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From the Bust Era to the Golden Age: A Historical Look at the No. 1 Overall Pick

The NHL held its first draft in 1963; among those No. 1 picks, seven have reached the Hall of Fame but there have been far more busts and stories of sadness.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

With about three weeks to play, eight points separate the bottom eight teams in the NHL standings. With a weighted draft lottery, it's possible that one of those eight teams could land the the first pick in the 2016 draft thanks to an eight-game losing streak that alters their franchise forever.

If one brave team chose to engage in the ultimate tank move—forfeit its games—it could have a pick that instantly turns its fortunes around.


Unless, of course, it screws up that pick.

If every GM of a rebuilding franchise dreams of snagging an elite talent with a top pick, the one thing they dread is wasting that pick on a bust. It's especially important in today's salary-cap world where teams can't improve all that much through wildly spending on free agents, as the players available are generally second-tier and there's only so much money available to spend.

READ MORE: It's Time for Bubble Teams to Tank Because the Playoff Race Is All but Over

Whiff on a No. 1 pick and it could set your franchise back years. Or even help lead to its relocation. And it's not as though the chance to pick first comes along every year unless you're the Edmonton Oilers.

(The previous sentence fulfills the hockey writer's obligation to make one reference in any draft story to the Oilers having the first pick a lot.)

The NHL held its first draft in 1963; among those No. 1 picks, seven have reached the Hall of Fame but there have been far more busts and stories of sadness.

Here's a decade-by-decade look at those busts:

The 1960s: Getting Nothing

Of the seven players selected between 1963 and 1969, three never played a game in the NHL: Claude Gauthier (Detroit, 1964), Andre Veilleux (New York, 1965) and Rick Pagnutti (Los Angeles, 1967). Pagnutti spent a decade in the minor leagues while Gauthier and Veilleux fell out of hockey completely.

Veilleux's career ended at some point during the 1965-66 season when he played an unknown amount of games. Nothing says storied career like your Wikipedia page listing your career games as a question mark.


The only Hall of Fame player taken after Gauthier, Veilleux and Pagnutti in those drafts was Ken Dryden, so it's not as though there was a wealth of talent available like there is today.

The other four players taken first overall during the 1960s—Garry Monahan, Barry Gibbs, Michel Plasse and Rejean Houle—all had respectable NHL careers.

The 1970s: It Gets Better

Unlike the decade of free love and hippies, everyone taken first overall in the disco-loving '70s showed up for NHL work. Three of this decade's first four picks—Gilbert Perreault, Guy LaFleur and Denis Potvin—had Hall of Fame careers.

The only two players that could be considered busts from the 1970s were two defencemen drafted by the Washington Capitals—Greg Joly in 1974 and Rick Green in 1976.

Joly played 365 career games with just 98 coming for the Capitals and found himself toiling in the AHL by the time he was 29 years old. Green won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986 but never had more than 41 points during his first six seasons in the league with the Capitals.

By the time the Capitals made their first playoff appearance in 1983, both Green and Joly were off the roster.

That previous sentence should make Oilers fans excited to read something similar in 2036: "By the time the Oilers made their next playoff appearance in 2019, both Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins were off the roster."

1980s: They've Almost Figured It Out

Mario Lemieux! Mike Modano! Mats Sundin! Dale Hawerchuk! Forty percent of No. 1 picks are Hall of Famers and Wendel Clark and Pierre Turgeon were really good, too! What a decade!

And now we turn to Gord Kluzak and Brian Lawton, who were taken by the Bruins and North Stars in 1982 and 1983, respectively.


Brian Lawton was no Steve Yzerman or some of the other players who followed him in the '83 draft. –Photo by Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Kluzak was a victim of bad luck, as knee injuries cost him the entire 1984-85 and 1986-87 seasons after knee problems plagued him during his junior career. After he had six goals and 37 points in 66 games in 1987-88, he played in 13 games over the next three seasons before retiring.

Brian Bellows, Scott Stevens and Phil Housley were three of the next six picks after Kluzak. Considering the red flags that existed before Kluzak was drafted, that's some bad drafting by the Bruins.

Lawton, on the other hand, was a pure bust.

The first American-born and only American high school player taken with the first pick amassed just 266 points in 488 career games. The next six players taken in the draft all went on to be All-Stars with Pat LaFontaine (third overall) and Steve Yzerman (fourth overall) going to the Hall of Fame. Cam Neely, the ninth pick, also went to the Hall of Fame.

Doug Wickenheiser, the first pick of the 1980 draft, struggled with the Canadiens for four seasons before bouncing between the Capitals, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers. He had just 111 goals in 556 NHL games.

1990s: The End Of The Bust Era

Let's just get the Patrik Stefan empty-net video out of the way.

You have to love the righteousness of the analyst on the broadcast. "Patrik Stefan, you should be embarrassed for what you just did! That does not belong in the National Hockey League!" Yeah, how dare Stefan attempt to carefully place the puck in the net only to have it jump on him at the worst possible moment. It's not like he tried to juggle the puck into the net before fanning on it. Hockey is the worst, man.


Oh, the Stars won this game.

But yeah, the first pick of the 1999 draft by the Thrashers didn't work out. He had just 64 goals in 455 games and was out of the NHL for good a few months after the empty-net gaffe.

Not that this falls on these players, but it's probably not a coincidence that the North Stars and Thrashers relocated about a decade later after whiffing on No. 1 picks. Sure, the Canadiens aren't going anywhere if they botch a top pick, but the ripple effects for teams in weaker markets can be devastating.

The only other truly bad pick in the 1990s was Alexander Daigle in 1993 to the Ottawa Senators, who could have taken Chris Pronger or Paul Kariya. Taking the underwhelming Daigle in the franchise's second-ever draft didn't cause much damage, as the Senators became a perennial playoff team from 1997 to 2008.

The shame of Daigle's career is he may have been figuring things out in 2003-04 with the Minnesota Wild, when he had 20 goals and a career-high 51 points. But after the season long 2004-05 lockout, he played in just 46 games in 2005-06 for the Wild before leaving the NHL for Switzerland.

2000-2015: This Is Easy Now!

Rick DiPietro, the top pick in 2000, had his career cut short by injuries. THIS IS THE SPACE IN THIS PIECE THAT WILL BE OCCUPIED BY A JOKE ABOUT HIS CONTRACT. But really, how many players taken after DiPietro had outstanding careers?

Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik? Sure. Justin Williams with the 28th pick? Not sure why the Islanders would have known Williams would be the clutchest Game 7 clutcher in clutch history, but OK. Henrik Lundqvist was a seventh-round pick that year, but only the fiercest Rangers trolls are throwing that in the faces of Islanders fans.


Sidney Crosby is one of many future Hall of Famers who have recently been selected No. 1 overall. –Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

From 2001 to 2015, there are, as of this moment, zero draft busts.

The only player that could fall into the bust category during that time is Nail Yakupov. A lot of people want to call Yakupov a bust, as 48 goals in 245 games will have that effect, but he's still only 22 years old and could prove to be a very good player once he gets out of the hell that is Edmonton.

Even if you consider Yakupov a bust, that's 14 of 15 years in which the top pick was either nailed or at least hit very hard. We're talking about Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash.

When you look at how things went from 1963 to 2001, that's amazing.

It's also a good sign for the Leafs, should they find themselves picking first and staring longingly at Auston Matthews.

Or it means we are due for a bust and Matthews will decide he loves Switzerland so much that he never reports to the Leafs after they take him with the first pick.