long All Star career across the river with the New York Rangers and during his time in the NHL, Damphousse was one of the top snipers in the game. While New Jersey advanced deep into the playoffs in 1988, it really wasn’t until 1994 that the franchise started winning games on a consistent basis. This wasted pick helped prolong the suffering for eight more years.
9 Pavel Brendl, New York Rangers (#4 overall)
The Rangers hit the jackpot with Brian Leetch in 1986 but they wouldn’t have the same luck in 1999 when they picked Pavel Brendl with the #4 overall pick. Brendl had a great two seasons with the Calgary Hitmen scoring 73 and 59 goals. He put up 245 points over those two seasons. But when it came time to play with the best in the world, he just wasn’t good enough.
He spent his first season in the AHL were he scored only 37 points in 64 games. The Rangers eventually brought him up and his NHL career lasted just 78 games. His career total with the big boys was only 22 points. Brendl was truly a wasted draft pick that amounted to nothing.
8 Alexander Svitov, Tampa Bay Lightning (#3 overall)
When the Tampa Bay Lightning looked at Alexander Svitov they saw a player that reminded them of Eric Lindros. He was big and solid at six foot three and around 200 pounds. So they used their #3 overall draft pick in 2001 to make him theirs. They thought that they were getting a solid power forward that would be a force in the slot for years to come. What they actually got was a lot of disappointment.
His best NHL season was 7 goals and 11 assists for 18 points. He was in the league for 179 games and totaled up 37 points. He eventually moved on to the KHL and put up a career high of only 24 points in a season there.
Former Lightning head coach John Tortorella once voiced his displeasure at Svitov’s development by saying that he “can rot in the minors.” Wow that’s rough, but he knew that the Lightning had blown that high draft choice.
7 Doug Wickenheiser, Montreal Canadiens (#1 overall)
Meet Doug Wickenheiser. A player that is widely considered the biggest bust ever of top overall draft picks in the NHL. In 1980 as Montreal General Manager Irving Grundman was preparing for the draft, he held the #1 overall pick. So he had a huge decision to make, even though popular belief was that he was going to draft Denis Savard. Montreal fans were happy that they were going to have Savard for a long time. But it didn’t work out that way.
Grundman surprised everyone and used the top overall pick to choose Wickenheiser who went on to play in 556 NHL games. That’s almost seven full seasons, but his career high was 55 points before he retired at the ripe old age of 29 years old.
Montreal fans watched as Savard was picked by the Chicago Blackhawks at #3 overall. He only went on to play in 1,198 NHL games and scored 1,338 points. It’s been 35 years since that draft and Montreal fans still remember it like it was yesterday.
6 Gord Kluzak, Boston Bruins (#1 overall)
On Draft Day in 1982 the Boston Bruins held the very first pick. The Bruins have a very rich history so being chosen with a top overall pick by them can come with a lot of pressure. If you actually play for them for awhile anyway.
Boston used the #1 overall pick to select Gord Kluzak. They chose not to select Phil Housley, Scott Stevens and several other future All Stars. Kluzak didn’t have a great first year but he did show some promise in his second season. He played in 80 games and scored 10 goals and finished with 37 points.
But a knee injury that wouldn’t heal right ended up having to be reconstructed and his career really never took off because of it. He stayed in the NHL for 299 games and scored 123 points. Both numbers may have been much higher if not for those knee issues.
Both Housley and Stevens went on to become two of the best defensemen in NHL history, while the Bruins had to settle for a little more than three years with Kluzak.
5 Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders (#1 overall)
You never know what you’ll get with a draft pick. The risk is even higher with the top overall pick. In 2000 the New York Islanders picked Rick DiPietro with the #1 overall pick. To say that New York thought that he was the future of the franchise is an understatement. In 2006, despite never setting the hockey world on fire, they signed him to a shocking 15 year contract that was worth $67.5 million.
