Top 10 No. 1 Draft Picks in NHL History
Owning the first pick in the annual NHL Entry Draft is a struggling team’s version of winning the Stanley Cup. That’s because a top choice has turned some chronic losers into perennial champions. Ranking the 10 greatest No. 1 NHL draft picks of all time.
It has been said over and over, but it is true: Connor Bedard, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NHL draft, is a generational player. When the Chicago Blackhawks won this year’s draft lottery, they won the chance to craft a dynasty around an 18-year-old capable of taking their floundering organization back to both NHL relevance and, in a few years, a multitude of Stanley Cup championships.
Chicago has been through this before. In 2007, the first time the Blackhawks ever had a chance to make the first choice in an NHL Entry Draft, they chose Patrick Kane, a future Hall of Famer who helped the franchise build a dynasty.
In the season leading up to Kane’s draft year, Chicago was 31-42-9 and missed the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years. The Blackhawks had not won a first-round playoff series in 11 years by the time Kane arrived, and they would miss the postseason one more time during his rookie year.
Things turned around in a hurry. By Kane’s second season, the Blackhawks began a run of nine straight playoff appearances that included three Stanley Cup rings. In other words, adding Kane played a huge part in taking the team from laughingstock to powerhouse.
Kane is one of several past NHL No. 1 picks who have helped lead their teams to previously unimaginable heights. In Kane’s case, it took only two years to kick into overdrive, but many other No. 1 picks have had to play on bad teams for several seasons before the turnaround finally took effect. As great as he is, Bedard will likely be limited next season because the team around him will be mediocre at best. Blackhawks fans will need to be patient, but better days are certainly ahead.
That, in fact, is the true challenge for any NHL team that gets to pick first overall. Can such teams land a player who will not only be great individually, but who will also deliver the Stanley Cup at least once? In considering the 10 greatest No. 1 overall picks in NHL history, this factor must be at the forefront of the debate.
So, on that note, let’s stipulate that Hockey Hall of Famers Gilbert Perreault, Dale Hawerchuk, Mats Sundin, and Eric Lindros, along with future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton, were all fabulous NHL players who deserved to be picked No. 1 in their draft years. However, it also matters that none of the teams that drafted these stars managed to win the Cup with them in the lineup. As a result, they can’t be considered among the top 10 No. 1 picks of all time – at least not on this list.
There are 10 players who have been drafted No. 1 overall and helped their team win the Cup, which is perfect for a top 10 list. Unfortunately, one of those players will need to be benched to make room for a young superstar who is just too good to ignore. So, the runner-up here -- just missing the cut – is Hall of Famer Mike Modano.
Modano was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars) with the top pick in 1988. He went on to score 561 goals over the next 22 NHL seasons, spending all but one of those years with the team that drafted him. The highest-scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history, Modano played in 1,499 regular-season games and 176 playoff games. His Minnesota/Dallas teams reached the postseason in 16 of his 21 seasons with the team, won the Stanley Cup in 1999, and returned to the Cup final in 2000.
Modano was great, but the Stars never became a full-fledged dynasty during his tenure. They lost too many first-round playoff series for that distinction. So, Modano is the unlucky player bounced from this top 10 list in order to make room for the limitless potential of Connor McDavid. Perhaps, in a few years, someone else will be bumped to open up a slot for the other Connor picked first overall this summer.
Ranking the Top 10 Best No. 1 Overall NHL Draft Picks of all time
- Nathan MacKinnon – Colorado Avalanche, 2013
In a lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Colorado Avalanche won only 16 of 48 games for the second-worst record in the NHL. They then won the 2013 NHL Entry Draft lottery and used their No. 1 pick to choose center Nathan MacKinnon of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads.
Unlike many past top picks, MacKinnon was hardly a no-brainer choice at No. 1. The Hockey News ranked him third among draft prospects behind defenseman Seth Jones and winger Jonathan Drouin, his junior teammate. The International Scouting Service also had MacKinnon ranked third, while NHL Central Scouting had him second.
The concern was that MacKinnon’s success was boosted by Drouin’s presence on his line. Of course, it turned out to be the other way around, and Colorado scouts were smart enough to recognize that. MacKinnon had an instant impact in his first pro season, scoring 63 points to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year. The Avs also made the playoffs that season
Despite the team’s early success, MacKinnon and Co. would have to wait another five years before returning to the playoffs in 2018. Since then, Colorado has reached the postseason six straight times and won the 2022 Stanley Cup behind a league-leading 13 playoff goals from MacKinnon.
