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The Feel-Bad Hit Of The Summer: Part I

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There have been plentiful writings about draft busts, but I want to know what went WRONG.

Auston Matthews, who will hopefully have nothing to do with this article.
Auston Matthews, who will hopefully have nothing to do with this article.
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The last year and a half of Leaf fandom--with one exception--has been incredibly satisfying.  We went from terrible coaching to the consensus best coach in the league.  We got out from the cap consequences of the Dion Phaneuf and David Clarkson contracts.  We cashed most of our rentals in and are going into the draft loaded for bear.

We drafted for skill high and for potential low, and the early returns are very encouraging.  We called up several of our prospects late in the season and we got to watch this and this and this.  And finally, on April 30th, we won the NHL draft lottery.  For a team finally embracing a full rebuild, this was an incredible run of good management and good luck.

I am terrified.

I'm accustomed to my team finding ever new and more creative ways to disappoint me, and their recent failure to fail has made me deeply uncomfortable.  I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I can't even shop for footwear anymore because I spend the whole time ducking and crying.

So when we won the lottery, I felt wonderful for a couple of hours, and then the fear set in.  How will this go wrong? And terrible names sprang to my mind unbidden, as half-remembered phantoms whose very mention evokes primal spasms of regret.

Alexandre Daigle.

Patrik Stefan.

Doug Wickenheiser.

There it was.  What if the hockey gods gave us the first overall pick as part of a cosmic long-con, raising us up only to drop us harder with a spectacular draft bust?  It seemed possible.  Look how they treated us when we had hope before.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. --Mark Twain

Let's figure out what we have to be scared of, and let's face those fears with numbers and idiotic jokes.

The First Pick

Since the NHL draft was instituted, there have been 53 first overall picks, starting with Montreal's drafting of Gary Monahan in 1963 and going up to Edmonton's selection of Connor McDavid in 2015.

I'm going to throw out the pre-expansion drafts due to incomplete information--I literally can't find when Claude Gauthier, 1OA pick in 1964, was born, much less any info about his failed hockey career--and because those years featured anomalously frequent and severe draft busts (three of the first five picks never played in the NHL, whereas every subsequent pick either played or is very likely to play at least 200 NHL games.)

I'm also going to throw out the last five 1OA picks, given they're still too early in their careers to safely evaluate.  Just for the sake of stating the obvious: barring catastrophic injury, it looks likely that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011), Nathan MacKinnon (2013), Aaron Ekblad (2014), and Connor McDavid (2015) will be high-quality NHL players.  Nail Yakupov (2012) is a little iffier.

Finally, in our trimmed-down sample of 1968-2010, three goalies were drafted 1OA: Michael Plasse (Montreal, 1968); Rick DiPietro (New York Islanders, 2000); Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh, 2003.)  Plasse was bad, DiPietro was devastated by injuries, and Fleury has had an uneven career with some great years and a Cup and some infamous playoff runs.

The increasing recognition that goalies are very hard to predict has led to a trend away from drafting goalies high--no goalie has gone in the top ten in the last ten drafts.  Since the chances of the Leafs using their first overall pick on a goalie are less than zero, I won't try and draw any lessons from goalies other than the obvious: it helps to stay healthy.

With these edits, we're down to 39 first-overall picks we're looking at.  Courtesy of the good folks at hockey-reference and Wikipedia:

Year Overall Team Player Nationality Position Age Last Year Amateur Team GP G A PTS +/- PIM Hall
1969 1 Montreal Canadiens Rejean Houle CA W 19 1983 Montreal (QMJHL) 635 161 247 408 180 395 No
1970 1 Buffalo Sabres Gilbert Perreault CA C 19 1987 Montreal (QMJHL) 1191 512 814 1326 42 500 Yes
1971 1 Montreal Canadiens Guy Lafleur CA RW 19 1991 Quebec (QMJHL) 1126 560 793 1353 453 399 Yes
1972 1 New York Islanders Billy Harris CA RW 20 1984 Toronto 897 231 327 558 -18 394 No
1973 1 New York Islanders Denis Potvin CA D 19 1988 Ottawa (OHL) 1060 310 742 1052 460 1356 Yes
1974 1 Washington Capitals Greg Joly CA D 20 1983 Regina (WHL) 365 21 76 97 -163 250 No
1975 1 Philadelphia Flyers Mel Bridgman CA C 20 1989 Victoria (WHL) 977 252 449 701 102 1625 No
1976 1 Washington Capitals Rick Green CA D 20 1992 London (OHL) 845 43 220 263 -91 588 No
1977 1 Detroit Red Wings Dale McCourt CA C 20 1984 St. Catharines (OHL) 532 194 284 478 -67 124 No
1978 1 Minnesota North Stars Bobby Smith CA C 20 1993 Ottawa (OHL) 1077 357 679 1036 -10 917 No
1979 1 Colorado Rockies Rob Ramage CA D 20 1994 London (OHL) 1044 139 425 564 -171 2226 No
1980 1 Montreal Canadiens Doug Wickenheiser CA C 19 1990 Regina (WHL) 556 111 165 276 41 286 No
1981 1 Winnipeg Jets Dale Hawerchuk CA C 18 1997 Cornwall (OHL) 1188 518 891 1409 -92 730 Yes
1982 1 Boston Bruins Gord Kluzak CA D 18 1991 Billings 299 25 98 123 40 543 No
1983 1 Minnesota North Stars Brian Lawton US LW 18 1993 Mount St. Charles (High-RI) 483 112 154 266 -42 401 No
1984 1 Pittsburgh Penguins Mario Lemieux CA C 18 2006 Laval (QMJHL) 915 690 1033 1723 115 834 Yes
1985 1 Toronto Maple Leafs Wendel Clark CA LW/D 18 2000 Saskatoon (WHL) 793 330 234 564 -129 1690 No
1986 1 Detroit Red Wings Joe Murphy CA RW 18 2001 Michigan State (CCHA) 779 233 295 528 29 810 No
1987 1 Buffalo Sabres Pierre Turgeon CA C 18 2007 Granby (QMJHL) 1294 515 812 1327 139 452 No
1988 1 Minnesota North Stars Mike Modano US C 18 2011 Prince Albert (WHL) 1499 561 813 1374 114 930 Yes
1989 1 Quebec Nordiques Mats Sundin SE C 18 2009 Nacka 1346 564 785 1349 73 1093 Yes
1990 1 Quebec Nordiques Owen Nolan GB RW 18 2010 Cornwall (OHL) 1200 422 463 885 -40 1793 No
1991 1 Quebec Nordiques Eric Lindros CA C 18 2007 Oshawa (OHL) 760 372 493 865 215 1398 No
1992 1 Tampa Bay Lightning Roman Hamrlik CS D 18 2013 ZPS Zlin 1395 155 483 638 -49 1408 No
1993 1 Ottawa Senators Alexandre Daigle CA C 18 2006 Victoriaville (QMJHL) 616 129 198 327 -176 186 No
1994 1 Florida Panthers Ed Jovanovski CA D 18 2014 Windsor (OHL) 1128 137 363 500 -86 1491 N/A
1995 1 Ottawa Senators Bryan Berard US D 18 2008 Detroit (OHL) 619 76 247 323 -98 500 No
1996 1 Ottawa Senators Chris Phillips CA D 18 2015 Prince Albert (WHL) 1179 71 217 288 67 758 N/A
1997 1 Boston Bruins Joe Thornton CA C 18 2016 Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 1367 377 964 1341 199 1105 N/A
1998 1 Tampa Bay Lightning Vincent Lecavalier CA C 18 2016 Rimouski (QMJHL) 1212 421 528 949 -139 848 N/A
1999 1 Atlanta Thrashers Patrik Stefan CS C 18 2007 Long Beach 455 64 124 188 -36 158 No
2001 1 Atlanta Thrashers Ilya Kovalchuk SU LW 18 2013 Spartak Moscow 816 417 399 816 -116 516 N/A
2002 1 Columbus Blue Jackets Rick Nash CA LW 18 2016 London (OHL) 922 393 340 733 -8 696 N/A
2004 1 Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin SU LW 18 2016 Dynamo Moscow (Russia) 839 525 441 966 78 567 N/A
2005 1 Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby CA C 18 2016 Rimouski (QMJHL) 707 338 600 938 148 552 N/A
2006 1 St. Louis Blues Erik Johnson US D 18 2016 U.S. National U-18 (USNTDP) 529 59 161 220 -43 351 N/A
2007 1 Chicago Blackhawks Patrick Kane US RW 18 2016 London (OHL) 658 251 412 663 68 252 N/A
2008 1 Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos CA C 18 2016 Sarnia (OHL) 569 312 250 562 5 354 N/A
2009 1 New York Islanders John Tavares CA C 18 2016 London (OHL) 510 207 264 471 -34 243 N/A

