Stefan was the worst first pick ever

By: Tim Kolupanowich, @TimKolupan_

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins getting selected first overall in 2011 by Edmonton. (Bri Weldon/Wikimedia Commons)

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins getting selected first overall in 2011 by Edmonton. (Bri Weldon/Wikimedia Commons)

The NHL draft is in just three days, so naturally it’s time to make predictions for the future and reminisce about the past. The Colorado Avalanche have the pressure of having the first overall pick and although every top pick since 2001 has been a slam dunk with the exception of Erik Johnson (the Blues could have had Jonathan Toews who was taken third), there’s always the danger of wasting the precious selection.

This is Colorado’s first first-overall selection since they had three in a row as the Quebec Nordiques from 1989 to 1991 which were used to draft Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros, respectively. The consensus this year was they’d use this as an opportunity to shore up their defense with Seth Jones of the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks, but executive VP of hockey operations Joe Sakic has quelled that notion already, opting instead to go with a forward, likely Nathan MacKinnon of the Quebec Major Junior League’s Halifax Mooseheads.

The Avalanche have missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons and five of the past seven, so they are clearly in rebuilding mode so this draft couldn’t have come at a better time and it’s crucial they make the right decision for their future. With the level of scouting these days, draft busts don’t come around very often, but there’s always a looming threat which ever player they take won’t pan out as everyone predicts.

Stephen Whyno of The Canadian Press listed the five best and worst draft picks of the past 20 years via Yahoo! Sports and not surprisingly, Alexander Daigle is at the top of the list. It seems he tops every list of the all-time draft busts and is always taking heat as the first first-overall draft ever, but it’s time to cut him some slack and hand that distinction off to Patrik Stefan. Always near the top of those lists, the Atlanta Thrashers’ first pick ever is ultimately the bigger bust.

It’s not GM Don Waddell’s fault the 1999 draft was extremely weak and the hockey gods saw fit to make that class Atlanta’s first.  Looking back the only good option for Atlanta would have been one of the Sedin twins, Ryan Miller or the not-on-anyone’s-radar Henrik Zetterberg. Meanwhile the 1998 draft featured Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Pavel Datsyuk while the 2000 draft had Dany Heatley, Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist, any of which would have been a fine number one pick. There were also a great number of supporting players such as Justin Williams, Scott Hartnell, Lubomir Visnovsky, John-Michael Liles, Alex Tanguay, Scott Gomez and Simon Gagne between those two, but in 1999 there was nothing. As Whyno points out, Pavel Brendl, Brian Finley and Kris Beech were also drafted in the top 10.

Part of the reason Daigle is always picked to be the worst top selection is far better players were taken after him. Ottawa could have had Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya, Jason Arnott or Saku Koivu. They made a better pick 227th with Pavol Demitra, though he only played in 59 games over three seasons with the club before being traded to St. Louis for Christer Olsson. Vinny Prospal, Miroslav Satan, Andrew Brunette and Kimmo Timonen have never been hailed as superstars, but have carved out solid careers.

Daigle never amounted to much as those selected behind him, but he did have some OK moments. Three times he recorded 20 goals or more and 51 points and four times he finished in the top three in team scoring. He was second in goals and third in points on the 1996-97 Sens team that reached the playoffs for the first time, though his minus-33 was last in the NHL and he failed to record a point in seven games against the Sabres in the first round. He only lasted another half-season in Canada’s capital, but at least was there for the beginning of an 11-season streak of making the playoffs. Stefan doesn’t even have that going for him.

Atlanta didn’t make the playoffs until Stefan was traded to Dallas and they failed to win a game making his legacy to the team that drafted him worse than Daigle’s. He struggled to find any consistency on the scoring sheet, reaching 40 points just once and 30 two other times. His career averages over 82 games are 12-22-36 while Daigle’s is 17-26-43 and for greater comparison there’s also notable busts Brian Lawton (selected by Minnesota in 1983) with 19-26-45 and Doug Wickenheiser (selected by Montreal in 1980) with 16-24-40. (For a complete list of first-overall picks sorted by career points-per-game average, click here.) Daigle would show he belonged every so often while Stefan stayed invisible his entire career until he made one of the most infamous gaffes in history and meekly exited the NHL shortly thereafter.

No playoff births, no handoffs to a better team, nothing close to significant value in terms of points production and a franchise that went nowhere. Atlanta’s selection of Stefan in 1999 is indeed the worst top pick in history.

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