NHL

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bests and busts

A look at the smartest and dumbest first overall picks in NHL history

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PITTSBURGH -- You hear it all the time, from just about everyone. "I could have made a better pick," claims Joe Fan, discussing first-round draft selections after the fact.

Maybe. Maybe not.

The NHL entry draft kicked off Friday night in Pittsburgh and the first-round picks will be debated for years. It's too early to tell if colossal mistakes were made or the steal of the century was orchestrated.

The draft began in 1963 with the Montreal Canadiens taking Garry Monahan first overall. He turned out to be a so-so pick -- nowhere near the best or worst of the bunch.

Here's our look at the Best and the Busts of first overall picks in the NHL entry draft.

 

THE BEST

1. Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh Penguins (1984)

Arguably the best player to ever put on skates when he was at his very best. Wayne Gretzky's overall career is better but there was a time when Lemieux was at the height of his powers that he could do things no one had before or has since.

The Penguins went from a sad-sack franchise to a Cup contender with this pick. Throw in the fact Lemieux was able to save the club a second time when it faced bankruptcy and no first overall pick has ever had a bigger impact on his franchise.

 

2. Denis Potvin, New York Islanders (1973)

One of the greatest defenceman of all time and a winner of four Cups with the Islanders. Captain of those great Isles teams and a three-time Norris Trophy winner.

The Islanders had it all, including Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, but if there was any player they couldn't have done without, it was Potvin. He's a Hall of Famer and in the discussion for top-5 D-men of all time.

 

3. Guy Lafleur, Montreal Canadiens (1971)

The Flower was the offensive punch on Canadiens teams that won five Stanley Cups. The Hall of Famer had six seasons with 50 goals or more and was one of the most naturally gifted players ever.

Stylistically, there may have never been a more beautiful hockey player. Lafleur was a sight to behold breaking down the wing. With 560 goals and 793 assists in 1,127 games, Lafleur was an offensive force. Add 58 goals and 76 assists in 128 playoff games and he was a money player as well on one of the best teams ever iced.

4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh penguins (2005)

When healthy he's the best player in the game today. Has revitalized the Penguins organization and already won a Cup. Perhaps his biggest impact on the game is still to come as the first superstar to be hampered by post-concussion syndrome in this era of awareness. Crosby can push the envelope and create real change in the game where player safety is concerned.

 

5. Gilbert Perrault, Buffalo Sabres (1970)

Played his entire career with the Sabres, scoring 512 goals and 814 assists in 1,191 games. Won the Calder Trophy as a rookie and was named 47th overall in The Hockey News top 100 players of all time. Led the Sabres' famed French Connection line and was consistently one of the game's best players during his era.

 

THE BUSTS

 

1. Claude Gauthier, Detroit Red Wings (1964); Andre Vellieux, New York Rangers (1965); Rick Pagnutti, Los Angeles Kings (1967)

Take your pick. All were taken first overall and none ever played a game in the NHL. Classic definition of a bust.

 

2. Patrik Stefan, Atlanta Thrashers (1999)

Scored 64 goals and 188 points in 455 NHL games. The first round was horrible that year, with Daniel and Henrik Sedin the only strong picks made. Stefan never got on track despite numerous efforts to kick-start his career.

 

3. Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa Senators (1993)

Perhaps best remembered for appearing in a full-page ad dressed in a nurse's uniform, Daigle was never able to live up to his promise in the NHL. His best points total in a season was 51 and he played 616 NHL games with six different teams. The Senators passed on Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya to take Daigle.

 

4. Brian Lawton, Minnesota North Stars (1983)

Spent parts of five seasons with the North Stars and collected 266 career points in 483 games. Lawton wasn't a bad player, but considering he was drafted ahead of Steve Yzerman, Cam Neely, Tom Barrasso and Pat LaFontaine it was a disastrous pick for the North Stars.

 

5. Doug Wickenheiser, Montreal canadiens (1980)

One name will always define Wickenheiser's career and that's Denis Savard. The Canadiens passed on the chance to take Savard and drafted Wickenheiser, who finished his career playing 556 games, scoring 111 goals and 165 assists. Savard finished his career playing in 1,196 games and collecting 473 goals and 865 assists.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 C5

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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