He ended up playing a total of 318 games with the Isles and was never better than average. He had a career save percentage of just .902 and his career playoff number was .904. Two times during his career he posted 5 shutouts but overall his career was nothing spectacular. It was filled mostly with injuries and terrible play. He retired at the age of 33 years old. The end came when he was released from his tryout contract with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. He lasted just 5 games there.
DiPietro was probably the richest crappy goalie in NHL history.
4 Patrik Stefan, Atlanta Thrashers (#1 overall)
When you look at failed draft picks and think of what could have been, the Atlanta Thrashers of the 1999 NHL Draft have to be at the top of that list. They chose Patrik Stefan with the #1 overall pick and he rewarded the Thrashers by having a career that is typical of a fifth or sixth round pick. He played in 455 games and had a total of 188 NHL points scored. He had a career high of 40 points one season, again, not bad for a late round draft pick, but horrible for a #1 overall.
The Vancouver Canucks held the #2 and #3 picks that year and chose Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Maybe Atlanta could have chose only one of them and it wouldn’t have made a difference, but the Canucks choosing both of the brothers was magical. Each one of them has surpassed 800 points in over 1,000 games played, and they are both still on top of their game today.
Atlanta also passed on choosing Ryan Miller and Henrik Zetterberg. Both of them were chosen in later rounds and are still having very successful NHL careers. Oh, what could have been.
3 Brian Lawton, Minnesota North Stars (#1 overall)
Brian Lawton is another one who put together a decent career that would be typical of a mid to late round draft pick. He played in 483 games and scored just 266 points after the Minnesota North Stars made him the #1 overall pick, in the 1983 NHL Draft. His best season saw him score 21 goals and total 41 points. So much more was expected of him that then General Manager Lou Nanne said just two years later, "If I had it to do over again, I'd take (Tom) Barrasso."
Lawton’s career off the ice is much more successful than what he did on it. He started a company as a player agent and eventually sold it to Octagon Athlete Representation, and then he was the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2008 until 2010. I wonder if he was looking for that first round bust on draft days.
2 Greg Jolly, Washington Capitals (#1 overall)
The Washington Capitals had their first ever draft pick in 1974 and it was a good one. They owned the #1 overall pick. If they made a good decision it could have set up the franchise for years to come. But they didn’t and the first ever draft pick in the franchise’s history was a bust. They chose Greg Jolly who played in only 365 games during his NHL career. That’s about 4 and a half seasons. They were hoping Jolly would be the building block to the future but the pick turned out to be a glimpse of the long term future of the team.
In comparison, in that draft, the New York Islanders picked Clark Gillies and Bryan Trottier. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Washington also passed on Pierre Larouche and Wilf Paiement. Both players would score over 300 goals in the NHL.
1 Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa Senators (#1 overall)
Meet the player that is considered to be the biggest top overall draft pick bust in NHL history. Alexandre Daigle was chosen at #1 overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 1993 NHL Draft and to say that the team had high expectations for him would be stating the obvious. He was labeled as a can’t miss all star that had Gretzky like playmaking abilities and the speed to find the open ice at any time. His first year showed some promise as he scored 20 goals and set up 31 others for a total of 51 points. Unfortunately that number would be his career high and he would reach it on two other occasions.
He finished his career with 327 points in 616 games played. He lasted awhile because everyone kept hoping that he could find the skills that saw him score 137 points with Victoriaville in the QMJHL back in 1993. That season was what led the Senators to make him the top overall choice.
Who could the Senators have chosen instead of Daigle? Well Chris Pronger went #2 and Paul Kariya went #4. Others that had solid careers from that draft were Jason Arnott, Viktor Kozlov, Saku Koivu, Jocelyn Thibault and Miroslav Satan. Pavol Demitra was chosen in the ninth round and Kimmo Timonen went in the tenth. So it’s not like Ottawa didn’t have any other choices. Either Pronger or Kariya could have been a major force on that squad. Much better than they got out of Daigle.