Everyone realizes that not every draft pick is going to work out. You’re always taking a gamble when you’re betting on the future success of teenage athletes. That said when it comes to the top players in the draft it should be hard to go wrong. The top players are well-scouted and attract buzz years before they hit the NHL. Despite that there are a few players who whether because of injuries or other reasons just never lived up to their potential.
The first draft eligible for this list I decided to make 1979-80 as it was the year the league expanded to 21 teams. It was also the last draft before they became open to the public as well as the last draft were under 200 players were drafted. So with that out of the way lets start the list.
The Bust: Kluzak was picked 1st overall by the Boston Bruins in the 1982 Entry Draft but ended up having his career cut short by injuries and being out of the league by 27. Even before the draft, he was hit with injury problems missing the entire last half of his final Junior season and all of the playoffs due to torn ligaments in his left knee. The injury didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Bruins GM Harry Sinden who decided to take the defenceman as his top pick. Kluzak would go on to miss 2 entire seasons of play and finish with 299 games played and 123 points over 9 seasons with the team before being forced to retire. He’d go on to become a colour commentator for the Bruins for nearly a decade and is now a studio analyst for NESN.
Better Options: If they wanted to stick with defense then look no further than 5th overall and Hall of Famer Scott Stevens (1635 games played, 908 points). Or the 6th pick Phil Housley (1495 games played, 1232 points). Beyond the D-line Brian Bellows (2nd overall), Dave Anderychuk (16th overall), Pat Verbeek (43rd overall), and Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour (a steal at 134rd overall) all would go on to score over 1,000 points. Legendary fireplug goalie Ron Hextall was also available at 119th. Any of these would have ended up working out better than the unfortunate Kluzak.
The Bust: Taken first by the Minnesota North Stars in the 1983 Draft Lawton has the distinction of being the first US-born player to be taken as the first overall pick in the Entry Draft. Lawton is considered a bust not only because he struggled over the course of his career but because he was taken ahead of a number of other players that were expected to be drafted first. North Stars GM Lou Nanne latter admitted it was a mistake and that he’d have picked goaltender Tom Barrasso if he could do it over again. Lawton failed to score more than 44 points in his first 5 seasons with the North Stars and when they tried to send him to their minor team he refused to report and was traded. After that he bounced around from team to team until retiring in 1993. After he retired he started a sports agency and found great success. By the time he was bought out in 1998, was representing 12 NHL players including Mike Modano and Sergei Federov. In 2008, Lawton approached the Tampa Bay Lightning with a detailed proposal on how to improve the team and impressed the owners enough to be named the VP of Hockey Operations and eventually General Manager. Lawton would stay with the team until 2010.
Better Options: Aside from the aforementioned Tom Barrasso this draft was jam packed with top level talent. Future Hall of Famers Pat LaFontaine, Steve Yzerman, and Cam Neely were taken with the 3rd, 4th and 9th picks respectively. Yzerman and LaFontaine in particular were expected to be chosen before Lawton and Red Wings GM Jim Devellano who snagged Yzermen felt that he could have played a major role in saving the North Stars franchise. Way down the list in the steals category you also have another Hall of Famer the legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek who was taken with the 199th pick.
The Bust: Coming into the 2000 Entry Draft the Islanders were so confident that DiPietro was there man (and indeed the only player they cared about in the entire draft) that they traded away their top goalie Roberto Luongo. Despite high hopes DiPietro’s rookie season was a struggle as he played 20 games and only managed to win 3, after which he was sent down to the Minors to gain more experience. He wouldn’t be called up for good until the 2003-04 season and finally started to post more respectable numbers. Believing that DiPietro was ready to be the player they had always wanted the Islanders did the logical thing in 2006 and offered him the worst contract in league history. 15 years, $67.5 Million. All for a goalie who had so far managed 2 complete seasons in the NHL. His next season was his best in the league with a 2.58 GAA and .919 SV% but the next season he fell off and after that he was plagued with injuries year after year until even the Islanders had to admit they made a mistake and bought his contract out in 2013. He’d sign a tryout contract with Carolina’s AHL team but was released from that as well. DiPietro would finish with a career GAA of 2.87 and a SV% of .902.
Better Options: If they were going to insist on trading away a quality goaltender like Luongo (career GAA/SV% of 2.51/.919) to start all over there were two other quality goalies available. Ilya Brygalov (2.56/.913) was chosen 44th and Henrik Lundqvist (2.26/9.20) at 118th. Beyond that Dany Heatley (especially if the tragic car accident never took place) and Marian Gaborik at the next two picks were both better options.
The Bust: How good was Daigle expected to be? Not only was he labeled “Can’t Miss” but the Senators essentially threw their there season to make sure they’d get the first pick in the 93 Draft so as to get a crack at him. The NHL would later end up adding a draft lottery to prevent teams from doing the same thing again. The Nordiques wanted Daigle so bad they offered top players like Owen Nolan and Peter Forsberg to Ottawa for the 1st pick but Ottawa wouldn’t give it up. They had their man. They took Daigle first overall and gave him the biggest ever rookie contract of 5 years, $12.25 million (the league would put a cap on starting salaries a few years later because of this). Daigle didn’t let any of this go to his head commenting on his draft position, “I’m glad I got drafted first, because no one remembers number two.”
Daigle seemed to be living up to the hype in his rookie season scoring 51 points on a terrible Senators team but from there on things fell apart for him. Daigle would be accused of being more interested in partying then playing and by 1997 the Senators gave up on him and traded him away. After being passed around by several teams he was waived by the New York Rangers in 1999 and found himself out of the NHL at the age of 25. However, in 2002, needing a steady job he decided to make a comeback and after trying out managed to get a contract with the Penguins and would even lead the team in pre-season scoring. Despite that he ended up disappointing again and was released before signing with the Minnesota Wild. He had one good season with the Wild where he managed 51 points but in 2006 they too released him and he retired from the NHL.
Better Options: How about that number two pick Daigle spoke of? Chris Pronger. Or the 4th pick Paul Kariya. You’ve also got Saku Koivu who was taken 21st and in the steals category Pavol Demitra who was taken way down at 227th.
The Bust: Stefan is statistically the worst draft bust to play in the NHL with only 188 points in 455 games. How did it happen? Stefan was taken first overall in 1999 by the new expansion team in Atlanta and the hype around him was big. Scouting agent Bob Owen called him “… the brightest young prospect developed in the Czech Republic since Jaromir Jagr,” and his Junior coach even went so far as to call him a cross between “Mike Modano and Sergei Federov.” Despite that enormous praise, Stefan would only play one full season of hockey in the NHL in which he’d manage his career high 40 points. The rest of his career was dogged by injuries. The Thrashers eventually gave up on him and traded him to the Stars but after they decided not to resign him he went International briefly before he was forced to retire due to a serious hip injury. Sadly Stefan is probably best known for missing and falling on a breakaway against an empty net, which even worst then allowed the other team to recover and score to send the game to overtime.
Better Options: Either of the Sedin twins were better options and were instead grabbed second and third overall by the Canucks. In the steals category net minder Ryan Miller was taken 138th and even more impressive Henrik Zetterberg (720 points in 759 games and counting) was taken 210th.