Best No. 1 NHL Draft Picks of All Time
Scouting is an exact science. Except in hockey. The NHL, more than any other North American professional sports league, has a history of teams making the right selection with the No. 1 overall pick.
Maybe it's because hockey is a worldwide sport with more eyes evaluating players, or maybe it's just that elite hockey talent is so rare that it's easier to spot. Either way, the right player can turn around the fortunes of a franchise just as much as the wrong one could bring a franchise tumbling down.
These are the best No. 1 overall picks in NHL draft history, dating back to the draft's first year in 1963.
25. Wendel Clark
Born: Oct. 25, 1966 (Kelvington, Saskatchewan, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1985
Position: Left wing/defense
Career: 16 seasons (1985-2000)
Teams: Toronto Maple Leafs (1985-94, 1996-98, 2000), Quebec Nordiques (1994-95), New York Islanders (1995), Tampa Bay Lightning (1998-99), Detroit Red Wings (1999), Chicago Blackhawks (1999-2000)
Career highlights: Two-time NHL All-Star (1986, 1999), NHL All-Rookie Team (1986), Ontario Sports Hall of Fame (2011)
Bottom line: Few players in Toronto Maple Leafs history are as beloved as Wendel Clark. This fact is underscored by his three separate stints with the team, including part of his final season in 2000.
Clark established himself as one of the league's best young players in his first two seasons, but a severe back injury at the start of the 1987-88 season changed the trajectory of his career. Clark played 80 games in the 1986-87 season and played just 81 games over the next three seasons.
Clark's toughness can't be overstated. He made his first All-Star team in 1986 and made his second and last All-Star team in 1999.
24. Rick Nash
Born: June 16, 1985 (Brampton, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2002
Position: Left wing
Career: 15 seasons (2002-04, 2005-18)
Teams: Columbus Blue Jackets (2002-04, 2005-12), New York Rangers (2012-18), Boston Bruins (2018)
Career highlights: Six-time NHL All-Star (2004, 2007-09, 2011, 2015), NHL All-Rookie Team (2003)
Bottom line: Rick Nash might actually still be playing in the NHL if concussions hadn't cut his career short in 2018. He played 15 seasons and made six All-Star teams.
He was a six-time All-Star and led the league in goals in 2004, his second season, and helped lead the New York Rangers to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
Nash cashed in during his time in the NHL. He made $55.1 million in career earnings and was in the middle of an eight-year, $62 million deal when he retired.
23. Aaron Ekblad
Born: Feb. 7, 1996 (Windsor, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2014
Career: 7 seasons (2014-present)
Teams: Florida Panthers (2014-present)
Career highlights: Calder Trophy (2015), two-time NHL All-Star (2015, 2016)
Bottom line: It's rare in the modern era for a defenseman to be picked No. 1 overall, but Aaron Ekblad was up to the task through most of his first six seasons in the NHL.
Ekblad won NHL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and made the All-Star game in each of his first two seasons and established himself as one of the best goal-scoring defenders in the league.
He signed an eight-year, $60 million contract extension in 2016 but has been plagued by injuries the last few years. Multiple concussions and a fractured leg ended his season early in the 2020-21 season.
22. Eric Lindros
Born: Feb. 28, 1973 (London, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1991
Career: 14 seasons (1992-2004, 2005-07)
Teams: Philadelphia Flyers (1992-2000), New York Rangers (2001-04), Toronto Maple Leafs (2005-06), Dallas Stars (2006-07)
Career highlights: Hart Trophy (1995), seven-time NHL All-Star (1994, 1996, 1997-2000, 2002), NHL All-Rookie Team (1993)
Bottom line: Eric Lindros is one of several players that also made our Worst No. 1 Picks list — and he was one of the more hotly debated players put on that list.
That's because you can't look at Lindros' career and not see the bad without acknowledging the good as well. He won NHL Most Valuable Player honors in his third full season and was a seven-time All-Star.
It's fair to call Lindros the most coveted No. 1 overall pick of all time, so the fact he never won a Stanley Cup can't be overlooked. That being said, we may be hearing about another Lindros rising to hockey stardom in a few years.
