With the first phase of the 2020 NHL draft lottery set for Friday, there is a chance that we’ll know the destination of consensus No. 1 prospect Alexis Lafreniere by week’s end. Whichever team is lucky enough to land the top slot will have a chance to nab the talented left winger, who joined Sidney Crosby as the only players to win the CHL Player of the Year Award in back-to-back years. The hype has been building for some time, and we will finally have an idea of what will happen next for the prospect in this postponed draft process.
Before an NHL team has a chance to add Lafreniere to its list of prospects, let’s take a look back and pinpoint the most hyped prospects for all 31 teams over the past 30 years. There are obviously quite a few No. 1 overall picks on this list, as there’s always an absurd amount of hype for top picks, whether they deserve it or not.
Note: For franchises that have relocated, I tried to avoid prospects from the old clubs, with a few exceptions. Also, I limited this to prospects from the past 30 years. Draft pick number and year are in parentheses for each player.
Kariya was the Ducks’ first draft pick, and was he ever a good one. He had just led the University of Maine to the national championship with 100 points — a record that still stands for NCAA freshmen — and was the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey’s best player. Despite concussion issues that shortened his career, Kariya put together a Hall of Fame résumé, with 989 points in the NHL, including 669 in 606 games with the then-Mighty Ducks.
In franchise history, it would be difficult to top Teemu Selanne … but given that he never played in Arizona, we’ll take it another direction. The highest draft pick in Coyotes history, Turris actually was ranked No. 1 by the NHL’s Central Scouting bureau — ahead of Patrick Kane. After winning the British Columbia Hockey League MVP award and helping Canada to gold at the 2007 U18 World Championship, Turris was highly regarded for both his skill set and his character. He went to Wisconsin, where he starred as a freshman, and signed the following season.
A big kid who averaged more than two points per game in his last Ontario Hockey League season, Thornton had all the makings of a star. He was the first top pick for the Bruins since 1982, and the excitement from the team was evident at the draft. Despite a slow start to his NHL career, Thornton has put together a résumé that will make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The consolation prize for not landing Connor McDavid in 2015 was an exciting one. The Sabres finally secured a franchise center to build their team around in Eichel, who was the first freshman since Kariya to win the Hobey Baker. In the ensuing years, however, things haven’t really played out. Yes, Eichel has been all he was expected to be and more, but he will be on his third GM when next season begins, and Buffalo looks no closer to being competitive.
Picked in the vaunted 2003 draft, Phaneuf spent the next two years in junior and continued to build a résumé as one of the most feared hitters in the game. In his final year of junior, he put up good numbers and helped Canada to gold at the world junior championships.
When the Penguins took Marc-Andre Fleury No. 1, the Hurricanes knew they were about to land a future franchise center. Staal was a dominant force in the OHL the previous season. He jumped right into the NHL the following season, dominated the AHL in the lockout year and then became a leading player in the Hurricanes’ run to the Stanley Cup in 2006. Looking at all of franchise history, however, it’d be hard to top the Hartford Whalers’ No. 2 pick in 1993, Chris Pronger.
The Blackhawks had never had the first overall pick in the club’s long history, but their timing couldn’t have been better when they finally landed it. Kane had just torched the OHL with the London Knights and starred for the U.S. in the WJC. Even though there were concerns about his size, he had as much skill as anyone who had entered the draft in recent years. The foundation for Chicago’s Stanley Cup-winning teams was nearly set with this pick.
OK, this is a little bit of a cheat because Forsberg started his NHL career with the Quebec Nordiques. But as a child of the 1990s who grew up on Forsberg, I wasn’t passing this one up — no offense to Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar, of course.
Traded to the Nords in the Eric Lindros deal that inadvertently provided the foundation for the Stanley Cups won by Colorado in 1996 and 2001, Forsberg was a phenom by every measure. His numbers in Sweden’s pro league were incredible, and he had the highest-scoring World Junior ever (31 points in seven games). Then he really came to international prominence with his famous, gold-medal-winning shootout goal against Canada at the 1994 Olympics.
The Blue Jackets got the No. 1 pick in the third NHL draft in franchise history and used it on Nash. He was an absolute physical beast, with skill to boot. He had all the makings of a superstar, but the Jackets never found a way to adequately build around him. Nash holds many of the team’s franchise records, including games played, goals, assists and points.
