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First Isn’t Often Best: A Quick Look at Past First Overall NHL Draft Picks

June 18th, 2017 at 11:25 AM
Aggregated By Sports Media 101

Last year’s first overall pick: Auston Matthews. Arguably the top guy after a mere one year after their draft.

Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images

I don’t know if you know this, but the New Jersey Devils have the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. This Friday, we will learn whether the Devils will choose Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, or someone else entirely. It’s the first time the Devils have ever had the first pick in their history in New Jersey. Given the state of the team and where it is in terms of rebuilding the roster, this selection pretty much has to be a success. In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem. The first player picked would surely be the best prospective player in that year’s draft class.

Perhaps so when it comes time to select the player. However, history and hindsight show that the first overall pick does not often turn out to be the definitive best player in that year’s draft class.

Thanks to HockeyDB, I went through the last 47 drafts from 1970 through to 2016. 2016 is obviously the most recent NHL Draft to identify who the past first overall picks were and quickly see if they were really the best in their draft class. Even though the NHL Draft began as an amateur draft in 1963, teams were still obtaining prospects through a sponsorship system. That is, NHL teams owned a junior team and the players on those teams would effectively be prospects for that team. That system went away in 1969. That was also the last year where Montreal was allowed to draft two Quebec-based prospects ahead of everyone else in the draft. Therefore, I started with 1970 for a true “first overall” pick.

As for determining if they were the best, this was more or less a quick check. There can be – and should be! – arguments made over whether Patrick Roy was really the best player to come out in the 1984 Draft. And Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull were outstanding players. But that was the same draft class led by Mario Lemieux, who is arguably the second greatest player ever. So I would put Lemieux in the definitive category. It’s a quick look, not a full-on analysis of 47 draft classes.

As it turned out, in only 9 out of 47 drafts did the #1 pick really stand out above all else. You may disagree with these choices and want to include others, but the larger point remains. Being first often doesn’t mean being the best:

The 1st Overall Picks That Turned Out to be the Best Player in their Draft Class

  • Gilbert Perreault, C, 1970, Buffalo
  • Denis Potvin, D, 1973, NY Islanders
  • Bobby Smith, C, 1978, Minnesota
  • Mario Lemieux, C, 1984, Pittsburgh
  • Alex Ovechkin, LW, 2004, Washington
  • Sidney Crosby, C, 2005, Pittsburgh
  • Patrick Kane, RW, 2007, Chicago
  • John Tavares, C, 2009, NY Islanders
  • Connor McDavid, C, 2015, Edmonton

Not only is this list somewhat short, it’s also somewhat recent. After the first one, there was one other in the 1970s, one in the 1980s, and none until the Ovechkin-led class of 2005. There’s still some time for some changes (Victor Hedman over Tavares?). Especially with the last one. Although, it’s going to take a lot to jump McDavid since McDavid is one of two players in that recent year that surpassed 100 points and he’s got Jack Eichel beat by 35 points at the moment. Further analysis may break this down further, but it’s not at all common where the first overall pick turns out to be a clear-cut best player.

That said, there were more cases were maybe the first overall pick wasn’t the very best in that draft class but an argument could be made that they were. I counted 15 of those instances, with a good number of them being in recent drafts.

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Tags: Brad Richards, Bryan Berard, Chris Chelios, Chris Phillips, Connor McDavid, Daniel Alfredsson, Ed Jovanovski, Erik Johnson, Gabriel Landeskog, HockeyDB, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jack Eichel, Jason Spezza, Mark Recchi, Mats Sundin, Mike Modano, Nathan MacKinnon, New Jersey Devils, NHL Entry Draft, Nikolaj Ehlers, Owen Nolan, Patrik Elias, Pavel Datsyuk, Peter Forsberg, Ray Whitney, Rick DiPietro, Roman Hamrlik, Scott Niedermayer, Sergei Fedorov, Sergei Gonchar, sidney crosby, Teemu Selanne, Vincent Lecavalier

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