This past season, MacKinnon had career-highs in goals (42), assists (69), and points (111). The 2019-20 Lady Byng Trophy winner as the league’s most sportsmanlike star, he has played in six NHL All-Star Games and made the postseason NHL All-Star Second team in both 2017-18 and 2019-20.
- Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers, 2015
No one can say enough good things about center Connor McDavid’s talent, and he was truly a slam-dunk choice for the Edmonton Oilers when they selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Although Jack Eichel was another contender for the No. 1 slot that year, it really wasn’t tough to choose between the two players. Scouts had known for years that McDavid would go first.
Every scouting service on the planet ranked McDavid as the draft’s No. 1 prospect. He was featured on the cover of The Hockey News’ Draft Preview issue already wearing a Photoshopped Oilers uniform with the headline “Connor McSaviour.” Edmonton certainly needed him after going 24-44-14 in the season before the Oilers won the lottery to draft him. Indeed, prior to McDavid’s arrival, Edmonton had not been to the playoffs for nine years since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
Like so many other top picks who joined struggling teams, McDavid had to be patient. Despite his individual greatness, his Oilers made the playoffs in only one of his first four seasons. By 2020, they were a fixture in the postseason and are now a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Unfortunately, they have yet to win a championship and are running out of years with McDavid, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2026. That’s still plenty of time, however, given the team’s relative strength.
As far as individual honors, McDavid already has a trophy case full of them. He lost the 2015-16 Rookie of the Year race to Artemi Panarin, but that was only because he was injured for much of the season. He averaged more than a point-per-game as a rookie and has never looked back with 850 points in 569 career games.
McDavid has won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer five times in seven full seasons. He is a three-time winner of the Hart Trophy as league MVP and a five-time recipient of the Ted Lindsay Award as the players’ choice for MVP. He has made the league’s postseason All-Star First Team four times and played in every NHL All-Star Game since 2017. As he enters the prime years of an NHLer’s career, McDavid is already the best player in the game by a country mile
- Patrick Kane – Chicago Blackhawks, 2007
Any Chicago Blackhawks fan excited about the addition of Connor Bedard need only look back 16 years to recall the arrival of winger Patrick Kane in 2007. It feels almost poetic that in the year Kane left the franchise, Bedard arrived in a seamless changing of the guard.
Two prospects were considered prime contenders to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NHL draft – Kane and James van Riemsdyk, who was chosen second by the Philadelphia Flyers after Chicago took Kane. The Hockey News ranked Kane No. 1 overall in its draft preview issue, but the International Scouting Service had him at No. 2 behind Jakub Voracek and the NHL Central Scouting Service had him trailing Kyle Turris in its ranking of North American skaters.
So, Kane wasn’t exactly a consensus No. 1 pick, in part because he stood only 5-foot-9. A native of Buffalo, Kane had spent two years in the U.S. National Team Development Program before joining the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights. It was in the OHL that he made his mark, scoring 145 points in 58 games to lead the entire Canadian Hockey League. Scouts recognized that he had a great pair of hands and would probably score in bunches at the NHL level, too.
Those hands have come through for Kane over the past 16 years in making him the second-highest scoring U.S.-born player in NHL history. His 451 goals in 1,180 NHL games include a pair of 40-goal seasons. He has also been a playoff superstar, scoring 138 points in 143 postseason games that included three Stanley Cup championship runs.
An unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career this summer, Kane can show off an impressive resume while looking for a new NHL home. His individual achievements include a monster 2015-16 season in which he won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer with 106 points, and the Ted Lindsay Award as the players’ choice for MVP.
Kane is also a past winner of the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, which he claimed after winning his second Stanley Cup championship in 2013. He has been a three-time member of the league’s postseason All-Star First Team and has played in nine NHL All-Star Games.
- Steven Stamkos – Tampa Bay Lightning, 2008
Although the Tampa Bay Lightning had won the Stanley Cup just four years earlier, by the summer of 2008, the team was a mess. The 2007-08 Bolts finished last in the entire NHL at 31-42-9 and were fortunate to enough to win the draft lottery so they could make the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
With that pick, Tampa Bay made a no-brainer selection in picking consensus top prospect Steven Stamkos, a center who was ranked No. 1 by every major scouting service. A former No. 1 pick in the Ontario Hockey League draft, Stamkos had dominated the OHL with the Sarnia Sting, scoring 58 goals and 105 points in his draft year. He also had 11 goals in nine OHL playoff games. Scouts raved about his offensive potential, and one was quoted in The Hockey News comparing him to Steve Yzerman.