In franchise history, Mike Modano is the guy (1988 draft pick). But in the past 30 years, the Stars have not had a ton of high draft picks, thanks to sustained success throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. That brings me to Campbell, who was as hyped a goalie prospect as there had been since Carey Price. Having won a World Junior and two U18 gold medals in the span of a year, Campbell had a winning pedigree and a lot of exposure. It took him a long time to find his game in the NHL, but he has rounded into, at the very least, a dependable backup.
Although drafted in 1989, Fedorov took a few years before he made the jump to North America, so we are counting him here. His defection from the Soviet Union while in Seattle at the Goodwill Games was the stuff of legend. Drafted in the fourth round, Fedorov would have gone higher if there hadn’t been uncertainty about teams being able to bring Soviet-born players to North America. The trouble the Red Wings went through to get Fedorov to the team says a lot about what they thought of the player. They smuggled him out of his team’s hotel, took him in a limo to the airport, hopped in Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch’s private jet and were in Detroit before Soviet team officials realized Fedorov was gone — on his way to a Hall of Fame career highlighted by three Stanley Cups in Detroit.
Referred to throughout his draft year as “McJesus,” McDavid had pedigree that was unmatched. Anyone who saw him play knew he was on a different level than any of the three other recent first overall picks for Edmonton — and anyone else league-wide since Sidney Crosby, if not beyond. McDavid has continually lived up to the hype and is building a highlight reel a mile long that will only stretch further as he continues his otherworldly play in the NHL.
Only the second player in OHL history to earn “exceptional player status” to enter junior a year early, Ekblad looked to be on the fast track to stardom. He had a spectacular draft season, with 53 points in 58 games for the Barrie Colts, and was largely unchallenged as the No. 1 prospect that season. But history might not look as kindly on this pick, even though Ekblad has been a dependable blueliner for the Panthers, because Leon Draisaitl went two picks later.
Doughty received potential No. 1 buzz over the course of the 2007-08 season, based on how dominant he was as a 16-year-old the previous year. Even though his numbers dipped in his draft year, Doughty had all the tools to be a star defenseman in the league. He made good on the projections, becoming a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and a core player on both Olympic and Stanley Cup champion teams.
Minnesota Wild: Kirill Kaprizov, LW (No. 135, 2015)
You know the hype is big if we have a guy here who isn’t even in the league yet. But it’s real. Ever since his draft year, Kaprizov’s profile has grown. He has been dominant at the World Juniors, has two goal-scoring titles in the Kontinental Hockey League and scored the gold-medal-winning goal at the 2018 Olympics. The wait has been painful, but he’s coming soon — probably.
It wasn’t immediate, but within a few years, Habs fans knew they had something special in Price. That was especially true after he starred for Canada’s gold-medal team at the 2007 World Juniors. After an early postseason exit in the Western Hockey League, Price was sent to the AHL, where he backstopped the Hamilton Bulldogs to the Calder Trophy and earned MVP honors with a .936 save percentage in 22 games as a 19-year-old. There was no denying at that point that Montreal had its goalie of the immediate future.
How did the Preds feel about Jones’ unexpectedly falling to No. 4? Look no further than the giddiness of the typically reserved David Poile as he made the pick at the podium. Jones made the immediate jump to the NHL and got buzz to make the 2014 Olympic team as a rookie. He’s now a member of the Blue Jackets and still looks like he has a Norris Trophy in his future.
The Devils had picked first overall just three years prior (Nico Hischier), but there was not as large a consensus that the talented Swiss center was the top prospect. Hughes absolutely was. Having set multiple records with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, home to most of the best American players of the past 20 years, he came in with a lot of pedigree. Hughes mania took over soon after his draft, and optimism skyrocketed in New Jersey.
There’s a really strong case for Rick DiPietro here, given the fact that he was the first goalie to go No. 1 in the expansion era. But people knew about Tavares long before he was drafted. The first player to be granted “exceptional status” by the OHL to enter a year early, Tavares had 433 points over four seasons in the OHL and was the no-brainer pick at No. 1.
I think there’s a good case to be made for Chris Kreider, after his legend grew in a strong career at the World Juniors and in college. Or there’s the slow burn and buildup of Igor Shesterkin, the goalie of the future on Broadway. But Kakko mania was very, very real last year. The fact that Kakko played a leading role on three Finnish gold-medal teams at the U18 championship, World Junior and men’s World Championships — all in a year — allowed his legend to grow even more pre-draft.