Of our thirty-nine draftees, we have ten defencemen and twenty-eight forwards, plus the odd case of Wendel, who was drafted as a defender and then became a forward.  Of the twenty-seven players who have thus far been eligible to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame, seven have made it, one still might (Lindros) and at least one more should have (Pierre Turgeon.)  The list of active players includes multiple names who will probably make the Hall of Fame (Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane) or who are at least a meaningful threat to do so (Thornton, Stamkos, Tavares.)  It turns out a lot of really good players are drafted first overall.  Who knew?

Just based on the names and games involved, it probably jumps out at you that drafting a defenceman first overall seems to produce fewer spectacular players than drafting a forward.  Of our seven HHOFers, only one is a defender (Denis Potvin); there have been a couple of solid high-end defenders (Jovanovski, Ramage and Hamrlik, and Berard seemed on his way before being derailed by injury) but the list isn't nearly as impressive as the top game-breakers drafted at forward.  The only defenceman to go first overall in the last nineteen drafts is Erik Johnson, who has had a decent career thus far, but one underwhelming for his draft position.

There have, however, been some game-breaking defenders drafted juuuust below first (Chris Pronger, 2nd OA in 1993; Drew Doughty, 2nd OA in 2008), so it's certainly possible to get a franchise defenceman.  Teams, however, are less willing to take a chance on a defender, preferring the greater certainty that comes with drafting offensive production.  I don't want to totally discard defenders as an example, because that limits our sample even further, but the Leafs are going to draft a forward in June, so that's where my focus will go.

What Makes A 1OA Draft Bust?

The rule of thumb standard for "an NHL player" is to play 100 games in the NHL.  Thus, there are no draft busts at 1st overall.  Article over.  Everybody go home.

Okay, not really.  1st-overall picks are, ideally, franchise players.  Every forward drafted between 2001 and 2009 has led the league in goals, points or both at least once, except John Tavares, who finished one point behind Jamie Benn for the Art Ross last season.  That's what we're hoping for out of Matthews.  A 1OA bust is a player who falls well short of those expectations.

Of our thirty-nine players, thirteen have played fewer than 700 regular-season NHL games; four of those players are still playing and younger than 29 (Johnson, Tavares, Stamkos and Kane).  For the forwards, I decided to use 0.6 points per game as the cut-off for a true bust; scoring at a 50-point pace for your whole career is still pretty decent, albeit less than what you'd hope for.  This leaves four true forward busts: Patrik Stefan, Brian Lawton, Doug Wickenheiser, and Alexandre Daigle.

We have three candidates left on defence: Gord Kluzak, Greg Joly, and Bryan Berard.  Berard produced at an extremely impressive rate for a defenceman in the dead puck era (0.52 points per game career) before suffering a freak accident.  Kluzak and Joly had catastrophically sad careers.  Berard's out, and the latter two are in.  Let's get down to brass tacks.

The First Three Failures

There have been plentiful writings about draft busts, and I've used them as references for this article--like this one.  The problem is, most of the articles are written from the perspective of "lololololol", and while I always appreciate that, I want to know why.  What went wrong?

Here is what went wrong.

Greg Joly

Defenceman; Drafted 1OA by Washington in 1974

Joly was a big and highly productive offensive defenceman as a 19-year-old in junior, having put up 92 points in 67 WCHL (now called the WHL) games with the Regina Pats.  He won the Memorial Cup with Regina in his final year, scoring three assists in the final game and being named tournament MVP.

Based on his performance, Joly had the historical honour and the practical torture of being the Washington Capitals' first-ever draft pick.  Washington (along with Kansas City) were the next two teams to join the league as part of its spasm of expansion.

Between the NHL boom--twelve new franchises in six years--and the founding of the competitive World Hockey Association in 1971, there was very little talent to go around, even before considering the spectacular head start enjoyed by the smarter Original Six teams and the first expansion franchises.

As a result, at the time the Capitals started operations in 1974-75, they were the most overmatched team in the history of the NHL.  The Caps went 8-67-5 in 80 games, good (bad?) for the worst points percentage the league ever recorded (.131.)  Washinton's head coach, Jim Anderson, infamously said he'd rather his wife cheat on him than have the misery continue.

