Thursday, July 7, 2022

Ranking the ten best first overall picks who weren't the best player in their own draft

One of the fun things about tonight’s draft is that there’s still some genuine intrigue over who’ll go first overall. We’ve spent most of the last year assuming it was the Shane Wright draft, but with Juraj Slafkovsky making a late push and at least a little longshot love for Logan Cooley, we’re really not sure what Montreal will do in front of the home crowd. That’s rare, and kind of cool.

First overall picks are tricky. Often, they turn out to be exactly what you’d expect them to be – the best player in the draft, one that a team can build around for a generation. Other times, they end up being a bust, the sort of mistake that can set a franchise back years. But there’s another category, and it’s one I’m always kind of intrigued by. I call them an Olajuwon.

Hakeem Olajuwon was the first overall pick of the 1984 NBA draft, and is considered one of the greatest players in league history. He was a dominating center who won an MVP and two championships, was a 12-time all-star, and was an easy Hall of Fame call in his first year of eligibility. But despite all that, he’s not the best player from his own draft year, because the third pick that year was a kid named Michael Jordan. Olajuwon did everything you could ever ask a number one pick to do… except be the best player in his draft.

I appreciate a good Olajuwon story, where a first overall pick lives up to the hype but still gets passed by a later pick. Hockey has a few of its own, and today we’re going to rank them. To be clear, we’re not looking for busts here, so Patrik Stefan, Nail Yakupov and friends are safe. We want guys who were great, but just not quite as great as someone picked after them. And we’re looking for cases like Olajuwon and Jordan, where virtually everyone would agree, so you can save your Taylor vs. Tyler debates for another day.

Will Wright or Slafkovsky join this list someday? Time will tell, but for now here are the ten best players in NHL history who went first overall and delivered on their potential, but still weren’t the best player in their draft year.

10. Chris Phillips (1996)

Why he was great: The 1996 draft was notoriously weak, with the leading scorer of the class being Matt Cullen with just 731 points. But with several busts in the first round, Phillips turned out to be a perfectly solid pick. He played 17 seasons, all with Ottawa, and almost all of them as a trustworthy top-four option. He had Norris votes in multiple seasons, scored a huge playoff overtime goal, and had his number retired by his team. You could do far worse with the first pick, especially in a year like this.

But not quite as great as: Zdeno Chara, who went to the Islanders in the third round. Of course, Chara ended up in Ottawa, and even played with Phillips for much of his stint there, so it all worked out for the Sens. But yeah, Phillips was a very good player and Chara is a first-ballot HHOF lock, and nobody’s debating which one was better.

See how this works? Let’s make our way down the list…

9. Rick Nash (2002)

Why he was great: Nash was the Blue Jackets’ first real star, and to this day is probably the greatest player in franchise history. He won a Rocket Richard in just his second season, and went on to score 437 goals in a 15-year career. He probably would have hit 500 if injuries hadn’t cut his career short.

But not quite as great as: Duncan Keith, who went in the second round, and is still active 20 years later. Keith has two Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe to go with three Cup rings. Nash was great, but nobody’s taking him over Keith with full benefit of hindsight.

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