Stamkos did not disappoint. He finished third on the Lightning with 23 goals and 46 points as a rookie before exploding for a team-leading 51 goals and 95 points in his second season. Although Tampa Bay did not reach the playoffs until Stamkos’ third year and then missed the playoffs again in his fourth and fifth seasons, the Lightning have been a postseason powerhouse ever since.
Named team captain prior to the 2014-15 season, Stamkos has led Tampa Bay to eight playoff appearances in the past nine years, including four trips to the Stanley Cup Final and back-to-back Cup championships in 2020 and 2021.
In 15 seasons with the Lightning, Stamkos has scored 515 regular-season goals and 45-playoff goals. He has had a 60-goal season, a 51-goal season, and four more seasons above 40 goals. His hardware collection includes the Rocket Richard Trophy in 2010 and 2012 for leading the league in goals and this past season’s Mark Messier Leadership Award. He has landed the postseason All-Star Second Team twice and made seven trips to the NHL All-Star Game.
- Marc-Andre Fleury – Pittsburgh Penguins, 2003
Drafting a goaltender with the No. 1 pick in the NHL Entry Draft is a very risky proposition. Just ask the New York Islanders, who once used the top choice on Rick DiPietro.
Indeed, DiPietro and Marc-Andre Fleury are the only goaltenders selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft’s 44-year history. DiPietro, drafted in 2000, was an above-average goaltender who turned out to be much more talented as a radio sports-talk host. Fleury, selected by Pittsburgh in the 2003 draft, turned into a future Hockey Hall of Famer.
The Penguins were so bad in the early 2000s that the team had some prime first-round picks that enabled it to become a dynasty in short order. In 2003 and 2005, Pittsburgh had the No. 1 overall choice. In 2004 and 2006, it had the No. 2 pick. In 2002, it had the No. 5 pick. That’s five straight years picking in the top five, so it’s no surprise that the Penguins were able to turn their fortunes around after missing the playoffs in each of the years they made those picks.
During that stretch, the boldest choice was Fleury, not just because he was a goaltender. In 2003, most scouts were touting Eric Staal as the top player on the board. Fleury was definitely the top goaltender – and he was ranked No. 2 among all prospects by The Hockey News -- but the idea of picking a goaltender was still scary since players at that position take longer to develop.
Fleury had also played on a bad QMJHL team in 2002-03. He won only 17 of 47 starts for Cape Breton, but was able to make his mark with Team Canada at the 2003 World Junior Championships, where he went 4-1 on his way to the silver medal. Every scout knew he would be a franchise goalie in the NHL, but was he worth a No. 1 pick?
Pittsburgh has been rewarded for its leap of faith. Fleury took over as the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie in 2005 and held that job for the next 11 years. During his time in Pittsburgh, Fleury’s teams won three Stanley Cup championships and made four trips to the Cup Final. He then went back to the Final with Vegas in 2018.
Through the 2022-23 season, Fleury had 544 NHL career regular-season wins (No. 3 all time) and 92 career playoff wins (tied for No. 3 all time). His individual awards include the 2020-21 Vezina Trophy (won with Vegas), a spot on the 2010s NHL All-Decade First Team, and five selections to the NHL All-Star Game.
Twenty years later, Fleury is still the most recent goaltender to be the NHL 1st overall pick in the draft, so the next time it happens, that netminder will have a big crease to fill.
- Alex Ovechkin – Washington Capitals, 2004
As he prepared to come out of Russia in 2004, there was no question that winger Alex Ovechkin would be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft. In fact, with a labor dispute looming, most hockey fans were disappointed to realize that it might be a long wait to see Ovechkin make his NHL debut.
Those concerns were justified. The entire 2004-05 NHL season was lost to an owners’ lockout that resulted in the implementation of a salary cap and entry-level system that severely limited what Ovechkin could be paid over his first three NHL seasons. After the draft, Ovechkin returned to his Moscow Dynamo team and would have to wait until the fall of 2005 to finally play in the NHL.
The Washington Capitals, who had finished with the NHL’s third-worst record at 23-46-10 in 2003-04, overcame the odds to win the draft lottery, which gave them the right to pick Ovechkin at No. 1 overall. Washington had not won a playoff round in six years since reaching the 1998 Stanley Cup Final, so Ovechkin was a welcome addition.
