Most every young hockey player dreams of someday becoming a first-round pick in the first round of the NHL Draft. Of course, being selected at all is an honor and even many players who were originally signed as undrafted free agents have gone on to enjoy excellent (even Hall of Fame worthy) NHL careers.
Among Philadelphia Flyers players who dressed during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there were 12 who were originally selected beyond the first round of the NHL Draft and two (Matt Read and Erik Gustafsson) who entered the professional game via the rookie free agent route. Most notably, All-Star defenseman Kimmo Timonen was selected with the 250th overall pick in the 10th round of the 1992 Draft.
Generally speaking, goaltenders and defensemen take longer to develop than forwards.
Consequently, these are the positions at which is it the most common to find future starters beyond the first-round.
On a League-wide basis, nearly two-thirds of the 153 starting defensemen who played the most minutes for their teams were non-first-round picks in their Draft year. Fifty four were originally selected in the first-round, 22 were second-round picks, 11 were third-round picks, 13 were fourth-rounders, 41 were chosen in the fifth round or beyond and 11 were undrafted players.
Timonen is far from the only current top NHL defenseman who was something less than a highly touted first-round Draft prospect as a teenager. Other recent examples include Nashville star Shea Weber (2nd round, 49th overall in 1993), recently retired seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom (3rd round, 53rd overall in 1989), Boston standout Zdeno Chara (3rd round, 56th overall in 1996), Chicago’s Duncan Keith (2nd round, 54th overall in 2002), Phoenix’s Keith Yandle (4th round, 105th overall in 2005) and Winnipeg’s Tobias Enstrom (8th round, 239th overall in 2003) and Dustin Byfuglien (8th round, 245th overall in 2003).
The ranks of prominent undrafted current NHL defensemen include the likes of the Rangers’ Dan Girardi, San Jose’s Dan Boyle and Florida’s Jason Garrison.
Excluding the injured Chris Pronger (the 2nd overall pick of the 1993 Draft), there were more non-first-round picks than first-rounders among the Flyers’ top-six starting defense corps in 2011-12. Braydon Coburn (8th overall pick in 2003) and Andrej Meszaros (23rd overall in 2004) were first rounders. Timonen, Matt Carle (2nd round, 47th overall in 2003) and Nicklas Grossmann (2nd round, 56th overall in 2004) were not.
Rounding out the team’s most frequent starters, rookies Marc-Andre Bourdon (3rd round, 67th overall in 2008) and Gustafsson as well as veterans Andreas Lilja (2nd round, 54th overall in 2000) and former All-Star selection Pavel Kubina (7th round, 179th overall in 1996) were also non-first rounders in their respective Draft years.
Among goaltenders around the NHL, it is even more common for future starters and backups alike to be developed from the ranks of non-first-round picks. Flyers starter Ilya Bryzgalov was originally a second-round pick of Anaheim (44th overall) in 2000.
Around the League, there are many prominent goalies who were originally first-round picks, most notably Marc-Andre Fleury (the first overall pick of the now-legendary 2003 Draft class), Roberto Luongo (4th overall in 1997), Carey Price (5th overall in 2005) future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur (20th overall in 1990) and Cam Ward (25th overall in 2002).
Other current starters who were first-round picks in their Draft years include Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen (second overall in 2002) and Colorado’s rising young Semyon Varlamov (23rd overall in 2006).
First-round pick goaltenders are usually the most likely to eventually play in the NHL, which is the case for all positions. However, virtually anything can happen once the goaltenders arrives at the top level. The non-first round goalies that make it to the NHL are about equally likely as their more highly-touted peers to someday emerge as starters.
Among the most frequent starting goaltenders used in 2011-12 by the 30 teams in the NHL, nine teams had a former first-round pick as its full-time or split-time starter.
Considering how few goalies are chosen in the first-round of the Draft, this is actually a large number. Nevertheless, it is clear that being selected later in the Draft or signed as a rookie free agent is no predictor of a goalie’s future success in the NHL.