Famous for not living up to the hype, Daigle was the consensus No. 1 prospect going into the first draft in which the Sens had the No. 1 pick. Daigle was not a lock to be a legend by any means, but having Chris Pronger go one pick after him to the Whalers exacerbated the scrutiny. Daigle had franchise cornerstone potential, though, given his 137 points during his draft season.
You could make the case that Lindros was one of the most hyped prospects of all time for any team. He was viewed widely as the natural successor to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux after he recorded 149 points in 57 games for the Oshawa Generals in his draft year.
Drafted first overall by the Nordiques, Lindros refused to sign and spent the 1991-92 season playing for Canada at the 1992 Olympics at 18 years old. His rights were then traded to the Flyers for a package that included Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, two first-round draft picks, the rights to Peter Forsberg and cash. That trade gave the Flyers their future captain and built the foundation for the Avalanche’s mid-1990s success. Lindros fought through injuries but finished with an incredible NHL career that landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The reward for the Penguins’ surviving the lockout and staying in Pittsburgh was a lucky bounce of the lottery balls that landed them a generational talent who led them to three Stanley Cups (so far) and put to rest any notion that the team was on shaky ground in Pittsburgh. There isn’t a way to overstate Crosby’s hype coming into that 2005 draft. He was “The Next One,” and he has lived up to it every step of the way.
After scoring 125 points for the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL, Marleau was the easy choice behind Thornton in the draft. He was widely considered the best player available, and there was some talk that he had more upside than Thornton. As we know now, the Sharks eventually got both players. It’s difficult to think of the Sharks these days and not think of Marleau.
The Blues probably thought they had the second coming of Pronger when they landed Johnson at No. 1. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he had the size and mobility to be a dominant NHL defenseman. Johnson gave the Blues their first No. 1 overall selection, spent his draft-plus-one season at the University of Minnesota and starred for USA at the World Juniors, solidifying lofty expectations.
The Lightning have hit big on three top picks in their history (Lecavalier, Roman Hamrlik and Steven Stamkos), but where would they be if they had not taken Lecavalier at No. 1 in 1998? Art Williams, the Lightning’s new owner at that time, proclaimed that Lecavalier would be the “Michael Jordan of hockey.” Hyperbole aside, Lecavalier became the face of a franchise that had been searching for an identity since it entered the league in 1992-93. Before the 1998 draft, the Lightning had been to the postseason once. Lecavalier took years to fully blossom as a player, but his No. 4 hangs in the rafters at Amalie Arena for a reason.
Although Wendel Clark generated his fair share of buzz by going No. 1 in 1985, Matthews arrived at a time when it seemed like the Leafs had reached the peak of their suffering. Selecting him was a huge piece in a rebuilding team’s opportunity to propel itself forward. Continuing a stretch of exceptional No. 1 talents, Matthews had all the makings of a top center in the league, and he has already made good on that projection.
In recent years, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes have captured the imaginations of Canucks fans and brought a lot of optimism to British Columbia. Long before them, however, Bure was almost mythical.
Bure was a dominant force for the Soviets at the World Juniors in 1989, providing Canada its first glimpse of his talent. The Russian Rocket appeared in two more WJCs, including the 1991 tournament in Saskatchewan. By then, Canucks fans were salivating as Bure scored 12 goals in seven games. He was signed ahead of the following season and began his Hall of Fame career.
A big center who put up big numbers in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks, Glass will always have a spot in Golden Knights history as the team’s first amateur draft pick. He debuted this season with 12 points in 39 games.
The Caps had to wait an extra year after drafting Ovechkin, thanks to the lockout, but he was an incredible prospect, and everyone knew it. Ovechkin’s exploits at the U18 and U20 international tournaments showed how far ahead of his peers he was. He played in three World Junior Championships, including the legendary 2005 tournament in which he tied for the lead in goals. Ovi was as NHL-ready as a prospect has ever been.
The Jets jumped up in the draft lottery to have a shot at Laine, who pushed Matthews for No. 1 late in his draft year. After dominating in a gold-medal performance for Finland at the World Juniors, Laine led Tappara to the Finnish league championship, winning playoff MVP honors. Then he went to the World Championship and was Finland’s best player in a silver-medal performance, earning tournament MVP honors as a 17-year-old. It seemed for the Jets at the time that getting the No. 2 pick was almost as good as getting the top one.