In this environment, Greg Joly was, as this biographical article puts it, "thrown to the wolves."  It would have been a rough enough introduction to the league to play for this team in any case; in Joly's case, it was exacerbated by a training camp injury (either his Achilles tendon or his hamstring, depending on the source).

Joly nonetheless came back for opening night and the first few months of the year, even taking some forward shifts on the moribund Capitals powerplay.  Then in December, he suffered a serious knee injury and missed twenty-six games.

In his and the Capitals' second excruciating season, Joly apparently struggled under new coach--already his fourth in the NHL (!)--Tom McVie, who did not permit him to rush the puck freely.  As we know, that's a tough situation for an offensive defenceman, and tends to cause them to look bad.

Then Joly suffered a fracture in his ankle, causing him to miss even more NHL time.  The team lost patience with him and traded him to the Detroit Red Wings in 1976.  I think it's fair to say Joly had one of the most brutal introductions to the NHL of any high pick since the draft was introduced.

The rest of Joly's career--all played for either the Detroit or the Adirondack Red Wings--was a little better, but not much.  The Red Wings were a miserable franchise throughout the 70s and the 80s, but Greg Joly got to make the playoffs in 1978.

They beat up on Atlanta Flames in the preliminary round and then ran into the dynasty Canadiens, who crushed them in five games.  You might say that this bad luck is consistent with Joly's whole career, but I would disagree.  This bad luck is consistent with Joly's whole career: he suffered a broken wrist in Game 3 of the series and missed the end of it.  Joly never made the NHL playoffs again.

Joly experienced several further serious injuries and was a (pretty good!) AHL defenceman for a few years before retiring in 1986.  He finished with an NHL statline of 21 goals and 67 assists for 97 points in 365 games, carrying a grim -163 +/- that I strongly suspect was largely not his fault.

What went wrong?

Everything!  Oh my God, did you just read all that?  Greg Joly's career makes me want to weep for the cruelty in this world.  He didn't deserve this.  No one deserves this.

  1. Injuries--Joly's injury history was awful and devastated his career before it ever really got started.  Two serious injuries taking out your first training camp and a third of your rookie season is a bad start, and it didn't get much better; Joly was constantly injured throughout most of the 1970s.
  2. Terrible teams--plenty of first overall picks have the pressure to save a bad team on their shoulders.  Joly had the pressure to save the worst team of all time.  Aside from the obvious suppressing impact on his own numbers that comes from playing for a tire fire, Joly's development was exactly what you don't want to do to your top prospect.
  3. Coaching--I'm not sure any coach could have saved Washington from their early suffering, but having four of them in two years, ending with one who didn't trust him, can't have helped much.
  4. Overager--Blowing up the WHL at 19 probably made Joly look more ready than he was.  When he went from a big fish in a little pond to a small fish in a sewage dump, he suffered harshly.

Greg Joly's career was an exercise in sadness.  I hope he's happy now, in what Wikipedia tells me is "the sports insurance industry in upstate New York."  If anyone knows how things can go wrong in sports, it's Greg Joly.

Doug Wickenheiser

Centre/Left Wing; Drafted 1OA by Montreal in 1980

Before we go any further, two things:

1.  Yes, he was related to Hayley Wickenheiser (Doug is deceased.)  Hayley is Doug's cousin.

2.  If you want evidence that longtime Habs GM Sam Pollock was the absolute master at securing draft picks, the Habs were picking 1st overall after finishing third in the league in points and one year removed from winning their fourth consecutive Cup.  Why?  Because of a trade Pollock made with Colorado in 1976. Pollock was two years retired from the Canadiens organization by this point, and the Habs were still enjoying the riches his tenure provided.

Doug Wickenheiser, as with his predecessor bust Greg Joly, was a star for the Regina Pats.  Are the Regina Pats cursed?  Gotta ask the question.  Anyway, as a big, talented centre, Wickenheiser produced at a spectacular rate in his final WHL season, putting up 170 points in 71 games.  Habs fans famously wanted the Habs to draft francophone star Denis Savard instead of the Saskatchewan-born Wickenheiser.  In this, the Habs fans were justified, as Savard went on to the Hall of Fame and Wickenheiser...not so much.

