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We're Number Ones

by Van Oler / Chicago Blackhawks

It's impossible to get through school without encountering George Santayana's famous dictum that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The Blackhawks, owners of the first overall selection in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, will choose a player who may or may not be a good student of times gone by. In either case, Hawk fans should note that a repeat of history would be much more of a blessing than a curse.

A study of the 20 players selected first overall between 1987 and 2006 allows one to make three encouraging predictions about the career of the next one to be so chosen:

1. The player will make it to the National Hockey League (19 out of 20*).
2. The player will play in the NHL for the team that drafted him (18 out of 20**).
3. The player will enjoy an extended and productive career.

These predictions may seem like common sense, but accurately forecasting the career paths of young men not even 20 years old is difficult, to say the least. Some of the 20 players selected with the top pick since Buffalo tagged Pierre Turgeon in 1987 played at least one season in a minor professional, major junior, or collegiate league after being drafted but before joining their NHL team. None of them suffered any serious injuries in that intervening year and all were in the NHL to stay within three years of being drafted.

Not surprisingly, nearly all of the 20 players made their NHL debuts with the teams that chose them in the entry draft. There were just two exceptions. Eric Lindros' 1991 saga started with him being drafted by Quebec but ended with him as property of the Flyers. Bryan Berard was the first overall choice in 1996 but Ottawa traded him to the Islanders, with whom he became the NHL's Rookie of the Year.

Alexander Daigle has 327 career points but is widely considered to be a bust as a 1st overall draft pick.

General managers and scouts have vested interests in seeing ‘their picks' make it because if the drafted player fails, it casts doubt upon the judgment of the people who thought so highly of him in the first place.

Thus, high draft choices get more opportunities to rebound from failure (if necessary) than do ‘ordinary players' simply because the prestige of the organization suffers if a highly-touted player is unsuccessful.

While predictions one and two above are entirely objective, prediction three is not. However, pull a finger down the list of the league's top overall choices since 1987 (below) and stop when you find a player whose career has not been of significant value to his team or teams (some of the players chosen recently haven't had ‘extended' careers, of course, but all appear to be on their way).

The first place your finger might hesitate is 1993, when the Ottawa Senators rolled the dice on Alexander Daigle. Daigle knows a thing or two about busts. First of all, the hockey community generally considers him to be one; and second, he was romantically involved with ‘actress' Pamela Anderson for about 15 minutes in 1998 (true story). Was Daigle a bust or did he just admire one?

Ottawa's reward for finishing 10-70-4 in the 1992-93 season was the first selection of the '93 Entry Draft. They didn't need a player as much as they needed a savior, but Wayne Gretzky was already in the league and Sidney Crosby was just six years old.

Daigle's career NHL numbers weren't awful, but the peer group against which he is compared isn't just NHL players, many of whom would be happy to have his 616 total games and 327 career points. Unfortunately for Daigle's legacy, his peer group is an elite club with fewer members than the United States Senate.

Daigle, whose initial contract was the largest in league history and led to the rookie salary cap, was indisputably the least effective, most disappointing, and most overpaid member of the 1987-2006 "firstie club."

The fault-finding-finger may also pause upon reaching 1999, when Atlanta chose Patrik Stefan. The Thrashers gave up on Stefan after six seasons and dealt him to Dallas, where his career highlight to date has been missing an empty net tap-in last January that the Edmonton Oilers turned into a game-tying goal.

While past performance is no guarantee of future results, history can be a useful guide to what will probably happen. In this case, it will be a good idea for Blackhawk fans to get well acquainted with whomever the team picks on June 22, because that player will likely wind up skating on United Center ice for several years to come.

Year Player Team Accomplishments Best choice (1st round)?
1987 Pierre Turgeon BUF 500-goal scorer Joe Sakic (15th)
1988 Mike Modano MIN Certain Hall of Famer Modano
1989 Mats Sundin QUE 10-year captain of Maple Leafs Sundin
1990 Owen Nolan QUE 'Called Shot' during '97 All-Star Game Jaromir Jagr (5th)
1991 Eric Lindros QUE Six-time All Star, "Legion of Doom" Peter Forsberg (6th)
1992 Roman Hamrlik TB Gold Medal Winner, '98 Olympics Alexei Yashin (2nd)
1993 Alexander Daigle OTT Decent career numbers, but not for top pick Chris Pronger (2nd)
1994 Ed Jovanovski FLA Gold Medal Winner, '02 Olympics Ryan Smyth (6th)
1995 Bryan Berard OTT Rookie of the Year 1996-97 Jarome Iginla (11th)
1996 Chris Phillips OTT Nine years w/ Ottawa, Alternate Captain Daniel Briere (25th)
1997 Joe Thornton BOS 2005-06 NHL MVP Thornton
1998 Vincent Lecavalier TB Stanley Cup Winner, 2x All Star, Scoring Champ Lecavalier
1999 Patrick Stefan ATL Potential 'firstie club' bust Martin Havlat (25th)
2000 Rick DiPietro NYI Only goalie ever selected 1st overall Dany Heatley (2nd)
2001 Ilya Kovalchuk ATL First Russian-born player to be drafted 1st overall Kovalchuk
2002 Rick Nash CBJ Led league in goals in 2003-04, 2x All Star Nash
2003 Marc-Andre Fleury PIT Won 40 games for Penguins in 2006-07 Eric Staal (2nd)
2004 Alexander Ovechkin WSH Rookie of the Year 2005-06 Ovechkin
2005 Sidney Crosby PIT Art Ross Trophy 2006-07 Crosby
2006 Erik Johnson STL Expected to make NHL debut this year Too soon...

* 2006 #1 pick Erik Johnson is expected to join St. Louis in the fall to make it 20 out of 20 after choosing to attend Minnesota for a season of college hockey in 2006-07
** 19 out of 20 pending Johnson's arrival.

Van Oler is a freelance writer who grew up in Wheaton and currently lives in Cincinnati, OH.

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