Every scouting service ranked Ovechkin as the No. 1 prospect for the 2004 NHL draft, and he was touted as the best player ever to come out of Russia – better than Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov, or Ilya Kovalchuk. Scouts praised his work ethic as well as his consistency and character. Nobody doubted that he would be an NHL superstar.
If anything, over the past 19 years Ovechkin has exceeded expectations, which is a rare thing for a No. 1 overall pick to do. He scored 52 goals and 106 points as a 20-year-old rookie in 2005-06, beating out Sidney Crosby for the NHL Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. Although he could not get the Capitals into the playoffs in either of his first two seasons, he made them perennial contenders in every year since.
With Ovechkin in the lineup, Washington first made the playoffs in 2008. The Caps would reach the postseason in 14 of the next 15 years before failing to do so in 2023. During that 15-year stretch, Washington could not get past the second round in every year except 2018 … when the Caps won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. Without Ovechkin, they would probably still be Cup-less.
Ovechkin’s career numbers are eye-popping. He has 1,485 points in 1,347 regular-season games. With 822 goals, he is No. 2 on the career list and has a chance to pass Wayne Gretzky as the league’s all-time leading goal-scorer before turning 40. He has scored at least 50 goals in nine seasons, tying Gretzky and Mike Bossy for the career record. He broke 100 points in four of his first five NHL seasons. The list of achievements goes on and on.
As far as what’s in his trophy case, Ovechkin has won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP three times. He has won the Lindsay Award as the players’ choice for MVP three times. He has won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s goals leader a phenomenal nine times and the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s points leader once. Of course, he was also the MVP of the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup championship with a league-leading 15 goals in 24 games.
With his entire career spent in Washington, Ovechkin has made the NHL postseason All-Star First Team eight times and the All-star Second Team four times. He has also played in 13 All-Star Games and won multiple honors in the NHL SuperSkills events during All-Star Weekend.
4. Guy Lafleur – Montreal Canadiens, 1971
In most cases the team that picks first in the NHL draft is coming off a bad season that “earned” them the right to a No. 1 overall selection. In the case of the 1970-71 Montreal Canadiens, the opposite was true.
The Habs won the 1971 Stanley Cup championship, beating Chicago in a dramatic seven-game final series dominated by Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden. Montreal, which posted the league’s fourth-best record during the 1970-71 regular season, came into the 1971 NHL Amateur Draft having played in six of the previous seven Stanley Cup Final series – winning five times.
So how did this great team end up picking first in the draft with a generational player in right wing Guy Lafleur available? For that, Habs fans could thank legendary general manager Sam Pollock, who made a brilliant trade after a frustrating 1969-70 season that saw the Habs miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
On May 22, 1970, Pollock sent prospect Ernie Hicke and Montreal’s 1970 first-round pick to the cellar-dwelling California Golden Seals for the Seals’ 1971 first-round pick and 22-year-old defenseman Francois Lacombe. Pollock was hoping that California would finish last in 1970-71, enabling him to draft Lafleur, who was already a junior legend in the province of Quebec.
Pollock’s knew what he was doing. California went 20-53-5 to finish dead-last in the NHL. Since there was no draft lottery back then, the Canadiens knew they had Lafleur as soon as the regular season ended.
What Seals executives were thinking when they made this deal remains a mystery, since Hicke was a top NHL prospect but hardly as good as Lafleur or Marcel Dionne, the second-best junior player available in 1971. Incoming Seals owner Charlie Finley was probably not pleased when he took over the team and learned what his predecessors had done while he was in the process of buying the team.
The rest is history, of course. Although it took him a few years to adjust to the NHL game, Lafleur emerged as an NHL superstar over the next 14 seasons with Montreal, putting together a Hall of Fame career before coming out of retirement at age 37 to play three more seasons in the league.
With Montreal, Lafleur won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring leader three times and was a two-time winner of the Hart Trophy as MVP, a feat he achieved in back-to-back years. He also won the Lester B. Pearson Award as the players’ choice for MVP three times, made six consecutive postseason All-Star First Teams from 1975 to 1980, and was chosen to play in six All-Star Games as well as the 1979 Challenge Cup games against the Soviet Union.
Between 1974-75 and 1979-80, Lafleur averaged 127 points per season. Over the course of his career, he averaged well over a point per game in both the regular season and playoffs. That number includes the three post-retirement seasons when he was well past his prime.
