Amateur scouting is not an exact science. Professionals with a keen eye for the game of hockey spend hundreds of hours each year watching games, reviewing video, and traveling around the world trying to find the best possible prospect for their respective teams. In many cases all that time and effort is for naught, as players who were standouts at the junior level just don’t have what it takes to make the transition to the NHL level. However, when it comes to the #1 overall pick – those special players that stand head and shoulders above their peers – it is very rare that the recommendations by the scouts doesn’t pan out. Sure, you’ll see the occasional draft bust, like Ottawa did when they selected Alexandre Daigle, but for the most part these exceptional athletes go on to be dominant NHL players.
While most #1 picks will go on to be impact players in the NHL a select few will attain a higher level of glory, establishing themselves as franchise players, superstars that come along only a few times in a generation. They go on to win Stanley Cups, Hart Trophies and are first ballot Hall of Famers. So who are the best of the best, the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to former #1 overall picks? Here are my selections for the greatest players who went #1 overall in the NHL Entry Draft:
10 – Dale Hawerchuk
The 10th spot on these lists is always the most challenging. It is the most controversial pick not because of who you select, but rather who you exclude as a result of that selection. In this case legends like Wendel Clark and Pierre Turgeon and more recent stars like Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane and John Tavares get off the list. While one of more of the latter will surely make the list one day they aren’t quite there yet, and with 518 goals and 1,409 points in just 1,188 career games played it is hard to justify keeping Hawerchuk off the list at this point.
9 – Mike Modano
Arguably the greatest American-born player in NHL history, Mike Modano was the first overall pick by the Minnesota North Stars in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. While Modano would not capture that year’s Calder Trophy, losing out to fellow American Brian Leetch, he put up a more-than-respectable 29 goals and 75 points that season. Modano continued to put up points at a consistent rate over the remainder of his career, finishing with 561 goals, 1,374 points and a Stanley Cup ring.
8 – Eric Lindros
One of the most anticipated draft picks in NHL history, Eric Lindros did not actually ever play a game for the team that drafted him. Lindros (and his family) had already made it crystal clear that he had no inclination to play for the Quebec Nordiques if they drafted him with the first pick. However the stakes were too high for the Nords to make any other choice, so they picked Lindros and started shopping him to the highest bidder. Originally it looked like the New York Rangers had won the Lindros sweepstakes, but when the dust settled it was the Philadelphia Flyers that claimed the prize. For the next several seasons Lindros established himself as a force unlike any the game had ever seen. His combination of size, speed, skill and brutal physicality made him an absolute nightmare for opposing defenders. He won a Hart Trophy and put up points at well over a point-a-game pace. Ultimately his own physical style would be his downfall, as concussion problems derailed what might have been one of the greatest careers in NHL history. In all, Lindros played just 760 games, scoring 865 points.
7 – Mats Sundin
If you opened up the dictionary to the word ‘Consistency’ you would find a picture of Mats Sundin below it. The hulking Swede was nabbed by the Nordiques in the 1989 draft. (Yes they did have a lot of first overall picks during that era). Sundin had a few great seasons for the Nordiques, including a 114 point campaign in 1992-93 before he was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a blockbuster deal that saw Wendel Clark come the other way. Sundin was Mr. Everything for the Leafs, putting the team on his back year after year, and earning a captaincy for his efforts. Though, like so many other greats, Sundin was unable to win a Stanley Cup he is regarded as one of hockey’s greatest leaders and his 564 goals and 1,349 points make him one of the highest scoring European-born players of all time.
6 – Gilbert Perreault
One of the slickest stickhandlers to ever lace up the skates, Gilbert Perreault was a nice present for the Buffalo Sabres upon the birth of their franchise. In 1970 both the Vancouver Canucks and the Sabres spun a wheel to determine who would get the first overall pick in that year’s draft. Buffalo won the spin with #11 and selected Perreault, who went on to don the number on the back of his jersey. Perreault would go on to become a dominant force through the 1970s and early 1980s, as the best player on one of the best lines – The French Connection – in NHL history. Perreault went on to score 512 goals and 1,326 points in just 1,191 games, all with the Buffalo Sabres.
