We live in a sports world without a present these days. Either we’re reviewing the past, such as old Masters tournaments and Michael Jordan’s career, or we’re imagining some unusual future, such as NHL isolation games in North Dakota or how we’ll feel one day standing closer than six feet behind some Bubba who’s coughing up a storm as he waits to buy a hot dog.
There is no now. No today. No anticipating the big game later on this evening. It’s about what happened before, or what may happen one day.
There’s no way around it at the moment. So, might as well join in.
Looking back at NHL drafts has always been a personal hobby: the what ifs and if onlys of the decisions made by teams that did or did not work out in their favour. You know, like what happens if the Habs take Denis Savard or Paul Coffey instead of Doug Wickenheiser in 1980. Or how if you did the entire 2010 draft over again, the No. 16 pick (Vladimir Tarasenko) might well have gone first overall.
Living in Toronto, one could spend an entire day imagining the different paths the Maple Leafs might have taken if they’d selected Bobby Clarke in 1969. Or any one of Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour and Teemu Selanne instead of Scott Pearson in ’88.
What I had never contemplated, however, until being awarded all this extra time, was the entirety of the draft over the years. In other words, imagine throwing all the draft-eligible players in the history of the NHL into one big bucket, then picking them one at a time.
The project evokes one of the many great lines from the golf movie classic “Tin Cup.”
Roy McAvoy: Hey, you ever shoot par with a seven iron?
David Simms: Hell, Roy, it never occurred to me to try.
Point taken. Then again, seeing as how those of us not battling this terrible virus on the front lines — and God bless those brave folks — or suddenly forced to home school a nine-year-old might have a little extra time on our hands to stare into space and consider all sorts of unusual things, let’s give it a go.
For starters, the rules.
Before 1970, there was no true universal draft. Even in 1968 and 1969, Montreal was given picks before every else as the league phased out the old junior sponsorship system. So this all-time NHL draft begins with 1970 and, for the purposes of this exercise, ends with 2016. Players in the most recent three drafts just have hadn’t the opportunity to full demonstrate their capabilities yet.
That’s 47 drafts to pick from. The other consideration concerns all the players who became prominent NHLers or even superstars in the ’70s or later who were never drafted in the universal system. That list includes Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Peter Stastny, Brad Park, Ken Dryden, Frank Mahovlich, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Phil Esposito, Borje Salming and Adam Oates. Plus the aforementioned Clarke from Flin Flon, Man.
So those players aren’t eligible for our draft, either. Don’t worry, it’s still going to be plenty tough.
We’re going to have a first round of 31 picks, the number in the current draft.
Those rules, however, pretty much guarantee Mario Lemieux the No. 1 slot. Hard to argue that one. No. 66 did it all, even with his career interrupted by illness and injuries.
There are lots of intriguing questions to ask even before you start to put together a list. How many first overall picks make it? How many players who weren’t picked in the top 50 in their draft year? How many goalies? How many non-Stanley Cup winners? How many players taken from 2010 on?
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Some of this is based on factual accomplishment, some on subjective opinion. It’s nice to be able to say I saw every one of these players play, and most of them live at least once. But I certainly still have my biases, and comparing players who starred in the 1970s — with the equipment available to them then — with players of today isn’t easy. Would Mike Bossy have scored the same number of goals with one of today’s sticks against the overinflated Michelin Man netminders of the past 20 years? Who knows?
So here’s my top 31. Remember, players never drafted aren’t eligible.
You’ll still find plenty to disagree with.
After Lemieux, for me it’s Mark Messier, Denis Potvin and Nicklas Lidstrom, then Sidney Crosby. Imagine that. The city of Pittsburgh was blessed with two of the top five players ever drafted.
Alexander Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of the modern era, comes in at No. 9, after both Bossy and Guy Lafleur.
Originally, I had Connor McDavid much higher, and if we do this list again in 10 years my guess is he’ll be in the top five.
Two of the most difficult choices came at Nos. 29 and 31, when I went with Gilbert Perreault and Marcel Dionne. Perreault, first overall in the 1970 draft, is my most subjective pick. He didn’t win many awards or any Stanley Cups, but I remember what a dominant, elegant player he was. And Dionne, the second pick in ’71? The numbers are just too outstanding to ignore.
It was tempting to pick Auston Matthews, because he’s going to be that good, and difficult to leave off Jonathan Toews. Zdeno Chara, too.
It comes down to tough choices, and your list will undoubtedly be different. Let the discussion begin.
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