For all that greatness, Guy Lafleur’s most important career stat with the Habs was this one: Five Stanley Cup championships with Montreal. When you’re talking about a No. 1 overall pick, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Sadly, Lafleur passed away last year at age 70, but his legacy in Montreal will never be forgotten.
3. Denis Potvin – New York Islanders, 1973
Since the NHL first began drafting amateur players in 1963, there have been 61 No. 1 overall picks. Only 16 of those players have been defensemen, and the only Hall of Famer among the 16 blueliners is 1973 No. 1 overall pick Denis Potvin.
Potvin came out of the Ontario Hockey Association’s Junior A Ottawa 67s to great fanfare as a 19-year-old after scoring 123 points in 61 games during the 1972-73 season. He was the consensus No. 1 prospect and was said to be the next Bobby Orr.
The expansion New York Islanders, who had finished last in the NHL after a dreadful inaugural season that saw them go 12-60-6 had the honor of choosing Potvin in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft. He immediately made all the difference in the world for the team, winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 1973-74. He scored 17 goals and 54 points in that first season. Among NHL defensemen that year, only three others had more goals than Potvin and only four had more points.
During his second NHL season, Potvin helped the Isles make the playoffs for the first time, and the team reached the semifinals with a dramatic run that included rebounding from a 3-0 series deficit vs. Pittsburgh. It was the first of 14 straight playoff appearances by the Islanders, a stretch that included the remainder of Potvin’s career with the team.
Prior to the 1979-80 season, Potvin was named the third captain in Islanders history. Potvin led the team to four straight Stanley Cup championships and a fifth consecutive Cup Final in 1984, where the dynasty years ended at the hands of Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers. Between 1980 and 1984, the Islanders won 19 straight playoff series – an NHL record that might never be broken.
Individually, Potvin racked up numerous NHL awards and honors. After winning the Calder in 1973-74, he won his first of three Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman in 1975-76, followed by back-to-back wins in 1877-78 and 1978-79.
Potvin was named to the postseason NHL All-Star First team five times and the All-Star Second Team twice during his 15 seasons in the league. A nine-time participant in the NHL All-Star Game, Potvin was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991, his first year of eligibility. In 1992, Potvin’s No. 5 jersey became the first number ever retired by the Islanders.
Potvin could also play an extremely physical brand of hockey and was known throughout the league for his devastating hip checks. Fans of the rival New York Rangers hated him because he victimized their team so often, and “Potvin Sucks” chants still ring out in Madison Square Garden a full 35 years after the defenseman’s retirement. It’s an enduring testament to how dominant he was.
2. Sidney Crosby – Pittsburgh Penguins, 2005
Anyone who thinks that all the recent NHL draft buzz surrounding Connor Bedard as the star of the 2023 NHL draft class was at an unprecedented level has obviously forgotten about the enormous hype leading up to the “Sidney Crosby Draft” in 2005.
No draft prospect in NHL history has ever received the pre-draft attention that was showered on Crosby, particularly since a labor dispute killed the entire NHL season in Crosby’s draft year. With no NHL hockey to watch, extra attention was paid to the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanics, where Crosby, a center, had already established himself as a generational player.
A native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Crosby was a superstar even before he entered major-junior hockey at age 16. During his two seasons with Rimouski, he scored 203 points in 121 games. When Alex Ovechkin was drafted first overall in 2004, scouts were already raving about Crosby, suggesting he might be even better.
Ranked No. 1 by all scouting services, Crosby was the focus of the most wide-open draft lottery in NHL history. Because the 2004-05 season was lost to the lockout, four teams that had struggled in previous seasons – Buffalo, Columbus, the New York Rangers, and Pittsburgh -- were given an equal chance at winning the lottery.
The Penguins, who had already made the No. 1 overall pick in 2003 (Marc-Andre Fleury) and the No. 2 pick in 2004 (Evgeni Malkin), won the big prize to draft Crosby, of whom The Hockey News wrote: “He sees the game at another dimension.”
Like Ovechkin, Sid the Kid has lived up to all expectations in the NHL, and almost certainly even exceeded them. Through 1,190 career games, all with Pittsburgh, Crosby has posted 550 goals and 1,502 points. He also has 71 goals and 201 points in his postseason career, tying him with Jaromir Jagr for fifth all-time in playoff scoring. He is third in career playoff assists, trailing only Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Crosby scored 102 points as an NHL rookie, but lost the Calder Trophy to Ovechkin in the first of the only two seasons that he has ever missed the playoffs. Named captain prior to the 2007-08 season, Crosby-led Penguins teams went to the postseason 15 straight seasons before missing out in 2023. Along the way, Crosby won Stanley Cup championships in 2009, 2016, and 2017. He also went to the Cup Final in 2008.