5 – Alex Ovechkin
Some might protest the inclusion of a player only halfway through his career on this list, but let’s face it: Ovechkin already has more on his resume than others on this list that played twice as long as The Great 8 has so far. At just 29 years of age Ovie already has a Calder Trophy, an Art Ross Trophy, 3 Hart Trophies and 4 Rocket Richard Trophies. Not a bad resume for a guy still in the prime of his career. Yes, his leadership has been called into question and he has yet to win a Stanley Cup, but neither did Hawerchuk, Lindros, Sundin or Perreault. In just 687 games he’s already got 427 goals and if he can stay healthy it is very likely he will finish career as one of the top 5 goal scorers in NHL history.
4 – Denis Potvin
Forget Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier or Billy Smith, this bruising defenseman was the anchor of the powerful New York Islanders who won 4 straight Stanley Cups and an NHL record 19 straight playoff series in the early 1980s. Potvin won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and was a three time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. He once scored 101 points in a single season, one of only a handful of blueliners to ever accomplish the feat. He was the first defenseman in NHL history to score 1,000 points, finishing his remarkable career with 1,052. To this day New York Rangers fans still chant Potvin Sucks when the Islanders come to visit, despite the fact he’s been retired for more than a quarter century. That, perhaps more than anything else, shows just what a big impact this Hall of Famer had over his NHL career.
3 – Sidney Crosby
While the Sabres got lucky on the 50/50 spin that allowed them to nab Perreault, the Pittsburgh Penguins really won the lottery when it came to landing the most coveted prospect in a generation in 2005. It was a unique circumstance because there had been a lockout that erased the entire 2004-05 season. Because there was no season, there were no standings that would allow the NHL to establish a draft order. So, in the interest of fairness they had an equally weighted lottery where all 30 teams got an even shot at the number one pick. The Pens got it and the rest is history. Crosby was everything he was projected to be, scoring over 100 points in his first season. He’s since gone on to put up 781 points in just 557 games so far, and if not for injury woes might already be north of 1,000. He’s got a pair of Hart Trophies, two Art Ross Trophies, and Rocket Richard Trophy, and, most importantly of all, a Stanley Cup. He is the best player in the game today, without question, and if he can stay healthy will certainly have to be considered as one of the greatest of all time one day.
2 – Guy Lafleur
One of the most exciting, dynamic personalities the game of hockey has ever seen, Guy Lafleur is a living legend not only in the city of Montreal, but throughout the league. It hardly seemed fair that the Habs – a powerhouse throughout the 1970s – got the #1 overall pick in the 1971 NHL Entry Draft. Sam Pollock gets the credit, swindling the California Golden Seals out of the coveted pick, and selecting Lafleur (over Marcel Dionne – also available that year). Lafleur went on to win three Art Ross Trophies and a pair of Hart Trophies while helping the Habs win 5 Stanley Cups. He ranks second in all time goals with the Habs (518) and is first in points with 1,246. Overall he finished his career with 560 goals and 1,353 points in just 1,127 career games.
1 – Mario Lemieux
Sorry Sidney, but your boss was a little bit better than you. No prospect since Guy Lafleur was as eagerly anticipated as Mario Lemieux. The towering centerman had absolutely torched the QMJHL the season before, scoring a jaw-dropping 282 points in his final season with the club. Pittsburgh not only wanted Lemieux, they needed him to keep their struggling franchise afloat, and when they finished with the worst record in the NHL in 1983-84 (amid allegations of tanking) they got their man. Lemieux went on to score 100 points in his first season, winning the Calder Trophy, but that was just a hint of what was to come. Lemieux put up massive point totals over the next several seasons, challenging even Wayne Gretzky for supremacy, something previously considered unthinkable. He led the Pens to back to back Stanley Cups in 1991 & 1992, winning plenty of individual hardware along the way. In all he led the league in scoring 6 times, won 3 Hart Trophies and finished his career with a whopping 690 goals and 1,723 points, despite playing in a mere 915 games.