In the iconic words of Cliff Fletcher, “draft schmaft.”
It is a sentiment perhaps shared with many general managers whose first-round draft selections turned out to be busts, rendering their losing seasons utterly unrewarding. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 so it’s easy to point out who they should have selected instead, especially when it pertains to future all-stars and hall-of-famers, but it’s not always that simple. NHL franchises exhaust extensive resources in scouting departments to prepare for the draft, and they also consider the draft rankings by the International Scouting Services and come to a consensus pick.
But despite the raw talent of these aspiring young hockey players, not all of them transition so well at the NHL level. In fact, some of them never set foot on an NHL ice surface and end up plying their trade overseas or in the minor leagues. It’s a difficult process for both player and management, one that requires patience, because nowadays fans and analysts are quick to slap a “bust” label on a slow-developing prospect and move onto the next one. There’s also the issue of rushing a prospect too soon—the Edmonton Oilers seem to enjoy this strategy—and potentially ruining his confidence. Playing against developing teens to full-grown men is a difficult transition, one that can stymy even the most skilled player’s progress—it’s why the AHL serves as a good development league between junior and pro hockey.
Compiling a top 10 list of the NHL’s biggest draft busts is a subjective undertaking, especially when one considers the league’s extensive history. So in order to make it a bit simpler, let’s look at the biggest draft busts post-1980:
10 Scott Scissons—Sixth Overall in 1990
Scissons sticks out like a sore thumb from the 1990 draft class. Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau, Mike Ricci, Jaromir Jagr, Darryl Sydor and Darian Hatcher were all selected in the top eight. But Scissons is an intriguing case when one ponders what could have been. He dealt with nagging shoulder injuries since his junior days and doctors advised him to retire at a young age—just when he was on the verge of signing with the Dallas Stars. Still, he only played two NHL games, three if you count an appearance in the playoffs, and had zero points. His story is just an unfortunate one.
9 Gord Kluzak—First Overall in 1982
Brian Bellows, Ron Sutter, Scott Stevens and Phil Housley are just some of the names that were selected after Gord Kluzak in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft. The defenseman rebounded nicely in his sophomore campaign with 10 goals and 37 points in 80 games with the Boston Bruins, but never found his footing at the NHL level. He finished with 123 points in 299 career games with the Bruins, playing only a handful of games in his last few years due a nagging knee injury that required reconstructive surgery. Much like Scissons, Kluzak could well have had a successful career if not for injuries.
8 Brett Lindros—Ninth Overall in 1994
In the case of Brett Lindros, NHL talent didn’t run in the family. He had lofty expectations to meet from the outset being the younger brother of Eric Lindros, so perhaps it was unreasonable to expect great things, but no one expected his career to fizzle out like it did. Lindros was selected by the New York Islanders in 1994 as their first-round draft selection as a mammoth 6'4", 210-pound right winger. He’d finish with a measly two goals and five assists in 51 career NHL games, spending much of his time bouncing between the OHL and NHL.
7 Nikita Filatov—Sixth Overall in 2008
When the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Nikita Filatov sixth overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, they had anticipated the draft’s top-ranked European to still be playing for the organization today. But the 24-year-old had an underwhelming and short-lived career in the NHL. He started on the right foot with 16 goals and 32 points in 39 games with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, but, well, that was pretty much the highlight of his North American playing career. He finished with six goals and 14 points in 53 career NHL games between the Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators. He currently plays for the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo in the KHL and has two assists in 12 games. Oof.
6 Pavel Brendl—Fourth Overall in 1999
Sometimes players just sort of fade immediately following their junior career. Pavel Brendl was selected fourth overall by the New York Rangers in 1999 after amassing 73 and 59 goals in his first two seasons with the Calgary Hitmen, averaging just over a goal per game—he also put up 245 points in that span. Unfortunately, his career encountered a steep decline from that point onward. His first season in the AHL was underwhelming with 37 points in 64 games, and that set the precedent for the rest of his career. He finished with 22 points in 78 career games in the NHL.
5 Alexandre Daigle—First Overall in 1993
It’s a tough act to follow when you’re compared to the likes of Joe Sakic. Alexandre Daigle was expected to be an all-star as a first-overall pick, lauded for his playmaking abilities and blazing speed. And Daigle certainly started with promise, compiling 51 points and 20 goals in his rookie campaign. That, however, would be his career-high, which he matched twice more to highlight an underwhelming NHL career with 327 points in 616 games. A .53 points-per-game player is nothing to sneeze at, but he fell well short of expectations. He spent the last six years of his career overseas in the Swiss-A league.
4 Brian Lawton—First Overall in 1983
Lawton is another first-overall pick that didn’t quite pan out as expected. Granted, his .55 PPG average is by no means bad from a general perspective, but he was expected to accomplish so much more. Lawton’s career-high in the NHL was 21 goals and 44 points along with his 483 career games and 266 points. He at least made a career in hockey as he started his own company as a player agent, which was later bought out by Octagon Athlete Representation. He then served as general manager for the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2008 to 2010.
3 Alexander Svitov—Third Overall in 2001
The Russian product, drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, really had no success to speak of. His career-high in the NHL was seven goals and 18 points to go along with his 37 career points in 179 games. He has since played in the KHL for the past eight years, posting a career-high of 24 points. The six-foot-three, 200-pound center had been coveted for his two-way play and penchant for physicality, but his offensive talent never transitioned as expected. John Tortorella once famously said Svitov “can rot in the minors” for his lack of intensity. Leave it to Torts to tell the unfiltered truth.
2 Patrik Stefan—First Overall in 1999
Yet another disappointing first overall pick. It’s a shame to think, from the now-disbanded Atlanta Thrashers’ perspective, Daniel and Henrik Sedin were the two and three overall picks in this draft class. Could they have saved the franchise? Who knows, but Stefan hardly lived up to expectations with a career-high 14 goals and 40 points. He finished with 188 points in 455 games. Again, hindsight is 20/20, but the Sedins have both eclipsed 1,000 games and 800 points and continue to have successful NHL careers. Stefan closed out his career with a three-game stint in the Swiss-A. What a shame.
1 Rick DiPietro—First Overall in 2000
Goaltenders are such a fickle bunch. Still only 33 years old, Rick DiPietro’s NHL career came to an end after spending 318 games with the New York Islanders. A slew of injuries led to his demise in the NHL after he signed a whopping 15-year contract in 2006 worth $67.5 million. He has an abysmal .902 career save percentage in the regular season with a .904 SV% in 10 playoff games. His best season came in 2006-07 when he posted a .919 SV% and five shutouts in 62 games. His only other decent season came in 2003-04 as he registered a .911 SV% and five shutouts in 50 games. DiPietro’s career came to a fitting end when he was released from a professional tryout contract with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers after just five appearances.