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50 years of the NHL Draft - The greatest class ever

TSN.ca Staff

6/15/2012 11:11:23 AM

To commemorate the 50th NHL Draft which takes place next Friday in Pittsburgh, TSN.ca looks back at 10 memorable storylines from the history of the event in 10 days. Today, we look back at perhaps the greatest first-round class ever - the 1979 NHL Entry Draft.

When it comes to describing the quality of a given draft year, there always seems to be a few prevailing cliches going in.

"It's going to a bumper crop."

"This looks like a weak class."

"This appears to be a draft that's deep in talent." 

But comments like that are best made in hindsight when you can look back at those 20-30 players and tally up their list of achievements and accomplishments. That said, the first round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft is generally regarded as the best class of all-time.

There were two factors that contributed to such a deep first round. The first was that it was done after the merger of the NHL and World Hockey Association. With the rival league gone, young players who got in a year of pro seasoning (like Rick Vaive, Mike Gartner and Michel Goulet) with now-defunct franchises were up for grabs.

The lone exception to this was Wayne Gretzky, who had played for Edmonton in the WHA's final season. As part of the merger, the Oilers were allowed to keep Gretzky so long as they were placed at the bottom of the draft order.

Could you imagine how much higher this class would be rated if the player many consider the best of all-time were eligible?

The 1979 draft class had another important advantage - it was a 19-year-old draft. The NHL was lowering the age of eligibility from 19 to 18 and the move saw two years worth of picks to go in the same year.

The end result was impressive, especially by today's standards. Of the 21 players selected, each of them played at least 200 NHL games and 11 would go on to play at least 1,000. Three of them (Gartner, Goulet and Ray Bourque - who went eighth to the Boston Bruins) would go on to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Other great NHLers coming out of that round included Mike Foligno, Brad McCrimmon, Brian Propp and Kevin Lowe.

The best 18-year-old draft? That just might be the class of 2003.

Of the 30 players taken, all of them would play at least one NHL game within eight years - with Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton and Nikolay Zherdev all getting regular playing time with their new teams the following season.

Through the 2011-12 campaign, 22 players from Round 1 have played at least 300 career NHL games and nearly a third of them have already won the Stanley Cup - including newly-crowned champions Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.

Follow the TSN Quizmaster on Twitter and get more from this story as the draft draws closer. TSN and TSN.ca have exclusive coverage of the 2012 NHL Draft on Friday, June 22 at 7pm et/4pm pt live from the CONSOL Energy Centre in Pittsburgh.