But drafting is an inexact science -- for every late-round gem (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk), there's a high pick who didn't turn out to be the star the team that picked him thought he would be (Patrick Stefan, Greg Joly).
Here's a look at some of the best choices in the history of the NHL Draft, as determined by where they were selected among the top 30 picks. (Up and coming includes players taken from 2007-10; don't forget that some players, including Wayne Gretzky, never were drafted.)
No. 1: Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh, 1984) -- It's likely no player in NHL history has been more important to the existence of his team than Lemieux. Had the Penguins had not drafted him in 1984, there likely would be no franchise in Pittsburgh today -- and later, as an owner, he was vital to keeping the Penguins in the Steel City, where today they are one of the NHL's most dynamic franchises. As a player, Lemieux was brilliant from the day he arrived (he scored on his first shot, on his first shift, by picking the pocket of future Hall of Famer Ray Bourque), and the Penguins eventually built the supporting cast that helped him lead the franchise to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991-92. Had he stayed healthy, it would have been interesting to see whether he could have broken some of Wayne Gretzky's scoring records.
Runners-up: Guy Lafleur (1971), Denis Potvin (1973), Alex Ovechkin (2004), Sidney Crosby (2005)
Up and coming: Patrick Kane (2007), Steven Stamkos (2008), John Tavares (2009)
Disappointment: Patrik Stefan (1999)
No. 2: Brendan Shanahan (New Jersey, 1987) -- Shanahan, now an NHL vice president and the League's chief disciplinarian, is one of the great power forwards of any era. He started and ended his career with the Devils, making stops along the way in St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit and New York, finishing with 656 goals, 1,354 points, 2,489 penalty minutes and three Stanley Cups -- and a sure Hall of Fame berth in the not-too-distant future.
Runners-up: Marcel Dionne (1971), Chris Pronger (1993)
Up and coming: Drew Doughty (2008), Victor Hedman (2009)
Disappointment: Dave Chyzowski (1989)
No. 3: Scott Niedermayer (New Jersey, 1991) -- Niedermayer's offensive numbers were held down somewhat because he played most of his career with the defense-first Devils. But there were benefits -- he earned three Stanley Cup rings in New Jersey, and then captained Anaheim to another Cup in 2007 while playing alongside his brother Rob. Niedermayer became a Devil in one of GM Lou Lamoriello's greatest trades -- he dealt journeyman defenseman Tom Kurvers to Toronto in 1989 for the pick that turned into Niedermayer.
Runners-up: Denis Savard (1980), Pat LaFontaine (1983)
Up and coming: Zach Bogosian (2008), Matt Duchene (2009)
Disappointment: Neil Brady (1986)
No. 4: Steve Yzerman (Detroit, 1983) -- Had Detroit GM Jim Devellano had his way, Yzerman never would have been a Red Wing. Not that Devellano wasn't impressed with Yzerman; he hoped to get Pat LaFontaine with the fourth pick in 1983 because LaFontaine had played locally and might help the struggling franchise sell tickets. Instead, the New York Islanders took LaFontaine at No. 3 and the Wings had to "settle" for Yzerman, who came into the NHL as a high scorer but later showed he was willing to trade individual points for team success. The result was a run of three Stanley Cups in six seasons, all of them with Yzerman as captain.
Runners-up: Mike Gartner (1979), Ron Francis (1981)
Up and coming: Alex Pietrangelo (2008), Evander Kane (2009)
Disappointment: Alexandre Volchkov (1996)
No. 5: Jaromir Jagr (Pittsburgh, 1990) -- Talk about short-term pain producing long-term gain: The Penguins missed the playoffs in 1990 by losing in overtime on the final night of the season. Little did they know it might have been the best thing that could have happened, because their "reward" was Jagr. The Czech teenager turned into the perfect sidekick for Mario Lemieux and was a key to the Penguins' back-to-back Cup wins in 1991 and '92. Jagr owns five NHL scoring titles, a Hart Trophy and seven First-Team All-Star berths, as well as five 100-point seasons. His combination of speed, skill and power is matched by very few players in NHL history.
