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Steve Dryden

Sr. Managing Editor of Hockey

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The National Hockey League’s modern draft turns 50 this year.

It’s a birthday worth celebrating.

To mark the occasion, TSN has evaluated every first-overall draft pick since 1969 and ranked them 1 to 49.

No. 1 picks are unlike any other. They occupy a special place in the imagination and expectation of teams that draft them and fan bases that cheer for them.

That’s why ranking first-overall picks is not just a matter of evaluating the best NHLers; rather it is a matter of evaluating the best NHLers with the teams that made them the chosen ones.   

Here’s the criteria TSN applied:
1. The player’s impact on the team that drafted them.
2. The player’s performance over the totality of his NHL career
3. The player’s achievements relative to those who were drafted No. 2 and 3

Based on this, two stakes have been placed in the ice:

Mario Lemieux, the top pick in 1984, earns the distinction of No. 1.

Alexandre Daigle, the top pick in 1993, earns the dubious distinction of No. 49.

Lemieux gets the nod over fellow Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby (2005) on the strength of seismic impact and astronomical statistics – even taking into account the NHL’s inflationary 1980s and 1990s.

Pittsburgh picked Lemieux to lead the rebuild of a franchise on the verge of collapse.

He went on to win six Art Ross Trophies, three Hart Trophies, two Stanley Cups and two Conn Smythe Trophies. Lemieux’s six scoring titles represent more than half of the 10 won by the other 48 top picks combined.

As for Daigle, he is ranked No. 49 not because he had the worst career of any player drafted No. 1. Rather he is slotted last because so much was expected and, in relative terms, so little delivered. That Chris Pronger was selected No. 2 and is now in the Hall of Fame is another important factor.

It’s worth noting eight players – not including No. 1 picks in the early stages of their careers – have appeared in fewer games with the team that drafted them than Daigle’s 301 and four forwards scored fewer than his 172 points, but none entered the league with the superstar hype that accompanied his arrival.

It is appropriate that Lemieux and Daigle – who finished with 327 career points ­– should occupy polar opposite positions in the ranking because no two players have been so strongly associated with teams tanking to get them.

The Penguins did all they could to finish below New Jersey in 1983-84 and Daigle’s potential was so great the Ottawa Senators tanked – or at the very least talked about it – for the opportunity to pick him No. 1. Senators’ owner Bruce Firestone was fined $100,000 for “intemperate remarks” and within two years the NHL introduced the lottery.

 

The NHL draft actually began in 1963, but the first six drafts featured few players with star potential because the vast majority of high-end prospects were scooped up and signed by the six NHL teams through the old sponsorship system.

Until 1969.

That was the last time the Montreal Canadiens could lay claim to the two best French Canadian players – Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif – and the first time all junior-aged players were eligible for the universal draft.

No more than 24 players were picked in any single draft from 1963 through 1968.

Eighty-four were selected in 1969 and first among them was Houle of the Memorial Cup-winning Montreal Jr. Canadiens.

Houle is a good example of the TSN criteria. He was a brilliant junior who never blossomed into a big-time NHL scorer, but he played all 10 of his NHL seasons with the Canadiens and capably filled a supporting role on five Stanley Cup championship teams.

That puts him No. 26 in our books – ahead of the likes of No. 28 Pierre Turgeon, a 500-goal scorer, and No. 32 Owen Nolan, a 400-goal scorer. Between them, Buffalo No. 1 Turgeon and Quebec No. 1 Nolan didn’t play as many games (590) for the teams that drafted them as Houle did alone for Montreal (634).

Another example of how criteria No. 1 is the trump card in TSN’s methodology is what separates No. 18 Wendel Clark and No. 19 Mats Sundin.

Clark was selected in 1984 and performed as a human flag over nine seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs until he was traded to Quebec for Mats Sundin in 1994 – the only trade in NHL history that has seen one No. 1 pick traded for another.

And while Sundin would lead the Leafs in scoring 12 times and earn election to the Hockey Hall of Fame, he played only four seasons with the team that drafted him No. 1 overall. Clark’s entire career did not measure up to Sundin’s but his contribution over the first nine seasons to the team that drafted him No. 1 far outweighed Sundin’s to the Nordiques.

Evaluating active players, particularly the last three first-overall picks is a tricky business because they have played so few games, but we are comfortable with Connor McDavid at No. 7, Auston Matthews at No. 23 and Nico Hischier at No. 40. McDavid is the only No. 1 pick to win scoring titles in two of his first three seasons, Matthews has equalled McDavid in even strength goals over his only two seasons and Hischier is money in the (Swiss) bank to grow exponentially.