Rookie of the Year is about the only trophy Crosby failed to win. He has won the Hart Trophy as league MVP twice and is a three-time winner of the Ted Lindsay Award as the players’ choice for MVP. He has twice won both the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s points leader and the Rocket Richard Trophy as its goals leader. He also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP in back-to-back years by leading the Pens to consecutive Stanley Cup championships.
Named to the postseason NHL All-Star First Team four times and the Second Team four times, Crosby has participated in nine All-Star Games and won two Olympic gold medals for Canada. This past season he became only the 15th player in NHL history to score 1,500 career points and was still going strong at age 35.
1. Mario Lemieux – Pittsburgh Penguins, 1984
Prior to the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, center Mario Lemieux was a no-brainer No. 1 overall selection. He had dominated the QMJHL for two years with the Laval Voisins, scoring a ridiculous 133 goals and 282 points in 70 games during the 1983-84 season. He also had 29 goals and 52 points in 14 playoff games as Laval won the league title.
All of Lemieux’s regular-season scoring totals were major-junior records that still stand today. At 6-foot-4, he was a man among boys in junior hockey. Nobody had ever seen a player like this before, and it was clear that he would be an NHL star as soon as he reached the league.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, coming off a last-place finish at 16-58-6 and a second straight year missing the playoffs, were in position to select Lemieux even though his agent, Gus Badali, had suggested Pittsburgh might not be able to present him with a suitable contract offer. Lemieux had no objection to playing for the Pens, but he refused to wear a Pittsburgh sweater on draft day as a way of indicating to the team that he was serious about his contract demands.
Once both parties agreed on a contract, Lemieux happily went to Pittsburgh, and nearly 40 years later he is still there – having owned the Penguins for several years after his playing days ended.
What Lemieux has meant to hockey in Pittsburgh can never be overstated. He saved a floundering franchise with his arrival in 1984 and eventually captained the team to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992. He later helped bail the Pens out of financial chaos by taking an ownership position that led to three more Stanley Cup championships. No former NHL player ever did more for one franchise than Lemieux what Lemieux has done for the Penguins.
Lemieux established his NHL credentials right away, scoring on the first shot of his first shift in the league. He went on to win the 1984-85 Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year with 43 goals and 100 points. It was the first of six straight 100-point seasons and one of 10 such seasons in his career. Lemieux scored 85 goals and 199 points in 1988-89 for a team that missed the playoffs.
Only Wayne Gretzky had higher single-season numbers than that, and Lemieux remains one of only three players in league history to win the Hart Trophy as MVP for a team that didn’t reach the postseason. No other player has managed to do it since his remarkable 1988-89 season.
Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame immediately following the first of his two retirements in 1997, Lemieux was a three-time league MVP, a four-time Lester B. Pearson Award winner as the players’ choice for MVP, a six-time Art Ross Trophy winner as the NHL’s leading scorer, and the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP in both years that he captained Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup.
The nine-time postseason All-Star battled chronic injuries as well as cancer during his career, but that didn’t stop him from scoring 1,723 points in only 915 NHL games. He ranks eighth all-time in career points and a close second behind Gretzky in career points per game. He added 172 points in 107 career playoff games.
The list of Lemieux’s accomplishments could fill an encyclopedia, and there is no question that he and Gretzky were the two greatest players the league has ever known.
Had Gretzky been eligible for the draft in 1979 (instead of blocked from it under terms of the NHL-WHA merger), the Great One might have been atop this list of first NHL draft picks. In his absence, there is no question that the honor of being remembered as the best No. 1 overall selection belongs to Mario Lemieux.
Good luck to Connor Bedard as he strives to one day pass Lemieux in this ranking. It will be a monumental task.
Parameters of Ranking
With one exception – Connor McDavid – talent alone wasn’t enough to land any former NHL No. 1 overall draft pick on this top 10 list. The key to making it was a combination of talent, individual achievements, and success enjoyed by the drafting team. In other words, apart from McDavid – who might still win a championship in Edmonton – every player on this list had to have won the Stanley Cup with the team that selected him. In some cases, players on this list turned their teams into dynasties, which is the maximum return on investment any organization can expect when privileged enough to make the No. 1 overall draft pick.
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