Whenever you're taken first in the NHL draft, a lot of expectations are attached to you. First overall picks are generally tasked with saving a franchise and becoming the centerpiece of a rebuilding movement that lasts years. Usually, who the first overall pick will be is decided months before the actual draft. That is not always the case though, with many asking who should the New Jersey Devils take in 2017.
Regardless of whether you're a generational talent and known to be the first pick or it's up in the air until a team announces the name, it's a lot of pressure on a player's shoulders. Some players cannot take it and become busts, while others show the hockey world why they were selected before everyone else. Today, I will focus on the latter group. Of all the tremendous players chosen in the number one spot, these are the ten best first overall picks in NHL history.
Sidney Crosby has dominated the NHL from day one. The three-time Stanley Cup winner was selected first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins after they won the draft lottery in 2005. Since then, he has collected two Art Ross trophies, two Harts, two Conn Smythe awards, and one Rocket Richard. He has transformed the Penguins from a team ready to explore relocation to an Eastern Conference powerhouse that isn't going anywhere.
Mike Modano was the model of consistency in Minnesota. Now try saying that five times fast. Even though he never put up the flashiest numbers, Modano is obviously one of the best first overall picks in NHL history. His 21-year career saw him accumulate 1,374 points and a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars (after they moved from Minnesota). He registered at least 60 points in 13 of those seasons, showcasing a rare element of longevity during his era.
John Tavares has done everything within his power to make the New York Islanders a perennial playoff team. The same cannot be said for the Islanders front office. While the addition of Matthew Barzal and the emergence of Josh Bailey are solid signs for the future, the Isles are still a long way away from being a Stanley Cup contender.
It is amazing to think of the numbers that Tavares has posted with almost no team around him for his entire career. I mean, 621 points is pretty amazing when teams are only game-planning to stop you every night. If he decides to take his talents elsewhere, a true cup contender perhaps, he could easily cement his place as one of the greats of his generation.
Joining Sundin as one of the best first overall picks in NHL history to be inexplicably traded, we arrive at Joe Thornton. Thornton was selected first overall by the Boston Bruins in 1997 and was traded eight seasons and 285 points later. Since then he has become one of the top players in the San Jose Sharks history, registering 745 points in 961 games. He continues to play at a high level after 21 seasons and at age 38, he could potentially keep going for another two to three years.
The Quebec Nordiques struck gold when they drafted Mats Sundin first overall in 1989... If only they had known that then. Due to a contract dispute, Sundin was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs after four seasons in Quebec. The superstar center went on to record 987 points in 13 seasons for the Leafs, leading them to the playoffs eight times in that stretch. Sundin would finish his career with 564 goals and 1,349 points, the two best marks by a Swedish player in NHL history.
Alongside his biggest rival, Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin is one of the best first overall picks in NHL history. Also like Crosby, Ovechkin has been killing it since he began playing in 2005. Selected by the Washington Capitals in 2004, Ovi had to sit out the lockout season and went up against Crosby for rookie of the year the following season. This spawned one of the best individual and team rivalries for the next decade and a half, and both are still alive and well today.
Arguably the greatest goal-scorer ever, the Russian sniper has won the Rocket Richard seven times and has never had a season with less than 32 goals. The great eight often gets criticism for not being a playoff performer but nothing is further from the truth. Ovechkin has 53 goals and 101 points in 105 NHL playoff games, averaging nearly a point per game during the hardest hockey of the year.
Whenever you're considered one of the best Montreal Canadiens in history, you're automatically one of the best in NHL history as well. It's just science really. Guy Lafleur was picked by the original six team in 1971 and rewarded them almost immediately, winning a Stanley Cup in his second season.
Lafleur went on to bring four more Cups back to Montreal, all in a row. From 1975-1978 the Canadiens could not lose, thanks in large part to the best right wing in the game. Lafleur led the league in points for the first three years of the dynasty, and came in third for the fourth. With five total Stanley Cups and 1,353 career points, it's no surprise seeing him here.
If you think Lafleur's dynasty was impressive, wait till you hear about what Denis Potvin and his team were able to accomplish. After Potvin was drafted in 1973, he quickly established himself as one of best first overall picks in NHL history and one of the best defensemen ever to throw on skates. The three-time Norris trophy winner and the New York Islanders matched the mid-70s Canadiens, with four straight Stanley Cups, from 1979 to 1982. Their final Cup victory saw sweep an Edmonton Oilers team led by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, and Paul Coffey. If that's not impressive, I don't know what is.
Mike Modano and Brett Hull may possess almost every all-time record for American-born players but Patrick Kane remains the only American to win the Art Ross trophy for most points in a single season. The Buffalo-born winger was taken in the 2007 NHL entry draft and has developed into one of the league's top players.
The best aspect of his hockey résumé is the success he achieved in the early part of the 2010s. Kane was one of the primary contributors to the Chicago Blackhawks recent dynasty. With three Stanley Cups in six years, and the Cup-winning goal in 2010, number 88 has proven to be a winner with the clutch gene in his DNA.
What can be said about Mario Lemieux other than he's a top-five player all-time? Easily one of the best first overall picks in NHL history, the talented center led the league in points six times, with his personal best of 199 points coming at the incredibly young age of 23. Lemieux finished his career with ten seasons of 100+ points and a litany of personal trophies.
He was the main component for two of the best teams ever to win the Stanley Cup and could not be stopped. If not for injuries throughout his career, including a bout with cancer in 1993, Lemieux may have broken the 2000-point plateau and win a few more Cups. However, he is still considered one of the greatest ever and for good reason.