Runners-up: Scott Stevens (1982), Tom Barrasso (1983)
Up and coming: Karl Alzner (2007), Luke Schenn (2008)
Disappointment: Daniel Dore (1988)
No. 6: Paul Coffey (Edmonton, 1980) -- Coffey and the Oilers were a marriage made in hockey heaven. Coffey was the fastest defenseman of his (and maybe any) generation, and he was taken by a team that had an unparalleled collection of offensive talent. He set single-season offensive records for defensemen during the Oilers' dynasty years, is second among blueliners all-time in goals (396) and points (1,531), and owns five Stanley Cup rings.
Runners-up: Phil Housley (1982), Peter Forsberg (1991)
Up and coming: Sam Gagner (2007), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (2009)
Disappointment: Daniel Tkaczuk (1997)
No. 7: Bernie Federko (St. Louis, 1976) -- Federko generously was listed at 6 feet and about 175 pounds, but he more than made up for any lack of size with his hockey skills, which helped him pile up 369 goals and 1,130 points in exactly 1,000 games (mostly with St. Louis) on the way to the Hall of Fame. Federko was the first player in NHL history to put up at least 50 assists in 10 consecutive seasons (1978-79 to 1987-88).
Runners-up: Bill Barber (1972), Jason Arnott (1993)
Up and coming: Colin Wilson (2008), Jeff Skinner (2010)
Disappointment: Ryan Sittler (1992)
No. 8: Ray Bourque (Boston, 1979) -- The hardest thing to believe about Bourque's career is that seven players actually were picked ahead of him in his draft year. Bourque stepped right into the NHL from the Verdun Eperviers of the QMJHL in 1979 and didn't step out until he skated away as a Stanley Cup champion with Colorado in 2001. He still owns all the NHL career scoring marks for defensemen (410 goals, 1,169 assists, 1,579 points). Bourque was a First-Team All-Star 13 times -- including 2000-01, when he turned 41 -- and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman five times. Perhaps no player in NHL history has been as consistently brilliant for so long.
Runners-up: Grant Fuhr (1981), Jeremy Roenick (1988)
Up and coming: Mikkel Boedker (2008), Alexander Burmistrov (2010)
Disappointment: Rocky Trottier (1982)
No. 9: Brian Leetch (N.Y. Rangers, 1986) -- If Leetch isn't the greatest U.S.-born player in NHL history, he's certainly in the discussion. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the Rangers after one season at Boston College and a stint with the 1988 U.S. Olympic team and never stopped putting up points. Leetch won the 1989 Calder Trophy, took home the Norris Trophy twice and led the Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup (their only one since 1940), while becoming the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Runners-up: Cam Neely (1983), Rod Brind'Amour (1988)
Up and coming: Logan Couture (2007); Josh Bailey (2008)
Disappointment: Brett Lindros (1994)
No. 10: Teemu Selanne (Winnipeg, 1988) -- Selanne arrived in the NHL in 1992 and promptly shattered the records for first-year players with 76 goals and 132 points -- totals that don't figure to be surpassed for a long time, if ever. The Finnish Flash led the NHL in goals three times and was good enough to score 48 goals at age 36, helping the Anaheim Ducks to their first Stanley Cup. He had 31 goals and 80 points in 2010-11, becoming only the third player to average a point a game over a full season after turning 40. If he decides to retire this summer, it certainly won't be because he can't play anymore.
Runners-up: Steve Vickers (1971), Bobby Holik (1989)
Up and coming: Cody Hodgson (2008), Magnus Paajarvi (2009)
Disappointment: Mikhail Yakubov (2000)
No. 11: Jarome Iginla (Dallas, 1995) -- Here's an interesting question for Stars fans: If you had it to do over again, would you have traded Iginla for Joe Nieuwendyk, a player who was instrumental in winning the only Stanley Cup in franchise history? Landing Nieuwendyk was key to the Stars' 1999 Cup win, but the Flames are more than happy with their end of the deal as Iginla has become one of the NHL's top stars for more than a decade. He's won the Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Lester B. Pearson (now the Ted Lindsay) trophies, and was a Hart Trophy finalist in 2007-08 after reaching the 50-goal mark for the second time. Iginla owns Flames franchise records for career goals and points, has been the face of hockey in Calgary for much of his career and still is going strong -- he was third in the League with 43 goals this past season.
