Tuesday night at the NHL Draft Lottery, the Edmonton Oilers won the right to select first overall for the third-straight year at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Barring a major surprise, that pick will be used to select Nail Yakupov of the OHL's Sarnia Sting.
Whether or not the Oilers are the team that will ultimately select Yakupov remains to be seen. Yakupov appears to be an exceptionally skilled forward, but the Oilers currently have an abundance of quality forwards, leading many to believe they would be better off trading the pick to address more urgent team needs.
When asked by TSN's James Duthie if the Oilers were considering selecting Yakupov first overall, or selecting another player, or trading the pick, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini replied, "All of the above."
Wherever Yakupov plays, the pressure of being selected first in the Draft is immense. Expectations are high, scrutiny is intense, and failure to perform can chisel your name into the memories of hockey fans forever, for all the wrong reasons. No one wants to be the next Alexandre Daigle.
Daigle was infamously selected first overall in the 1993 draft by the Ottawa Senators. He went on to under-achieve throughout his years in Ottawa, scoring a career-high 51 points in 1996-1997. He matched that total in 2003-2004, with the Minnesota Wild, but by that point expectations for Daigle had sunk so low that it was considered an over-achievement.
The 1990s were often cruel to teams picking first overall. Have a look:
1990 Owen Nolan, Quebec Nordiques
1991 Eric Lindros, Quebec Nordiques
1992 Roman Hamrlik, Tampa Bay Lightning
1993 Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa Senators
1994 Ed Jovanovski, Florida Panthers
1995 Bryan Berard, Ottawa Senators
1996 Chris Phillips, Ottawa Senators
1997 Joe Thornton, Boston Bruins
1998 Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning
1999 Patrik Stefan, Atlanta Thrashers
Some of those players, of course, are Hall of Fame caliber. But consider in the ten years between 1990 and 1999, only one player drafted first overall went on to help his original team win the Stanley Cup: Lecavalier with the Tampa Bay Lightning (2004).
Two of the ten first overall picks during the 1990s, Lindros and Thornton, went on to win the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP(in 1995 and 2006, respectively).
Of course, if a first overall pick never wins a Hart trophy, that alone does not make him a bust. Plenty of the game's greatest players never managed to win that award.
But when you consider that four of those ten players never played in an NHL All-Star game (Daigle, Berard, Phillips, Stefan), perhaps you can see my point about the 90s being a tough decade for first selections. (Two Notes: 1. Three of those four were selected by the Ottawa Senators. 2. Berard may well have gone on to have All-Star appearances had it not been for a career-altering eye injury)
Perhaps the player from the 90s that best exemplifies the pressure on first overall picks is Phillips. He has never won a major NHL award and has never played in an All-Star game, but he hasn't played his way out of the league yet either. Phillips, now 34, is still with the Senators, in the middle-late stages of what has been a very solid NHL career. And perhaps if he had been selected in the later rounds, or in the second round, or maybe anywhere other than first overall, "solid" would have been good enough. It is hard to look at Phillips and not remember the expectations he once came with.
Capping off the decade was the biggest bust of all. When the Atlanta Thrashers selected Stefan in 1999, they thought they were getting a franchise player. Instead, Stefan played just seven NHL seasons (only one of them a full 82 games), notched just 40 points as his single-season career-best, and retired from professional hockey altogether at the ripe old age of 27. Daigle's name seems to be the first that comes to mind when we think about draft busts, but perhaps that's only because it's hard to remember Stefan at all.
The twelve drafts since then have been much kinder to teams selecting first overall.
2000 Rick Dipietro, New York Islanders
2001 Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers
2002 Rick Nash, Columbus Blue Jackets
2003 Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
2004 Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
2005 Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
2006 Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues
2007 Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
2008 Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
2009 John Tavares, New York Islanders
2010 Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
2011 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers
Of those twelve players, Dipietro and Johnson might be considered busts, but Dipietro did manage to play in an All-Star game, and was named the game's MVP. And the jury is still out on Johnson, who, like many big-bodied NHL defenseman, might take a few extra years to fully develop.
There is plenty of time for Hall and Nugent-Hopkins to turn into busts, but early indications say that's unlikely.
Perhaps scouting has improved since the 1990s. Or perhaps the game is less complicated now and it is easier to project how a junior player's skills will translate to the NHL. Or maybe it's just luck. Whatever the case, it appears that the days of Stefan-level draft busts might be over.
Of those twelve first picks, three have already won the Stanley Cup with their original team (Fleury and Crosby, 2009; Kane, 2010). Keep in mind, these are players still in the early and middle stages of their careers, and the younger players could still be playing twenty years from now. That's time for plenty of Cups.
Two of the players on that list, Crosby and Ovechkin, have already taken home the Hart Memorial trophy. Twice, in Ovechkin's case.
Ovechkin and Stamkos have each scored 60 goals in an NHL season, and have each led the NHL in goals twice, winning the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy (Ovechkin, 2008, 2009; Stamkos, 2010, 2012). Stamkos shared the honor with Crosby in 2010. Kovalchuk and Nash also shared the honor in 2004. No player drafted between 1990 and 1999 has ever scored 60 goals, and only Lecavalier has ever led the league in goals.
So when the 2012 NHL Entry Draft finally comes around, all eyes will be on young Yakupov. Expectations will be high, and now, more than ever, deservedly so. Recent history shows us that whatever bugs the system had, that led to Daigle and Stefan, have been worked out. These days, NHL teams can be reasonably sure that they will be getting a very good player with a first overall selection. Scouts have decided, in this case, that Yakupov will be that very good player, and their track record of late is decent proof that we should believe them.
It is unlikely that Yakupov will put up numbers like Sidney Crosby, and it is equally unlikely that he will turn in a solid if unspectacular career like Phillips. He will probably settle somewhere in the middle and wind up around the level of Kane. But as he steps up on stage, if he indeed turns out to be the number one pick, he will no doubt be feeling the weight of expectation.
Being drafted first overall opens up the opportunity to become an NHL superstar, but it also opens up the opportunity to have your name synonymous with "bust," like Daigle (we still don't remember Stefan).
And each year, only one player gets that opportunity.