Fifteen years have passed since the last time Pittsburgh hosted the NHL Draft on June 21, 1997. That day, 26 teams combined to select 246 players during the nine-round process. Now that most of those players are either on the back nine of their careers, or finished at the NHL level altogether, it’s a great time to look back and evaluate the Class of ‘97.
As a collective whole, ’97 Draft didn’t generate the same star-power that, say, the ’90 and ’91 classes produced, but overall it compares favorably to the other classes from the 90s.
Entering the weekend, the Boston Bruins (with the Nos. 1 and 8 overall selections) and New York Islanders (Nos. 4 and 5) had every right to feel as though each would walk away winners, as the two combined to own four of the top-eight picks.
In hindsight, both teams did a great job choosing players who were near the cream of the crop.
Boston tabbed Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (Ontario Hockey League) center Joe Thornton with the top selection and followed that with Sergei Samsonov of the Detroit Vipers of the now-defunct International Hockey League (IHL) at No. 8. Samsonov went on to capture the ’98 Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year, while Thornton is the lone player from the Class of ’97 that has joined the prestigious 1,000-point club (1,078 points in 1,077 games).
New York took Val d’Or Foreurs (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) netminder Roberto Luongo and hulking Prince George Cougars (Western Hockey League) defender Eric Brewer with back-to-back selections at Nos. 4 and 5. Luongo has since won an Olympic gold medal (2010) and sits just 61 wins shy of becoming just the 11th goaltender in league history to crack the 400-win mark. Brewer has 840 regular-season games on his resume – including a stint as St. Louis Blues’ captain earlier this decade.
Unfortunately for New York, the duo combined to appear in just 113 games (Brewer, 89; Luongo, 24) before both were traded away for minimal returns before each turned 21.
In total, 23 of the 26 players taken in Round 1 went on to play two or more games in the NHL (88.5%). Of those 23, 11 appeared in 700-plus games. Both of those numbers compare favorably to other draft classes in the ‘90s.
Which first-round pick gave his team the best value in the first round? That would be Ottawa Senators forward Marian Hossa, who was chosen 12th overall, but whose 904 regular-season points rank second in the Class of ’97 behind only Thornton.
Patrick Marleau, who was drafted No. 2 overall by the San Jose Sharks, and Dallas Stars captain Brendan Morrow, the next-to-last pick of the opening round, are the lone players from ’97 who have spent their entire careers with their draft team.
Boston – In addition to the star-power Thornton and Samsonov provided, the Bruins were also one of just eight teams to have 50 percent or more of their selections reach the NHL – although Ben Clymer (2nd round) and Antti Laaksonen (8th round) played all or the majority of their careers with other teams. Further enhancing Boston’s value from its ’97 class was that when they chose to trade Thornton and Samsonov in the 2005-06 season, they were able to receive assets in return that netted defenseman Andrew Ference and a second-round draft pick that became forward Milan Lucic – two critical pieces from their 2011 Stanley Cup championship team.
Buffalo – The Sabres’ success was a virtue of identifying NHL-caliber talent after Round 1. Their picks in Rounds 2 and 3 – defenseman Henrik Tallinder and forward Maxim Afinogenov, respectively – played in 1,037 games during a combined 17 seasons in Buffalo. Add in the shrewd plucking of smooth-skating blueliner Brian Campbell in the sixth round and the Sabres successfully added three key pieces that helped the team advance to the NHL’s final four in 2006 and ’07.
Ottawa – That summer the Senators were coming off their first playoff berth since the team’s inception in 1993. They added several pieces that contributed to 10 more consecutive berths in Hossa, checking-line forward Magnus Arvedson (5th round) and defenseman Karel Rachunek (9th round). Arvedson reached double-digits in goals for six-straight seasons, while Rachunek posted a plus-64 rating in 246 regular-season contests.
San Jose – Like Boston and the Islanders, the Sharks also owned two choices in the first round. They maximized their value with both, as Marleau has skated in 1,117 games – the most of any player drafted in ’97 – and has posted 387 goals, which trails only Hossa (417). Their second pick in the opening round was shutdown defenseman Scott Hannan at No. 23. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound defenseman rewarded the Sharks with a plus-45 rating in 508 regular-season games during eight seasons.
The ’97 Draft was definitely top-heavy – of the 36 players to appear in 300 or more games thus far, 16 came in the first two rounds, versus 20 over the final seven. That said, teams were able to unearth several gems in the later rounds who are still making their mark on the league today.
Jason Chimera, Edmonton (5th round, 121st overall) – A product of the Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL), Chimera is the classic bottom-line energy forward all winning teams need. The seven-time double-digit goal scorer is coming off a career-high 20-goal season this year with the Washington Capitals.
Matt Cooke, Vancouver (6th round, 144th overall) – Another valuable role player coming off a career-high 19 goals with the Penguins in 2011-12, Cooke leads all players drafted after Round 1 with 887 regular-season games played. The 10-time double-digit goal scorer won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in ’09 and is considered one of the top penalty killing forwards in the NHL.
Shawn Thornton, Toronto (7th round, 190th overall) – After bouncing around between the NHL and AHL until as recently as ’06-07, Thornton has carved out a niche as a tough-as-nails physical presence on Boston’s fourth line. Thornton had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup when the Boston Bruins won the championship in ’11.
Andrew Ference, Pittsburgh (8th round, 208th overall) – The hometown crowd had thinned considerably by the time the Penguins made him their next-to-last pick. Ference played parts of four seasons with Pittsburgh – including ’01 when he tallied 10 points in 18 playoff games. He evolved into more of a shutdown blueliner after leaving Pittsburgh. Ference was a member of Boston’s ‘11 Stanley Cup championship squad.