Runners-up: Mike Sillinger (1989), Brian Rolston (1991)
Up and coming: Brandon Sutter (2007)
Disappointment: David Cooper (1992)
No. 12: Gary Roberts (Calgary, 1984) -- Roberts won a Stanley Cup with Calgary at age 23, scored 53 goals three seasons later, missed most of three seasons recovering from a serious neck injury, and still managed to score 438 goals and 910 points in 1,224 games. At age 42 he was a key locker-room presence in Pittsburgh's run to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, and he played briefly with Tampa Bay in 2008-09 before finally hanging up his skates.
Runners-up: Kenny Jonsson (1993), Marian Hossa (1997)
Up and coming: Ryan McDonagh (2007), Tyler Myers (2008), Cam Fowler (2010)
Disappointment: Josh Holden (1996)
No. 13: Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Hartford, 1995) -- The last first-round draft selection in Whalers history had a few detours on his way to a successful career, but Giguere was one of the keys to the emergence of the Anaheim Ducks. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2003 when Anaheim lost the Stanley Cup Final to New Jersey, and could have won again in 2007 after the Ducks topped Ottawa for their first Stanley Cup.
Runners-up: Danny Cleary (1997), Alexander Semin (2002)
Up and coming: Lars Eller (2007),
Disappointment: Michael Stewart (1990)
No. 14: Rick Middleton (N.Y. Rangers, 1973) -- Talk about a one-sided trade: The Rangers dealt Middleton, who had shown flashes of brilliance, to Boston in a deal that brought Phil Esposito's long-time sidekick, Ken Hodge, to the Big Apple in 1976. The Rangers wound up trading Middleton's future for Hodge's past -- Middleton had seven consecutive 30-goal seasons and went on to score more than 400 goals with the Bruins, while Hodge was gone 18 games into his second season in New York.
Runners-up: Brian Propp (1979), Sergei Gonchar (1992)
Up and coming: Kevin Shattenkirk (2007), Dmitry Kulikov (2009)
Disappointment: Jim Malone (1980)
No. 15: Mike Bossy (N.Y. Islanders, 1977) -- Had back problems not sent Bossy into retirement at age 30, it's likely he -- not Wayne Gretzky -- would have broken Gordie Howe's League record for goals. Bossy scored 573 times in just 10 seasons while helping the Islanders win four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-83. That's pretty good for a guy who was passed over by 12 teams (including the Rangers and Toronto twice each) because he was regarded as just another sniper from the (then) run-and-gun Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Isles coach Al Arbour told GM Bill Torrey he could teach Bossy to play defense; he was right, and the rest is history.
Runners-up: Al MacInnis (1981), Joe Sakic (1987)
Up and coming: Alex Plante (2007), Erik Karlsson (2008)
Disappointment: Scott Kelman (1999)
No. 16: Dave Andreychuk (Buffalo, 1982) -- At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Andreychuk made life miserable for goaltenders for more than two decades. He was a big scorer in the first half of his career, piling up 30 or more goals seven times with Buffalo and getting 53 for Toronto in 1993-94. After that, he remained a consistent scorer for another decade while improving his all-round game. Andreychuk also became a leader -- he was the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning when they won the 2004 Stanley Cup. He retired with 640 goals and 1,338 points in 1,639 games.
Runners-up: Markus Naslund (1991), Martin Biron (1995)
Up and coming: Colton Gillies (2007), Nick Leddy (2009)
Disappointment: Ty Jones (1997)
No. 17: Bobby Clarke (Philadelphia, 1969) -- Clarke fell out of the first round of the 1969 draft because teams were reluctant to take a chance on drafting a player who was diabetic. The Flyers called his name at No. 17 and got a Hall of Famer. The diabetes quickly became a non-issue as Clarke keyed the Flyers' rise in the early 1970s. He was named team captain at 23, at the time the youngest player ever to get the "C." Clarke's drive and skill led the Flyers to Stanley Cups in 1974 and '75, and he retired in 1984 with 1,210 points, three Hart Trophies and a hatful of other honors.
Runners-up: Brent Sutter (1980), Kevin Hatcher (1984)
Up and coming: Jake Gardiner (2008)
Disappointment: Brent Bilodeau (1991)
No. 18: Glen Murray (Boston, 1991) -- Murray sandwiched a pair of stints as a Bruin around time with Pittsburgh and Los Angeles; suffice it to say his second tour with Boston was better than the first. Murray had not scored 30 goals in a season before returning to the Bruins in 2001-02, and then did it three times in a row -- including a high of 44 in 2002-03. He was a solid player for a long time, finishing his career with 337 goals and 651 points in 1,009 NHL games.