For instance, 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winning goaltender Jonathan Quick was a third-round pick (72nd overall) in 2005, New York Rangers superstar Henrik Lundqvist was a 7th-rounder (205th overall) in 2000 and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas was never drafted at all. However, their respective backups – Jonathan Bernier (11th overall in 2006), Martin Biron (16th overall in 1995) and Tuukka Rask (21st overall in 2005) – were all first-round picks. Rask is likely to start for the Bruins next season with Thomas taking a one-year hiatus from hockey.
Other top-caliber current NHL starting goalies who were selected beyond the first round of the Draft include the likes of past Vezina Trophy winners Ryan Miller (5th round, 138th overall in 1999) and Miikka Kiprusoff (5th round, 116th overall in 1995) and two-time Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne (8th round, 256th overall in 2004).
Likewise, Phoenix’s Mike Smith (5th round, 161st overall in 2001), former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore (2nd round, 44th overall in 1994), 2010 Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi (undrafted), St. Louis’ Brian Elliott (9th round, 209th overall in 2003), veteran Minnesota starter Niklas Backstrom (undrafted), workhorse Anaheim starter Jonas Hiller (undrafted) and emerging young Washington starter Braden Holtby (4th round, 93rd overall in 2008) were all non-first round picks.
Compared to the NHL’s ranks of elite defensemen and goalies, the percentage of top forwards in the league is utterly dominated by players originally chosen in the first round. Of course, that’s not to say there are not plenty of later-blooming forwards around the NHL who have emerged as stars after slipping to the deeper recesses of the Draft – or beyond it entirely.
Nevertheless, the list of the League’s top forwards is usually heavily weighted toward former first-round picks. The ranks of role-playing forwards are more equally divided between first-rounders and non-first rounders. This is not surprising, as highly skilled forwards are usually the least difficult to project from their teenage years to future successful NHL careers. With some exceptions – such as the defense-heavy 2012 Draft – the majority of first-round picks in any given Draft year are usually forwards.
The Flyers’ 2011-12 roster was somewhat typical of those around the league in terms of the breakdown of its key forwards who were originally first-round picks. Eight of the team’s 12 most frequent forward starters were former top-round selections. This included five of the team’s top six scorers. That is actually a little higher than average.
Claude Giroux (22nd overall in 2006), Scott Hartnell (6th overall in 2000), Jaromir Jagr (4th overall in 1990), Jakub Voracek (7th overall in 2007) and Danny Briere (24th overall in 1996) were all first-round picks in their respective Draft years. So were Brayden Schenn (5th overall in 2009) and Sean Couturier (8th overall in 2011). Among current Flyers forwards who were not first-rounders, the biggest contributors last season were Wayne Simmonds (2nd round, 61st overall in 2007), the undrafted Read and Maxime Talbot (8th round, 254th overall in 2002).
A look at the top 50 offensive forwards in the NHL this past season reveals that 32 were former first-round picks and 18 were not. Most of the non-top-round picks were originally second round selections, such as James Neal (33rd overall in 2005), Patrik Elias (51st overall in 1994), Ray Whitney (23rd overall in 1991), Jason Pominville (55th overall in 2001), Loui Eriksson (33rd overall in 2003), Patrice Bergeron (45th overall in 2003), Mike Ribeiro (45th overall in 1998) and David Krejci (63rd overall in 2004).
However, there were also plenty of later-round picks and a pair of undrafted forwards among the top 50 scoring forwards in 2011-12. Most famously, the roll call includes the likes of Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis (undrafted), the Rangers’ Brad Richards, Chicago’s Patrick Sharp (originally selected by the Flyers in the 3rd round, 95th overall in 2001) and the Detroit trio of Henrik Zetterberg (7th round, 210th overall in 1999), Pavel Datsyuk (6th round, 171st overall in 1998) and Valtteri Filppula (3rd round, 95th overall in 2002).
Others on the list are Dallas’ Jamie Benn (5th round, 129th overall in 2007), the Islanders’ PA Parenteau (9th round, 264th overall in 2001), Phoenix’s Radim Vrbata (7th round, 212th overall in 1999) and Tampa’s Teddy Purcell (undrafted).
The bottom line in all cases: A player’s original selection spot in the NHL Draft is the starting point of a potential future professional career. It need not be the end point if the player has the talent and work ethic it takes to play successfully in the best league in the world.