NHL Column: The first choice

Vegas Golden Knights right wing Reilly Smith (19) and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin (26) skate for the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

A dismal season in the NHL can be reconciled by only one thing: The Entry Draft. After missing the playoffs and finishing in the bottom tier of the league, the next step in order to turn the page is to draft new blood into the organization. This provides fans with hope that soon their team will reign as a perennial powerhouse.

Each year the draft lottery is held to determine which team will make the top three picks. And if your team somehow gets blessed with the opportunity to pick first overall, it is essential that they do not squander it.

Choosing first is a chance a team usually gets once every couple of decades. That is, unless a team is so dismal that it takes many awful years to rebuild to excellence.

The most recent first overall pick, Rasmus Dahlin, is supposed to pull his new team, the Buffalo Sabres, to contention after finishing in the league basement for many years. Surprisingly, this was their first top selection since 1987, as they have not had much draft lottery luck in recent years. Dahlin presents the fragility in such a selection. Franchise defensemen are typically only discovered via the draft and organizational nurturing. If Dahlin ended up not panning out, the Sabres could spend another five years or more missing the playoffs.

Luckily for them, Dahlin appears to be the real deal. Comparable to top NHL defensemen Erik Karlsson, he is expected to bring the life back to the hockey town of Buffalo.

While the Sabres have been given this one chance to make the first overall selection, the Edmonton Oilers have been so consistently terrible during the past decade that they have made an astounding four top picks. From 2010-2012, they drafted first three straight years, selecting Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov. Somehow all of these high picks did not make Edmonton any better, as they won the draft lottery again in 2015, where they drafted Connor McDavid.

The first selections that the Oilers have made are evidence of their management’s failures. Nail Yakupov is no longer with the Oilers, never meeting the expectations set for him as a top pick. After Edmonton, he was often slated as a extra forward or bottom six player. He is not even in the NHL anymore as he plays for SKA St. Petersburg in Russia’s KHL. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has become a solid player, but not nearly what you would expect out of your first overall pick. He is a decent second line center, which are not easy to find by any means. But when drafting a player so high, teams are anticipating that they will become superstars. 2010’s top pick, Taylor Hall, was traded to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson by general manager Peter Chiarelli. Hall went on to win the the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s Most Valuable Player, with the Devils. While Larsson provided improvement on defense, he is not comparable to playing level of Hall. The former Oiler led New Jersey’s resurgence to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Hall is the electrifying type of player that teams should never trade.

So with their mismanagement of key assets, the Oilers continued to perform poorly. They got lucky winning the 2015 draft lottery, and made the obvious choice of selecting a generational talent in McDavid. While the Oilers made the playoffs in 2016-17, they fell back to irrelevance the year after and look average to begin the 2018-19 season as well. McDavid appears to be the only player supporting them, as he accounted for a point on each of the Oilers first nine goals. With them, it almost seems like if McDavid is not on the ice, they are not scoring a goal. They finally scored their first goal of the season Tuesday without him.

While McDavid was the clear choice in 2015, and one that even the bumbling Oilers could not mess up, other top picks have not been so cut and dry. In 2017, the New Jersey Devils needed to choose between Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. About a year before the draft, Patrick was the favorite to go first overall. But during the year leading up to it, Hischier shined to the point that he entered the conversation. His speed, raw skill and persistence was too good to pass up and they selected him.

So far, the choice of Hischier has been tremendous for the Devils, as he contributed 52 points in his rookie campaign, helping the Devils return to the postseason. The level to which Hischier is able to create scoring chances and draw penalties is rarely found. He figures to be the Devils’ top line center for years to come.

New Jersey has been fortunate in recent years, not only winning the draft lottery in 2017, but also acquiring another former first overall pick in Hall. The combination of the two on the Devils’ top line is potent, especially alongside Kyle Palmieri, who is a blistering scorer with a hard right handed shot.

Hall and Hischier show how having number ones can change the landscape of a franchise. In 2005, Sidney Crosby did the same for Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh. He turned a failing franchise in danger of relocating into one of the most popular teams in the league. Of course, Crosby had help rebuilding the Penguins to one of league’s most dominant franchises, but without him they would never have become what they are today.

Since Crosby’s arrival in Pittsburgh, the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups, and attendance is amongst the best in hockey. He transformed the Penguins from being more comparable to the city’s Pirates, and made them more like the Steelers. It is proof that just one player can ignite a strong sport city with great potential.

The year before the coming of Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin did the same for the Washington Capitals. Like Crosby, he altered the outlook of the Capitals into a team that would compete for a championship every year.

These two superstars changed not only their team’s projections, but also the game of hockey. As they forwarded hockey in the direction of becoming a faster, more skilled game, they became the league’s two most featured stars. The Penguins and Capitals are now two of the most highly showcased teams on national television. It is amazing to see what the addition of just one player can do for a team and its city.

Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane add to the list of players who revitalized franchises. But there also are a few that never lived up to expectations. When organizations, such as the Oilers, fail in these selections, they allow the rut they are in to grow.

Alexandre Daigle, Patrik Stefan and Rick DiPietro are a few of the biggest draft busts in NHL history. They were supposed to become faces of their respective franchises, the Ottawa Senators, Atlanta Thrashers and New York Islanders. Instead, they are forgotten, and compared to great top overall picks who fulfilled expectations. Similar to those great first picks, they are remembered as the reason for the direction that their drafting team went in the following years.


Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at dylan.barrett@uconn.edu.