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The top 10 NHL draft steals of the decade

The best draft-day steals aren't merely great players or players picked late. They're players who combine both those criteria.

Draft-day steals bring a certain degree of magic to every franchise. When a late-round gem becomes a front-line player, whichever team picked him earns a massive advantage over its competition. Sometimes the pick bails out a team with no early-round selections. The 2010 Ottawa Senators, for instance, didn’t make a pick until midway through the third round, but a certain someone, snagged at the end of Round 6, salvaged their draft. That man tops the list of the 2010s' biggest NHL draft steals.

Before the countdown begins, Please read the rules for this list to avoid getting angry about so-and-so’s exclusion:

- The list exclusively includes players drafted outside the top 100 in their respective classes. Nikita Kucherov, for instance, was a steal relative to his draft position but still a second-round pick. The young man came to the NHL with pedigree, so he doesn’t qualify as a steal for the purpose of this exercise.

- The list skews heavier toward the first half of the 2010s, as it’s more difficult to evaluate the career trajectories of players from the past several drafts with the sample sizes still small.

- The list isn’t merely sorted by player quality. Teams earn bonus points for reaching deeper to find their gems.

- No goalies crack this list. Finding a good one is such a game of roulette that it’s not really a steal when someone like Connor Hellebuyck goes 130th overall. To get my attention for the Steals list, goalies need to be snagged in the true late rounds. Frederik Andersen could’ve qualified at 178th in 2010 had Carolina successfully signed him, but he re-entered the draft.

Ready? Let's commence the top 10.

10. KEVIN LABANC, Sharks, 171st in 2014
Sure, Labanc’s bet-on-himself contract extension, signed for one year at a ridiculously team-friendly cap hit of $1 million, is backfiring on him so far this season. But let’s not get too swayed by recency bias. Despite his struggles of late, Labanc has contributed legitimate secondary offense as a top-six forward over the past few seasons as a Shark. That absolutely makes him a steal in Round 6. Averaging 44 points per 82 games, he’s 11th in career scoring among the 189 skaters picked in 2014.

9. JOSH MANSON, Ducks, 160th in 2011
The sport has changed. Blunt instruments don’t succeed on defense the way they used to. But Manson successfully walks the line between bruiser and effective, mobile shutdown artist. Since he debuted in 2014-15, 273 defensemen have logged at least 100 games. He’s 37th in hits per 60 minutes among that group. His play has declined a bit the past couple seasons, but so has the team around him.

8. ANDREW SHAW, Blackhawks, 139th in 2011
Chicago drafted the feisty overager Shaw a month before his 20th birthday, and his physical maturity allowed him to debut as an NHLer within less than a year. He popped 12 goals in 37 games as a freshman. Shaw became a key role player on Chicago’s 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup teams, chipping in five goals in each of those playoff runs, and has hit double-digit goal totals six times this decade while bringing physical forechecking and the ability to play any forward position. He’s been a nice Swiss Army Knife of a player.

7. ONDREJ PALAT, Lightning, 208th in 2011
Palat played on the Norfolk Admirals team that set a pro-hockey record with a 28-game winning streak in 2011-12 and was one of many players on that squad who successfully transitioned to the NHL along with coach Jon Cooper. Palat was a Calder Trophy finalist as a rookie along with his teammate Tyler Johnson in 2013-14. Palat rarely plays anything close to a full season, as injuries get the better of him, but he’s one of the best defensive wingers in the sport. He also ranks top-10 in scoring among 2011 draftees. The Lightning were grand larcenists at the podium that year, landing Palat and Kucherov outside the top 50.

6. JACCOB SLAVIN, Hurricanes, 120th in 2012
Had Slavin debuted in the NHL earlier than 2015-16, he might rank higher on this list. He’s become one of the poster children for modern NHL defense, which he executes through his smarts, positioning and stickwork rather than leaving opponents black and blue. Slavin is one of the game’s premiere shutdown blueliners and may be having his best season yet. The Canes allow a miniscule 1.69 goals per 60 minutes when Slavin is on the ice battling opposing teams’ best forwards. His most common opponents faced this season include Artemi Panarin, Aleksander Barkov and Patrick Kane.

5. BRENDAN GALLAGHER, Canadiens, 147th in 2010
Gallagher is one of the NHL’s smallest forwards but also one of its most tenacious around the net – and most hated among defensemen. He’s a chore to play against, dogged on the puck, and he peppers the net like few other players of his generation. Seriously. Across the past three years, he averages an NHL-best 15.13 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. He’s on pace for a third straight 30-goal season. He’s among the game’s most underrated players.

4. VIKTOR ARVIDSSON, Predators, 112th in 2014
Arvidsson is the suped-up version of Gallagher, almost exactly the same size at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds and armed with a similar agitating, net-crashing skill set. Since the start of 2016-17, Arvidsson's 101 goals place him 26th in the league, between Sean Monahan and Jack Eichel. Arvidsson’s 34 goals last season set a Predators single-season franchise record – and he did it in 58 games. Given how much the game has opened up in the past several years with the slashing crackdown, a pint-sized scorer like Arvidsson would likely go a couple rounds higher if picked today.

3. JOHN KLINGBERG, Stars, 131st in 2010
The Stars have a fairly ugly recent draft history with first-round picks not named Miro Heiskanen, but no one questions their gem-mining skills. Jamie Benn was one of the top draft-day steals of the previous decade, and blueliner Klingberg is among this decade’s best. He burst onto the scene with 11 goals and 40 points as a rookie in 2014-15. That began a five-season stretch in which he ranked seventh among all defensemen in points and fourth in even-strength points. Klingberg has struggled this season but has spent half this decade as one of the league’s premier offensive defensemen.

2. JOHNNY GAUDREAU, Flames, 104th in 2011
Gaudreau has a strong case as the best actual player on this list, but he slots second because he just barely slipped out of the top 100 on draft day. His talent was already on scouts’ radar by 2011, when he tore up the USHL with Dubuque. Still, the rise of ‘Johnny Hockey,’ Hobey Baker winner, NCAA champion and world-junior gold medallist, occurred after the Flames drafted him, so they deserve full marks. In 2011, the NHL’s size stigma still featured prominently, and Gaudreau got punished. He made everyone pay, though, and few players have benefited more from the changes in NHL rule enforcement over the past couple seasons, as evidenced by his 99-point explosion in 2018-19. The slashing crackdown is also known as the ‘Johnny Gaudreau rule’ after he took 21 slashes in a 2016 game.

1. MARK STONE, Senators, 178TH in 2010
Stone’s hands and hockey intelligence were never in doubt. His skating very much was, which is why he was viewed as a somewhat of a flier when Ottawa grabbed him near the end of the 2010 draft. He started posting monster offensive numbers in the two major-junior seasons after Ottawa drafted him, he continued to work on his footwork at the AHL level, and he was a mature, finished product of a player by his first full season in 2014-15, in which he finished as the Calder Trophy runner-up. Since then, Stone has emerged as a consistently good front-line scorer but, more importantly, an absolutely elite defensive forward. There’s no better takeaway artist in hockey, and Selke voters are finally starting to notice his brilliance. He finished second in the vote last year. He may become the first winger to win it since Jere Lehtinen very soon. Stone has reached the tier of “Would make Team Canada if the Olympics started today with NHLers playing,” so he’s an incredible steal at his draft slot, even though the Senators had to trade him last season.

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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