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The Feel-Bad Hit Of The Summer: Part II

Let's continue to explore the worst-case scenarios for first overall. This is a Toronto Maple Leafs blog, after all.

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Here's the second and final part of my series on draft busts.  Part I is here, and you should read it if you really want to feel an inexpressible despair.  I promise the end of this will be slightly more cheerful!  But first, more despair.

Three More Busts

Brian Lawton

Left Wing; Drafted 1OA by Minnesota in 1983

Brian Lawton was actually not all that big (6'0, 178 lbs, meaning I am basically the same size as Brian Lawton.  I am planning to declare for the draft this summer.)  He crushed at the high school level, scoring a patently absurd 83 points in 23 games in his senior year.  He was drafted 1OA three weeks before his 18th birthday.  You may wonder, as I did, whether the Rhode Island High School league was the best place to scout for the top pick, but NHL Central Scouting had him viewed as the #1 prospect in the draft.  Mt. St. Charles, from whence Lawton came, has had a longstanding and strong hockey program; Bryan Berard, Mathieu Schneider, and Garth Snow all also attended the school.  It was a bold pick, but not a crazy one.

Lawton joined the NHL that fall and had a few not-terrible seasons in his youth, clearing 40 points three times at the NHL level.  But he never lived up to his draft position.  Once Minnesota lost patience with him and demoted him to the AHL--leading to an ugly situation where Lawton refused to report--he was traded around repeatedly and led an itinerant existence from 1988 to 1993, crisscrossing the continent and three professional leagues before retiring young at age 27.

Now that we've had a few go-rounds in looking at draft busts, I would like to take a slightly different tack and look at how people talk about them after they're done.  This list ranks him as the tenth-worst top-five bust of all time, noting he was picked ahead of Steve Yzerman, Pat Lafontaine, and others.  This one ranks him as the second-worst draft bust ever, and suggests his failure contributed to the subsequent relocation of the North Stars to Dallas (which may be true.)  This article has several amusing one-liners, noting that Brian Lawton was the only NHLer brave enough to wear #98 and invite the unflattering Gretzky comparisons; it also blames his failures on being from New Jersey.  Here's a THW list, putting Lawton as the fourth-biggest 1OA bust, again noting that he went ahead of Yzerman and others.  The always-reliable folks at Wikipedia have a general overview of Lawton's playing, agent, and executive careers; they also have several fascinating, sourced quotes, noting North Stars GM expressed regret he didn't draft Tom Barrasso instead and that Lawton disliked having to move so often in his final five seasons.

Here is Brian Lawton's entry on the excellent site Hockey Draft Central, which I have grown to love despite their overuse of ellipses.  I would like to make an extensive, lightly-edited quote from it.

Missed parts of 1983-84 season with slightly separated shoulder, an injury suffered during Minnesota's Dec. 7, 1983, game vs. Detroit, and with stretched knee ligaments, an injury suffered during Minnesota's Jan. 27, 1984, game at St. Louis. He did not return from knee injury until Minnesota's Feb. 29, 1984, game vs. St. Louis. ... Missed part of Minnesota's 1984 training camp with shoulder injury, suffered in October 1984. ... ... Missed part of Minnesota's 1987 training camp with right knee injury, suffered at Team USA practice for Canada Cup on Aug. 26, 1987. The injury required arthroscopic surgery. ... Missed parts of 1987-88 season with broken thumb, an injury suffered in October 1987, and with bruised ribs, an injury suffered when he collided with teammate Frantisek Musil during Minnesota's Feb. 24, 1988, game at Toronto. ... ... Lost two teeth and suffered 12-stitch gash over left eye when he was hit by Perry Anderson's stick during Hartford's Jan. 27, 1989, game at New Jersey. ... Missed part of 1988-89 season with broken left wrist, an injury suffered when he was slashed by Robert Picard during Hartford's Jan. 28, 1989, game vs. Quebec. He did not return to action until Hartford's Feb. 9, 1989, game vs. Buffalo. ... Missed remainder of 1988-89 regular season and start of 1989 playoffs with sprained ankle, an injury suffered when he crashed into the boards during Hartford's March 25, 1989, game vs. St. Louis. ... Missed part of Hartford's 1989 training camp with cracked bone in left foot, an injury suffered in September 1989. ...Missed part of 1991-92 season with foot injury, suffered during San Jose's Oct. 4, 1991, season-opener at Vancouver -- the first game in San Jose Sharks history. ... Missed part of 1991-92 season with knee injury, suffered during San Jose's Nov. 26, 1991, game vs. Vancouver.

Brian Lawton played more than 66 NHL games in a season exactly twice--1987-88, when he played 74 games at age 22, and 75 in 1988-89 at age 23.  His best season by points per game was at age 21, and again, he retired at age 27.  Guess how many combined times those five links from a couple of paragraphs up mention injuries as a factor in him being a bust?

Zero.  Combined.

Why did it go wrong?