Finally, we made an executive decision – just like teams picking No. 1 do each year – and evaluated No. 11 Eric Lindros as though he were Philadelphia’s 1991 No. 1 pick and No. 40 Bryan Berard as though he were the New York Islanders’ 1995 No. 1 – even though they both forced trades, never playing for Quebec and Ottawa, respectively.

That all said, here is your 1 - 49 listing of the NHL’s No. 1 picks from the modern era of the draft.

 

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Nos. 1 - 5

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
1. Mario Lemieux, C 1984 Pit 915 1,723 Career 915 1,723
2. Sidney Crosby, C 2005 Pit 864 1,116 Career 864 1,116
3. Alex Ovechkin, LW 2004 Wsh 1,003 1,122 Career 1,003 1,122
4. Guy Lafleur, RW 1971 Mtl 961 1,246 Career 1,126 1,353
5. Denis Potvin, D 1973 NYI 1,060 1,052 Career 1,060 1,052
 

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Nos. 6 - 10

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
6. Patrick Kane, RW 2007 Chi 822 828 Career 822 828
7. Connor McDavid, C 2015 Edm 209 256 Career 209 256
8. Gilbert Perreault, C 1970 Buf 1,191 1,326 Career 1,191 1,326
9. Mike Modano, C 1988 Min 1,459 1,359 Career 1,499 1,374
10. Dale Hawerchuk, C 1981 Wpg 713 929 Career 1,188 1,409
 

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No.s 11 - 15

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
11. Eric Lindros, C 1991 Phi 486 659 Career 760 865
12. Marc-Andre Fleury, G 2003 Pit 691 .912 Career 738 .913
13. Vincent Lecavalier, C 1998 Tam 1,037 874 Career 1,212 949
14. Steven Stamkos, C 2008 Tam 664 668 Career 664 668
15. Ilya Kovalchuk, LW 2001 Atl 594 615 Career 816 816
 

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Nos. 16 - 20

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
16. John Tavares, C 2009 NYI 669 621 Career 669 621
17. Joe Thornton, C 1997 Bos 532 454 Career 1,493 1,427
18. Wendel Clark, LW 1985 Tor 463 354 Career 793 564
19. Mats Sundin, C 1989 Que 294 334 Career 1,,346 1,349
20. Nathan MacKinnon, C 2013 Col 374 303 Career 374 303
 

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Nos. 21 - 25

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
21. Rick Nash, LW 2002 Clb 674 547 Career 1,060 805
22. Taylor Hall, LW 2010 Edm 381 328 Career 529 474
23. Auston Matthews, C 2016 Tor 144 132 Career 144 132
24. Bobby Smith, C 1978 Min 386 450 Career 1,077 1,036
25. Chris Phillips, D 1996 Ott 1,179 288 Career 1,179 288
 

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Nos. 26 - 30

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
26. Rejean Houle, RW 1969 Mtl 634 247 Career 634 247
27. Billy Harris, RW 1972 NYI 623 443 Career 897 558
28. Pierre Turgeon, C 1987 Buf 322 323 Career 1,294 1,327
29. Roman Hamrlik, D 1992 Tam 377 185 Career 1,395 638
30. Aaron Ekblad, D 2014 Fla 309 134 Career 309 134
 

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Nos. 31 - 35

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
31. Mel Bridgman, C 1975 Phi 462 324 Career 977 701
32. Owen Nolan, RW 1990 Que 268 224 Career 1,200 885
33. Rob Ramage, D 1979 Col 234 132 Career 1,044 564
34. Ed Jovanovski, D 1994 Fla 362 83 Career 1,128 500
35. Rick Green, D 1976 Wsh 377 158 Career 845 263
 

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Nos. 36 - 40 

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
36. Dale McCourt, C 1977 Det 341 337 Career 532 478
37. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C 2011 Edm 457 313 Career 457 313
38. Gord Kluzak, D 1982 Bos 299 123 Career 299 123
39. Rick DiPietro, G 2000 NYI 318 .902 Career 318 .902
40. Bryan Berard, D 1995 NYI 188 109 Career 619 323
 

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Nos. 41 - 45

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
41. Nico Hischier, C 2017 NJ 82 52 Career 82 52
42. Erik Johnson, D 2006 StL 203 91 Career 637 262
43. Joe Murphy, RW 1986 Det 90 32 Career 779 528
44. Patrik Stefan, C 1999 Atl 414 177 Career 455 188
45. Nail Yakupov, RW 2012 Edm 252 102 Career 350 136
 

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Nos. 46 - 49

 
Player Year   GP PTS   GP PTS
46. Brian Lawton, LW 1983 Min 303 162 Career 483 266
47. Greg Joly, D 1974 Wsh 98 33 Career 365 97
48. Doug Wickenheiser, C 1980 Mtl 202 115 Career 556 276
49. Alexandre Daigle, C 1993 Ott 301 172 Career 616 327