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The top 10 NHL draft busts of the decade

Wasting a prime draft slot can set a team back years. Which picks in the 2010s left their franchises screaming for do-overs?

You can’t make a team with a first-round pick. But sometimes, when the stakes are high enough, you can ruin a team with a first-round pick. If a team scores a coveted lottery selection, and it yields a player barely worthy of a checking-line or third-pair role, the tanked season that allowed a team to pick that player was all for nothing. The Edmonton Oilers learned that the hard way in 2012. It’s not just No. 1 overall picks that can destroy a team’s trajectory, however. Any player who carries a high degree of expectation near the top of the first round is expected to be a building block for his franchise, and when he doesn’t deliver, it often delays a team’s rebuilding process. The New Jersey Devils, for instance, whiffed on Pavel Zacha in an amazing draft class, so it’s hardly a surprise that they’ve made the post-season once since picking him. That’s not to say it’s his fault directly – but when you look at the players picked right after him, you realize the Devils’ path might’ve been very different had they not chosen him.

So who are the top 10 draft busts of the 2010s? First, I’ll lay out the rules. Read them before airing grievances on Twitter.

* The list only includes skaters drafted in the top 10 of their respective classes. Busts are all about expectation, so, for the purpose of this exercise, I want players who donned their teams’ sweaters expected to be saviors. The top-10 draft pedigree carries a certain level of pressure. Samuel Morin, for example, was a big flop after going 11th overall in 2013, but he wasn’t drafted to be a superstar. He doesn’t qualify.

* For goaltenders, I expanded the range to top-15. Any goalie nabbed in the top half of the first round during this era of goalies-succeeding-out-of-nowhere carries major expectations. If you’re going to use a high pick on one when so many elite goalies are late-round picks or weren’t even drafted, your scouts better be right.

* The list skews toward the first half of the 2010s, as it’s more difficult to evaluate the career trajectories of players from the past several drafts. We’re obviously not going to call Jack Hughes a bust, for instance, despite the unexpectedly slow start to his NHL career.

* The people on this list still have time to play their way out of bust status. The oldest players drafted in the 2010s are only in their late 20s. So don’t take too much offense, Olli Juolevi and Jesse Puljujarvi. You’re still kids. Get out there and prove me wrong.

Ready? Let’s begin.

10. OLLI JUOLEVI, Canucks, fifth in 2016
Defensemen develop slower than forwards, no doubt, and Juolevi has battled some bad injury luck, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s a top-five draft pick who hasn’t reached the NHL almost four years after being picked. He was supposed to become a franchise defenseman. Instead, excluding the most recent draft class, Juloevi is the only top-five pick in the past 48 drafts not to play an NHL game yet. He likely will soon enough, which is why he doesn’t rank higher on this list. He’s only 21 years old, which makes him a young pup in defenseman years. He may go on to have a good NHL career. But the lack of NHL output to date is so extreme that he has to make this list.

9. VALERI NICHUSHKIN, Stars, 10th in 2013
Someone could argue Nichushkin’s seven goals in 35 games this season prove it’s too early to declare a player a bust before his 25th birthday. Counterargument: let it soak in that seven goals in 35 games qualifies as a “renaissance” for Nichushkin. That’s how grim things have gotten since Dallas made him a top-10 pick. In our 2013 Draft Preview magazine, a scout called Nichushkin “a top-three talent” in a class that included Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov and Seth Jones. The bar was thus extremely high for the big, skilled Nichushkin. He showed flashes of greatness across a few years before retreating to the KHL for additional seasoning. He returned as a shell: 57 games and zero goals in 2018-19. At 24, he’s young enough to shed his bust label, but seven goals in 35 games with Colorado isn’t doesn't cut it.

8. PAVEL ZACHA, Devils, sixth in 2015
Zacha has made himself into a perfectly OK NHLer – but more of a bottom-six NHLer. Given his draft slot and especially given the talent that went off the board around him in 2015, there’s simply no denying his career results to date have to sting the Devils and GM Ray Shero a bit. The top 10 in what will go down as an all-time-great first round: Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner, Noah Hanifin, Zacha, Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Timo Meier and Mikko Rantanen. Ouch. It’s not Zacha’s fault that so many great players got picked directly after him, but it adds to his growing bust legacy for sure.

7. DYLAN MCILRATH, Rangers, 10th in 2010
In a different era, the towering, tough-as-nails McIlrath, nicknamed ‘The Undertaker’ heading into his draft year, could’ve become an impact NHLer, a guy who protected his teammates and flattened finesse forwards with big hits. But he was a great fit for a version of the sport that was, unbeknownst to most of the league in 2010, on its way out. The game is too fast and skilled for players of McIlrath’s ilk now. It’s thus not a huge surprise that he’s just a fringe NHLer at this stage of his career. He turns 28 in April and he’s played 66 NHL regular-season games and one playoff game.

