Yes, Mario Lemieux and Guy Lafleur were chosen No. 1 in their respective draft classes. But so were Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan.
The chances are good that a team will at least get a solid NHL player at No. 1 and will get productive years from him. Ottawa defenceman Chris Phillips is an example of that.
But even the top pick is a risk. Why? Scouting 17-year-old hockey players is an inexact science, says the director of NHL Central Scouting.
“We don’t know how are own kids are going to turn out at 17 and we’re projecting a million-dollar-value pick on a 17-year-old,” E.J. McGuire said prior to the first round of the 2007 draft Friday.
“We’re down the street here from Ohio State University where those football players who are drafted are 20 and 21 and playing in front of 85,000 people.
“Some of these kids who are getting picked are playing in front of 2,500 people in rural Canada and why don’t they make it like the Ohio State running back? We’re talking apples and oranges.”
NHL clubs try to get a read on a player by watching him several times during his seasons with his club team and in other tournaments like the Canada Games, world under-17, under-18 and under-20 tournaments.
Scouts talk to his agent, coaches and parents and put the player himself through physical and psychological testing at the NHL combine a few weeks before the draft.
All that may give an indication what kind of a player he’ll turn out to be, but there is a lot of room for error because he’ll change dramatically between the ages of 18 and 20.
“I’m a much better scout at 18, I’m a much better scout at 19 and give me those 20-year-olds,” McGuire said.
Lemieux was taken first overall by Pittsburgh in the 1984 draft and went on to capture the NHL’s scoring title six times as well as win two Stanley Cups with the team that drafted him.
He set a high standard for No. 1 picks.
The first-year Ottawa Senators made Daigle the first pick in 1993 and signed him to an astounding five-year, US$12.25-million deal.
Daigle never had more than 51 points in a season for Ottawa. He bounced around the NHL, didn’t play for two years, attempted to revive his NHL career and is currently under contract to the Swiss club Davos.
Hindsight is 20-20, McGuire pointed out in defence of Ottawa’s decision to take Daigle.
“I was in Ottawa when they picked Alexandre Daigle No. 1 and if they had it to do over again, they would pick him No. 1,” he said. “(He was) a French Canadian kid who had scored 70 goals, photogenic, at a time when they had to sell tickets on both sides of the Ottawa river in a new market. He was the consensus right-on pick.”
Labelling the No. 1 pick a draft boom or bust is subjective and for many of them, their careers fall somewhere in the middle.
Joe Murphy (Detroit, 1986) broke the 60-point barrier only three times during his 15 seasons in the NHL, but won a Stanley Cup with the Oilers in 1990.
Defenceman Rick Green (Washington, 1976) played the same number of seasons and also won a Cup with Montreal.
Dale McCourt (Detroit, 1977) had 478 points during his seven seasons in the NHL before ending his playing career in Switzerland.
Stefan (Atlanta, 1991) never managed more than 41 points for the Thrashers and was traded last summer to Dallas.
The player taken first overall Friday at Nationwide Arena could be a boom, bust or simply a journeyman player during his career.
“There is no guarantee,” McGuire said. “The No. 1 might be an unfair label and pressure to put on him. Even if you’re No. 3 there is pressure to be had and it’s a good introduction to the world of big-time pro sports.”
Here’s a look at the fortunes of some past No. 1 picks:
-Sidney Crosby (2005, Pittsburgh Penguins); While it’s still early, winning the NHL scoring title and league MVP at 19 makes him a star already.
-Mario Lemieux, (Pittsburgh Penguins, 1984); Six NHL scoring titles, two Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVP in back-to-back Stanley Cup wins.
-Guy Lafleur (Montreal, 1971); Three consecutive scoring titles, two MVPs and five Stanley Cups in 17 seasons.
-Mats Sundin (Quebec, 1989); A consistent 30-to-40 goalscorer for Toronto after the Leafs acquired him in 1994 and has been the team’s captain for almost a decade.
-Mike Modano (Minnesota, 1988); Has played his entire 16-year career with the same franchise and helped lead the Stars to a Stanley Cup in 1999.
-Joe Thornton (Boston, 1997); Career rebounded in a big way after Boston traded him to San Jose, where Thornton won a scoring title and league MVP award in 2006.
-Alexandre Daigle, (Ottawa, 1993); Overpaid and underproductive for Ottawa. Was bounced around the NHL, quit for couple years before trying to revive his career. Played for Swiss club Davos this past season.
-Doug Wickenheiser, (Montreal, 1980); Centre’s career suffers in comparison to that of Denis Savard taken No. 3, Larry Murphy at No. 4 and Paul Coffey at No. 6 that year. Scoring touch from junior never materialized in NHL. Died in 1999 of cancer.
-Greg Joly (Washington, 1974). The Capitals traded the defenceman to Detroit less than three years after drafting him. He was up and down between the Wings’ parent club and minors for the rest of the his career and retired in 1986.
-Gord Kluzak (Boston, 1982); Punishing defenceman with offensive upside, knee problems limited his effectiveness and shortened his career as he managed less than 300 games for the Bruins over seven seasons. Was presented with Bill Masterton trophy in 1990 for his dedication to the game and retired the following year.
-Brian Lawton (Minnesota, 1983); Winger’s relationship with the Stars went sour and after five years with Minnesota, he was dealt to the Rangers. He was never with the same team for two seasons in a row after that.