Where Joly joined a team mired in abject failure, Wickenheiser joined a team only recently fallen from towering heights.  Of the fifteen Cups awarded between 1965 and 1979, the Habs won ten, including four straight from 1976-1979.  The old guard, though, was starting to disappear by the time Wickenheiser joined the Habs.

Pollock left in 1978, and coach Scotty Bowman, as well as players Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, and Jacques Lemaire, left in 1979.  In the thirty-six years since Wickenheiser was drafted, the Habs have won only twice (1986 and 1993)--respectable, but a hard fall from the otherworldly heights they'd once reached.  Wickenheiser had the bad timing to be the face of that early decline.

This excellent biography of Wickenheiser gives the sympathetic side of his story in full. Habs head coach Claude Ruel apparently wanted to draft Savard, but was overruled by the front office, who preferred Wickenheiser's size.  Wickenheiser struggled with his coach and was frequently scratched in his first year.  He also struggled with occasional injuries, and with a fanbase that increasingly saw him as the face of their diminished status and playoff failure.  But he also struggled to produce, peaking with 55 points in 78 games in 1982-83 (notably, not under Claude Ruel.)

The Habs dealt him to St. Louis, where he seemed to have a resurgence on arrival; he was scoring at his best-ever rate in 1985-86--43 points in 68 games, or 0.63 PPG--when he suffered a devastating off-ice injury, blowing out his MCL and ACL, that kept him out for this season and most of the next one.  Wickenheiser returned, now a defensive centre, but never again reached 30 points in a season.

Wickenheiser eventually wound up playing in Europe, then died tragically young from cancer in 1999, aged only 37.  While his career never reached the heights that might have been hoped, he was extremely popular with St. Louis Blues fans; the team wore his number 14 on their helmets during Wickenheiser's battle with cancer.

What went wrong?

  1. Injuries--starting to see a theme?  Wickenheiser was felled by an absolutely devastating injury just when he seemed to be reaching a decent offensive form, at age 24.  It doesn't quite explain everything away, but it meant Wickenheiser was cut down young and never really recovered, with a consequent impact on his career numbers.
  2. Montreal Typical--Without wanting to overstate it, Wickenheiser's early struggles with his coach and his ongoing ones with the Montreal fanbase all occurred very early in his career.  His entire, agonizing Montreal tenure was over before his 23rd birthday.
  3. Overachiever, Overager--all these aside, the fact remains that Wickenheiser never produced at a 60-point rate.  His annihilation of the WHL as a big 19-year-old made him look dominant, when in reality he was a big, competent centre who ought to have been picked a round later than he was.

Gord Kluzak

Defenceman; Drafted 1OA by Boston in 1982

Kluzak looks like the biggest bust of the lot.  He has the fewest GP of any post-expansion 1OA pick whose career is over (299) and didn't produce much even when he was healthy (123 points.)  Kluzak was a very big (6'4", 220 lbs), high=PIMs NHL defenceman who suffered a serious knee injury in his draft year tearing a ligament.

Harry Sinden, the Bruins GM, drafted him anyway, even though Kluzak had never been a spectacular point producer (his best year by PPG in junior was 33 in 38 before the injury.)  Granted, Sinden wasn't drafting him based on his production, but going for a heavy-physical defenceman 1OA is probably not bright.

Kluzak alternated okay years--though some of them, he benefited clearly by playing with Ray Bourque--with years where he had to sit out entirely, or almost entirely, to repair his increasingly devastated knee.  He only played a double-digit number of games in four of his first six years post-draft, and never thereafter.  After three years where he played 3, 8, and 2 games respectively due to knee injuries, Kluzak retired in 1990.

What went wrong?

  1. Bad Pick--I'm not even sure if Kluzak can fairly be called a bust, because unlike the others, there were multiple obvious reasons he shouldn't have gone 1st overall that were clear to people at the time he was drafted.  He was highly rated, but drafting a brawling, big, not-especially-productive defenceman with a terrible knee injury seems like a bad idea right off the top.  Everything you would expect might go wrong did.
  2. Injuries--Having said that, the severity of Kluzak's knee issues was probably worse than even the direst pessimist would have expected.  His NHL career was effectively over by age 24.  That's pretty brutal.

Wow, that was depressing.

And there's even more depression to come!

In Part II I'll look at our three more recent busts, then try to apply the lessons learned to our man of the future.