6. JACK CAMPBELL, Stars, 11th in 2010
Carey Price went fifth overall in the 2005 draft. Since then, no goalie has been taken higher than Campbell at 11th in 2010 (and Jonathan Bernier in 2006, also 11th). Campbell was a star in the making, having backstopped Team USA to gold at the 2010 world juniors. In our 2010 Draft Preview, a scout compared him to Price, and we predicted he’d be a “franchise goaltender.” So while Campbell appeared to find his footing as an L.A. King in 2018-19, he’s undoubtedly a major bust relative to expectation. He was supposed to be a perennial Vezina Trophy threat. Instead, he’s played 52 NHL games by age 27. Goalies can bloom late, so he has time to make something of himself, but Campbell is an epic draft-day whiff so far.

5. JESSE PULJUJARVI, Oilers, fourth in 2016
Too harsh to saddle Puljujarvi with top-five bust status so early? Maybe, but he earns points for being such a high-profile disaster so far in his career. A year before the Oilers took him fourth overall, he was projected to go as high as No. 2 before he was gradually overtaken by countryman Patrik Laine. Puljujarvi, big and smooth-handed, was still so highly regarded as of draft day 2016 that he was perceived to have “fallen” when the Columbus Blue Jackets passed on him at No. 3 to pick Pierre-Luc Dubois. No matter how desperately the Oilers needed a regular right winger for McDavid, Puljujarvi couldn’t ascend to that role, and he bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL for a few seasons before returning to Finland and demanding a trade this past off-season. At least he’s lighting up the Finnish League. Maybe he’ll return next season with a vengeance. He’s still three years younger than Artemi Panarin was when he won the Calder Trophy.

4. MICHAEL DAL COLLE, Islanders, fifth in 2014
The Islanders’ development system was a bit notorious before Lou Lamoriello took over as GM. For many years, they had the league’s smallest scouting and development staff, and it seemed to correlate with (a) draft busts and (b) draft busts who also took a long time to reach the NHL, which could also be blamed on the Isles’ tendency to keep blocking their young kids with veteran signings. Josh Ho-Sang was a repeated victim of this setup, as was Ryan Pulock for several years, and Dal Colle falls under a similar umbrella. One could argue he hasn’t been put in a position to succeed as a top-six NHL forward. Whatever the reason, however, it doesn’t change the fact he was a prolific goal-scorer in major junior and has made pretty much no impact at the NHL level. Other forwards picked early in the 2014 draft include Sam Reinhart, Leon Draisaitl, William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers. Sam Bennett, picked one spot before Dal Colle, has disappointed as well, but at least Bennett has become a functional NHLer with enough edge to his game to play in a bottom-six role. Dal Colle needs scoring-line deployment to blossom and simply hasn’t gotten to that point. Five-and-a-half years after he was drafted, he’s scored five goals in the NHL.

3. ERIK GUDBRANSON, Panthers, third in 2010
Gudbranson, unlike many of the names on his list, can hang his hat on being a full-fledged NHL defenseman. A week before his 28th birthday, he’s surpassed 502 games at the NHL level. In the analytics era, however, there’s a case to be made that many of Gudbranson’s 502 games have hurt his team more than helped. The puck has typically gone toward his own team’s net more often than not when Gudbranson is on the ice. When a top-three pick becomes someone who drags down his team’s puck possession, he becomes somewhat of an anchor. Gudbranson has remained a starting-level NHLer, or at least perceived as one, because of his size and toughness, but his skill set, like McIlrath’s, really belongs to another era. In the late 1990s, Gudbranson might’ve been as highly regarded as Adam Foote. Who knows?

2. GRIFFIN REINHART, Islanders, fourth in 2012
By age 25, Reinhart has one point in 23 games for…Kunlun Red Star of the KHL? That’s a rapid fall from grace for a towering two-way blueliner who was drafted to be the Isles’ next No. 1 defenseman and captained the Edmonton Oil Kings to a Memorial Cup the following spring. There were actually some red flags in his draft year. “For a big guy, he’s not that hard to play against defensively,” said one scout in our 2012 Draft Preview. “Being nasty doesn’t seem to be in his nature.” Reinhart didn’t play to his size and never developed the offense or foot speed to contribute in other ways at the NHL level. The Islanders salvaged the draft-day whiff by trading Reinhart to the Edmonton Oilers in 2015 for two picks, including one the Isles used on mega-non-bust Mathew Barzal.

1. NAIL YAKUPOV, Oilers, first in 2012
Hey, at least it seems like first-overall picks go bust far less than they used to. The 1990s gave us Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan, and the 2000s started strongly in the bust category a year later with Rick DiPietro. With scouting of the elite-level prospects arguably easier now with so much more footage available, it seems like teams get it right more than ever with the top overall pick in most draft classes, from MacKinnon to McDavid to Auston Matthews. But Yakupov was quite the exception. He inspired a ‘Fail for Nail’ tanking meme in his draft year, though he never projected as a generational talent or even a can’t-miss superstar. His infectious personality made him easy to root for, but he was never able to develop the defensive side of his game, which led to him averaging 13:36 of ice time for three teams across six ineffective NHL seasons. He scored 17 goals in 48 games as a rookie, but his performance declined from there.

Over the next two weeks, The Hockey News will be wrapping up the 2010s with a look back at the best – and worst – of the decade. Find more here.

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