  1. Injuries: What a surprise to see a draft bust had a number of injuries early in his career, at critical points in his development!  I wonder if this is a trend.
  2. League Comparability: I do think there's something in the idea that Lawton's offensive numbers were not quite as impressive as they appeared given where he got them, but I don't want to overstate this.  As noted, some very good hockey players have come out of Mt. St. Charles High School.
I promise these will be the only bitter paragraphs in the piece, and then I'll go back to being wry and eventually optimistic.  But: draft bust articles -- and trust me, I've read quite a few of them doing this piece -- are almost invariably written from a perspective of either implicitly or explicitly laughing at failure, because that's the point of them (and to be fair, I've made several jokes in these pieces along the same lines.) They tend to do cute drive-by cut-ups -- look how good people thought this guy was, look how few goals he scored after, look how early he retired, and most of all, look who was drafted after him.  There's some mockery of the player for his general suckiness, maybe a ding on the GM for such an unforgivable error.  Sometimes they talk about injuries, often with a charmingly old school spin about how said injuries are probably a moral failing.  Mostly they want to gloss over them, though, because a talented player having his career destroyed before it got off the ground just isn't that funny.

Now, this is not to simply pin everything on injuries and wash our hands.  Of course the North Stars would have been better off drafting Steve Yzerman.  No, even if he were healthy, Brian Lawton would probably never have been point-a-game.  He was not a great first overall pick regardless of what happened to him subsequently; true first overall busts (by definition) involve teenage success that, with hindsight, we can find clear reasons to discount.  But when a player goes from impressive success to grim failure, there tends to be one big factor, and any real discussion of draft busts has to face it.

Alexandre Daigle

Centre; Drafted 1OA by Ottawa in 1993

Hahaha okay, I take back what I said, let's laugh at the Sens for a while.  Everyone was sure Daigle was a can't-miss superstar after he annihilated the QMJHL, putting up 137 points in 53 games (you might notice he did suffer an injury this year, though.)  Daigle had a decent rookie season -- 51 points in 84 games for the Sens (this was in that weird period where the NHL had 84-game seasons.)

Daigle did have some injury trouble -- he missed 30 games in 1995-96--although it never reached the Book-of-Revelations suffering of Jody or Kluzak.  Daigle seems like the rare case where maybe there actually was something to all the usual character-based chatter that surrounds many scoring players.  He underachieved considerably subsequent to his rookie year and drifted through the league after the Sens gave up on him in 1997-98, then left the league and hockey entirely in 2000.

He had a number of interests outside the game that he pursued with vigour.  He apparently gave an interview, when he washed out of the NHL (for the first time) at 25, in which he acknowledged he didn't really like playing hockey that much; he just stuck with it because he was so talented at it.  Daigle actually went on to have a decent comeback with the Minnesota Wild from 2003-2006 before going to Europe, where he played until 2010.

In addition to being the funniest draft bust (because again, bad things happening to Ottawa are hilarious and frequent), Daigle is probably the odd man out in our sample.  His injury history wasn't great, but it wasn't as obviously devastating in his early days as the worst busts.  He...well, his heart may just not have been in it.  To be fair, Ottawa was absolutely clown-shoes bad the first three seasons he played for them, so he was up against it in that regard.  But that's true to some extent of most 1OA picks, and subsequent high picks -- Yashin and Alfredsson -- surpassed him fairly quickly.  He was a guy with a lot of talent who people thought would be a franchise player, and he just didn't make it.

Why did it go wrong?

I won't bother with a list, because to be honest: I don't know for sure why Daigle flopped.  There's an unusual amount of evidence he just wasn't that emotionally invested in his hockey career.  It's hard to accept that a guy just didn't care enough to come close to his potential, but that's kind of the trend of the evidence we have, even discounting the streams of mockery you have to sift through when you Google his name.  I won't discount the possibility of early injuries playing some role, and you can repeat the old saw about how high-scoring the Q is and how plenty of guys don't produce in the NHL.

But Daigle should have been better.  The truth is, sometimes a perfectly reasonable pick -- and Daigle was extremely well thought of in 1993 -- just doesn't work, for whatever reason.  Should the Sens have been able to foresee that Daigle would be disengaged from hockey and more interested in nightlife?  Even if there were signs, they would have been easy to discount as the party-hard phase plenty of people and even more professional athletes have between seventeen and twenty-five.  Sometimes, things just don't work.

Can you believe, though, that the Sens settled their hopes on a different guy to be their franchise player, and it was Alexei Yashin? Hahahah

Patrik Stefan

Centre; Drafted 1OA by Atlanta in 1999

Stefan is the most recent bust.  There hasn't been a punchline at 1OA this millennium; he's the last.  Part of the impetus for this article was an Oilers fan comparing Matthews to Stefan.

