To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first NHL Draft, NHL.com assembled a 13-member panel to select the best first-round picks of all time, based on selection number. NHL.com will feature one of the top first-round picks each day, beginning with the best No. 30 pick on June 1 and culminating with the all-time No. 1 pick on June 30, the day of the 2013 NHL Draft.
After back-to-back finishes near the bottom of the standings and dwindling home attendance, the Pittsburgh Penguins went to the 1984 NHL Draft with the first pick and a lot of hope.
What they got was an icon who turned a struggling franchise into an elite organization.
It's one of many reasons the NHL.com Dream Draft panel made Mario Lemieux a near-unanimous selection as the best No. 1 first-round pick.
Lemieux already was a legend before he stepped foot into the NHL. He totaled a remarkable 133 goals and 282 points in 70 games with the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in his draft season. And anyone wondering how he would adapt to life in the NHL didn't need to wait long to find out.
Lemieux went on to post team-best totals of 43 goals and 100 points. He played in the 1985 NHL All-Star Game and became the first rookie to be named its Most Valuable Player. He also won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie.
Amazingly, Lemieux's rookie season proved to be the "worst" of his first six. In 1985-86, he finished second to Wayne Gretzky with 141 points, and scored 48 goals in 79 games to win the Lester B. Pearson Award as the League's best player as voted by the players.
The 1987-88 season saw Lemieux continue to star. At the 1987 Canada Cup he scored a tournament-best 11 goals in nine games, including the Cup-winning goal against the Soviet Union with 1:26 left in the third period of the championship game. He carried that into the NHL season, when he led the League with 70 goals and 168 points in 77 games. In addition to winning his first Art Ross Trophy -- snapping Gretzky's streak at seven -- he won his second Pearson and his first Hart Trophy, breaking Gretzky's eight-year stranglehold on the League MVP award.
The 1988-89 season saw Lemieux take the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. His 85 goals are the fourth-highest single-season output in League history, and his 199 points rank fifth. He led the League with 31 power-play goals and set an NHL mark with 13 shorthanded goals. He won his second straight Art Ross Trophy and finished second to Gretzky for the Hart Trophy.
Lemieux became the fourth player to score 50 goals in 50 games, but the season's defining moment came Dec. 31, 1988, against the New Jersey Devils when he became the only player ever to score a goal in all possible ways in a single game: even-strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty net.
Pittsburgh advanced to the 1989 Patrick Division Finals, and Lemieux had 12 goals and 19 points in 11 playoff games, including a five-goal game against the Philadelphia Flyers in the division final before the Penguins lost in seven.
Back surgery in the summer of 1990 sidelined him for the first half of the 1990-91 season before he returned in January. He then had 44 playoff points (second most in history; Gretzky, 47, 1985) in 23 games, and the Penguins defeated the Minnesota North Stars to win their first Stanley Cup. Lemieux took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
He won his third scoring title in 1991-92 with 131 points in 64 games, and he played through a broken hand to score 34 points in 15 playoff games to help the Penguins win their second straight Cup and his second Conn Smythe.
A quest for a third straight Cup was derailed when Lemieux was sidelined for two months during the 1992-93 season for treatment of Hodgkin’s disease. He returned in March and won the scoring title with 160 points in 60 games.
Back and hip problems continued to plague Lemieux, and after winning the scoring title in 1995-96 and 1996-97, and his third Hart Trophy in 1996, he announced his retirement after the 1997 playoffs. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame that fall, with the Hall waiving its usual three-year waiting period.
In 1999, Lemieux bought the Penguins, and on Dec. 27, 2000, he returned as an active player, scoring 76 points in 43 games. Hip and back ailments, however, limited him to fewer than 30 games all but once in the following four seasons. He announced his retirement Jan. 24, 2006.
Despite playing fewer than 1,000 games, Lemieux's career totals rank among the game's best. His 690 goals are ninth on the all-time list, and his 1,723 points are seventh. He's one of five players with more than 1,000 points in fewer than 1,000 games, and his 1.88 points per game is second all-time (Gretzky, 1.92).
With six other members of the Hockey Hall of Fame to choose from, as well as a few players who could get there someday, Lemieux got the vote from 12 of 13 members of NHL.com's Dream Draft panel.
"Mario Lemieux is the most physically talented player in the history of the National Hockey League," NHL.com columnist John Kreiser said. "Were it not for his health problems, he'd likely own a few of the records held by Wayne Gretzky. Perhaps no one in hockey history has made scoring look as easy as Lemieux did.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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