Runners-up: Ken Daneyko (1982), Petr Sykora (1995)
Up and coming: Ian Cole (2007)
Disappointment: Jesper Mattsson (1993)
No. 19: Keith Tkachuk (Winnipeg, 1990) -- Tkachuk played one season at Boston University after being drafted, then spent the rest of his career making life miserable for opposing goaltenders. The Boston-area native became one of the NHL's best power forwards -- a two-time 50-goal scorer, he was the first U.S.-born player to lead the NHL in goals when he had 52 in 1996-97. He continued scoring after being dealt to St. Louis in 2000-01, reached the 500-goal mark on the final day of 2007-08 and retired after the 2009-10 season.
Runners-up: Craig Ramsay (1971), Olaf Kolzig (1989); Ryan Getzlaf (2003)
Up and coming: Logan MacMillan (2007). Luca Sbisa (2008)
Disappointment: Matthieu Descoteaux (1996)
No. 20: Martin Brodeur (New Jersey, 1990) -- Brodeur owns NHL records for regular-season wins and shutouts, as well as three Stanley Cups and four Vezina trophies. What he doesn't own is the distinction of being the first goaltender taken in his draft year -- Calgary took Trevor Kidd at No. 11. Needless to say, New Jersey never has complained about having to "settle" for arguably the greatest goaltender in NHL history.
Runners-up: Larry Robinson (1971), Michel Goulet (1979)
Up and coming: Michael Del Zotto (2008), Jacob Josefson (2009)
Disappointment: Barrett Heisten (1999)
No. 21: Kevin Lowe (Edmonton, 1979) -- Lowe was the Oilers' first draft pick after the NHL-WHA merger and wound up anchoring the defense on a team that won five Stanley Cups in seven seasons. He also provided a veteran presence on the blue line when the New York Rangers broke their 54-year drought by winning the Cup in 1994. Lowe wasn't flashy, but on an offense-first juggernaut like the Oilers, he offered a defensive conscience.
Runners-up: Saku Koivu (1993), Patrick Flatley (1982)
Up and coming: John Moore (2009)
Disappointment: Evgeni Ryabchikov (1994)
No. 22: Bryan Trottier (N.Y. Islanders, 1974) -- How's this for a Hall of Fame daily double: The Islanders grabbed Trottier, a center from Swift Current, with their second pick in 1974; their first pick was his future linemate and fellow Hall of Famer Clark Gillies. Trottier was the prototypical two-way center -- tough, strong, defensively diligent -- but his offensive skills were off the charts. Trottier, Gillies and Mike Bossy formed one of the NHL's best lines for years. After scoring 500 goals and helping the Isles to four straight Stanley Cups in the 1980s, Trottier finished his career with two more Cups as a checking center in Pittsburgh.
Runners-up: Adam Foote (1989), Simon Gagne (1998)
Up and coming: Max Pacioretty (2007), Jordan Eberle (2008)
Disappointment: Nikos Tselios (1997)
No. 23: Ray Whitney (San Jose, 1991) -- The second draft pick in Sharks history turned 39 on May 8 but still is going strong, with 17 goals and 57 points for Phoenix (his seventh NHL team) in 2010-11. The Edmonton native has broken the 20-goal mark in four of the last five seasons and now has 341 goals and 926 points for his career -- not bad for a kid whose first hockey claim to fame was being the Oilers' stick boy in Wayne Gretzky's last season in Edmonton (1987-88). Those offensive numbers also are pretty impressive for a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder who was told he was too small to make it in the NHL.
Runners-up: Travis Green (1989), Todd Bertuzzi (1993)
Up and coming: Jonathon Blum (2007)
Disappointment: Craig Hillier (1996)
No. 24: Danny Briere (Phoenix, 1996) -- Briere is the classic late bloomer -- he was 24 when he finally broke out with a 32-goal season in 2001-02, only to be traded to Buffalo the following season. He had 28 and 25 goals for the Sabres before breaking out again with a 32-goal, 95-point performance in 2006-07, then signed with Philadelphia. Briere led all playoff scorers in 2010 with 30 points, including 12 in the Final, and set a career high this past season with 34 goals.