Stefan, whose name has a little accent on the S that I can't be bothered to put up, played against men in the Czech league and then spent two seasons in the IHL before being drafted.  (The IHL, if you don't remember, was an NHL development league roughly on par with the AHL during the last half of the 20th century.  It folded in 2001.)  While his performance in the IHL was impressive for a teenager -- he did 35 points in 33 games in his final year in the IHL --  it seems a little odd he was valued so highly based on that sole, short successful Stefan season (me so alliterative.) Still, Stefan was big (6'2") and a centre, and well thought-of; he seems to have been widely thought the most talented guy in the draft (ahead of the Sedins; I can't help noting, though 1999 also turned out to be a very weak draft class outside of a couple of seventh-round diamonds.)  The larger problem, though, was the reason that last IHL year was so short: concussions.

This HFBoards thread (I know, but the ninth post down produces a number of good sourced quotes) references several articles from 1999 talking about Stefan's already-worrisome concussion history.  He apparently had three in his final year in the IHL, before being drafted, which is why he only played 33 games.  Stefan's career was devastated right at the very beginning.

Anyway, you know how things go by now.  Stefan was a talented young player ruined by injuries--concussions in his youth, but eventually a number of other things.  His 40-point year in 2003-04 was his only full NHL season; he was out of the league before his 27th birthday. THW, typically, handles his injuries in sensitive fashion in the following quote.

Stefan retired in 2007 when a hip injury had plagued him for far too long. One of the large reasons Stefan never turned out was that he seemingly always had nagging injuries holding him back.

How annoying.

Why did it go wrong?

  1. Concussions and Other Injuries: Stefan was damaged goods from the start, unfortunately, and he only became more so as time went on.  As with so many busts, he was too injured to play by his late 20s; he went to the Swiss league and only played three games before giving up.
  2. Questionable Pick: Stefan's track record wasn't really 1OA good, though there were some promising signs.  I think this is one of those picks that was probably bad on the day it was made, not just with hindsight.
Sigh.  Injuries are sad.  But are they so sad we can't laugh at that video of Stefan missing an empty net? I think not.

What Do We Take Away From All This?

I think these examples make a pretty strong case that first overall busts are usually devastated by injuries.  You may argue that this is partly a function of my sample, which picked players with fewer than 700 NHL games, but these six players (along with Rick DiPietro, who is an even more emphatic example of the injury point, and the pre-expansion flops) are almost invariably mentioned as the big 1OA busts.   I don't think any other example at the same draft spot comes close.  In some cases, there were also reasons to question the pre-draft performance of the players, who were oversized, overaged or both and whose advantages in dominating U-20 leagues were not adequately accounted for.  I don't want to go to far with this, though; hindsight is 2020, and it's very easy to say we should have known, say, Brian Lawton's youth hockey wasn't predictive when we know what happened after.

Of these six players, Daigle was the only one to play an NHL game after his thirtieth birthday, and Joly, Wickenheiser, Kluzak, Lawton and Stefan all suffered very severe injuries before age 25; some of them suffered them either in their draft year (Kluzak and Stefan) or shortly after being drafted (Joly and Lawton.)  Except possibly for Kluzak, I think even average health would have prevented these players from being bona fide busts, and would have kept them off lists like those quoted above (and out of this article.)  I also don't think any of them would have been Hall of Fame calibre.  But their careers would have been very different.

The truth is, while they make mistakes, NHL GMs and scouts are not generally stupid.  For a player to be in a position where he's considered 1OA, he has to have achieved impressively at lower levels and he has to have displayed meaningful talent.  No 1OA--again, except Kluzak--is indefensible on draft day.  So I suppose this is the scariest part: there's a chance it could happen to Matthews, and we can't reduce that chance to zero.

So How Does Matthews Look Right Now?

Let's start with the obvious: on the "is he good enough?" issue, Matthews looks really, really good.

I could link you to literally hundreds of things demonstrating how amazing Matthews is.  He was great for the US National Development Team and has gone on to be great as a teenager playing against men in this Swiss league.  But even putting aside my shameless love for the home team, our staff did a phenomenal bit covering him from several angles.  There is no plausible argument against Matthews' demonstrated talent level beyond "well, he hasn't done anything in the NHL yet."  No, it's true, he hasn't.  If only we could draft guys after they've played in the league for three years.  Alas.

So let's turn to the injury front.  The only injury I can verify regarding Matthews was a back injury he suffered last autumn, on October 23rd.  Matthews returned to action on November 25th and seemed to quickly regain his elite form.  There's not much about the injury; and of course, your back is kind of important.  It's possible to catastrophize and envision that Matthews actually has a spine made of taffy now.  There's no evidence that's the case, though, and there are no signs of any trouble remotely comparable to the beginning stages of a bust.

Plumbing the depths of our fears can be depressing, and some of these guys have had truly miserable luck post-draft.  But for the Leafs, I think the end result of this exercise is heartening.  The next time some asshole Oilers fan makes a snide Patrik Stefan reference, shrug and say, "Well, anything's possible.  But he looks pretty damn good."