Runners-up: Sean Burke (1985), Mike Richards (2003)
Up and coming: Mattias Tedenby (2008), Marcus Johansson (2009)
Disappointment: Luca Cereda (1999)
No. 25: Mark Howe (Boston, 1974) -- Would Mark Howe be in the Hall of Fame if he hadn't opted to play with his father, Gordie, and brother, Marty, in the WHA, rather than coming right to the NHL? Mark and Marty joined their father in Houston, where they led the Aeros to a WHA title and made the club one of the league's flagship franchises in its early years. The Howes went to Hartford in 1977 and stayed with the Whalers through the merger with the NHL. Mark shifted to defense and had a number of excellent seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. If you add up his WHA and NHL numbers, he finished with more than 400 goals and ended up with 1,246 points in 1,355 games -- definitely worthy of consideration for the Hall.
Runners-up: Brenden Morrow (1997), Cam Ward (2002)
Up and coming: Greg Nemisz (2008)
Disappointment: Mikhail Kuleshov (1999)
No. 26: Claude Lemieux (Montreal, 1983) -- Lemieux's skills as a pest sometimes overshadowed his performance as a player. He finished his career with 379 goals and 786 points in the regular season, plus 80 goals and 158 points in 233 postseason games. When there was a Stanley Cup to be won, having Lemieux on your side was a good idea -- he took home a total of four rings, with Montreal, New Jersey and Colorado, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1995.
Runners-up: Don Maloney (1978), Zigmund Palffy (1991)
Up and coming: David Perron (2007), Tyler Ennis (2008)
Disappointment: Kevin Grimes (1997)
No. 27: Joe Nieuwendyk (Calgary, 1985) -- Few players have had a better start to their careers than Nieuwendyk -- he scored 51 goals in each of his first two full seasons, the second of which ended with the Flames hoisting the Stanley Cup. Nieuwendyk never again reached those heights, but he scored 45 goals in each of the next two seasons and was a consistent scorer for winning teams until retiring in 2006-07 with 564 goals and 1,126 points -- plus 66 playoff goals and Stanley Cup rings with three different teams.
Runners-up: Scott Mellanby (1984), Scott Gomez (1998)
Up and coming: John Carlson (2008)
Disappointment: Ari Ahonen (1999)
No. 28: Mike Richter (N.Y. Rangers, 1985) -- Richter's career total of 301 regular-season wins is the most in Rangers history, but it's two of his other achievements for which he'll be remembered most. He was between the pipes when the Rangers ended their 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994; two years later, he backstopped the United States to the World Cup championship. Richter also led the U.S. to the silver medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics. His win total was held down at the start of his career because he split several seasons with John Vanbiesbrouck, and at the end when he was forced to retire early due to concussions.
Runners-up: Guy Chouinard (1974), Corey Perry (2003)
Up and coming: Charlie Coyle (2010)
Disappointment: Adrian Foster (2001)
No. 29: Stephane Richer (Montreal, 1984) -- Richer's skills were such that it always seemed he was underachieving, yet he finished his career with 421 goals and 819 points in 1,054 regular-season games, and earned Stanley Cup rings with Montreal in 1986 and New Jersey in 1995. Richer had a pair of 50-goal seasons, 12 seasons in which he scored 20 or more goals and 21 points in 19 games in the Devils' first Stanley Cup run.
Runners-up: Danny Gare (1974), Teppo Numminen (1986)
Up and coming: Emerson Etem (2010)
Disappointment: Brian Wesenberg (1995)
No. 30: Randy Carlyle (Toronto, 1976) -- The Toronto Maple Leafs made a good move in drafting Carlyle in 1976, but weren't willing to wait for him to develop. Instead, they dealt Carlyle to Pittsburgh in 1978 -- only to see him become a Norris Trophy winner in 1980-81. The Pens dealt him to Winnipeg in 1984, and he played there for another nine seasons, ending his career with 148 goals and 647 points in 1,055 regular-season games. He's coached Anaheim for the last six seasons, leading the Ducks to the only Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2007.
Runners-up: Patrice Brisebois (1989), Sandis Ozolnish (1991)
Up and coming: Thomas McCollum (2008)
Disappointment: Luke Sellars (1999)