21. Bobby Smith
Born: Feb. 12, 1958 (North Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1978
Career: 15 seasons (1978-93)
Teams: Minnesota North Stars (1978-83, 1990-93), Montreal Canadiens (1983-90)
Career highlights: Stanley Cup champion (1986), Calder Trophy (1979), four-time NHL All-Star (1981, 1982, 1989, 1991)
Bottom line: Bobby Smith was impossible to ignore as a No. 1 pick after he broke Wayne Gretzky's OHL single-season points record in 1977-78.
Smith spent the first part of his career toiling away on some pretty bad teams with the Minnesota North Stars but still made two All-Star teams before a trade to the Montreal Canadiens in 1983.
Smith won his lone Stanley Cup with the Habs in 1986 and was traded back to Minnesota in 1990, where he played his final three seasons. After his playing career, Smith was the general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes from 1996 to 2000.
20. Taylor Hall
Born: Nov. 14, 1991 (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2010
Position: Left Wing
Career: 11 seasons (2010-present)
Teams: Edmonton Oilers (2010-16), New Jersey Devils (2016-20), Arizona Coyotes (2020), Buffalo Sabres (2020-21), Boston Bruins (2021)
Career highlights: Hart Trophy (2018), five-time NHL All-Star (2011, 2016-19)
Bottom line: Taylor Hall's career seems like it's at a crossroads just three seasons after he was named NHL Most Valuable Player in 2018.
Shoulder and knee injuries have waylaid Hall in the last few years. For 2020-21, he signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres but was such a bust he was traded to the Boston Bruins, meaning he's on his fourth team in the last two years.
Hall's original promise paid off somewhat after the Oilers picked him No. 1overall in 2010, but it's hard to say which way it goes from here.
19. Dale Hawerchuk
Born: April 4, 1963 (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Died: Aug. 18, 2020 (age 57, Barrie, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1981
Career: 16 seasons (1981-97)
Teams: Winnipeg Jets (1981-90), Buffalo Sabres (1990-95), St. Louis Blues (1995-96), Philadelphia Flyers (1996-97)
Career highlights: Calder Trophy (1982), five-time NHL All-Star (1982, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1997)
Bottom line: Dale Hawerchuk was a hockey prodigy growing up in Canada. His father said he had him on ice skates by the time he was 2 years old.
The Winnipeg Jets made Hawerchuk the No. 1 overall pick in 1981, when he was one of four Hall of Famers taken in the first round ahead of Ron Francis, Grant Fuhr and Al MacInnis.
In 16 seasons, Hawerchuk only made it past the second round once, in his final season, when the Philadelphia Flyers were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. Hawerchuk stepped down as coach of the OHL's Barrie Colts in 2019 and died of cancer in August 2020, at 57 years old.
18. Pierre Turgeon
Born: Aug. 28, 1969 (Rouyn, Quebec, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1987
Career: 19 seasons(1987-2004, 2005-07)
Teams: Buffalo Sabres (1987-92), New York Islanders (1992-95), Montreal Canadiens (1995-97), St. Louis Blues (1997-2001), Dallas Stars (2001-04), Colorado Avalanche (2005-07)
Career highlights: Five-time NHL All-Star (1990, 1993, 1994, 1996, 2000), Lady Byng Trophy (1993)
Bottom line: Wherever you put Pierre Turgeon's name, the arc of his career may have been defined before he ever played in the NHL.
In one of the greatest fights in hockey history, the "Punch-Up in Piestany" between Canada and the Soviet Union in the 1987 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, Turgeon was the only Canadian player who refused to leave the bench and fight.
Fair or not, Turgeon carried the "coward" tag after that — even through five All-Star selections and a Lady Byng Trophy in 1993.
17. John Tavares
Born: Sept. 20, 1990 (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2009
Career: 12 seasons (2009-present)
Teams: New York Islanders (2009-18), Toronto Maple Leafs (2018-present)
Career highlights: Six-time NHL All-Star (2012, 2015-19), NHL All-Rookie Team (2010), CHL Player of the Year (2007)
Bottom line: John Tavares was one of the youngest players to ever participate in junior hockey in Canada at just 13 years old. He was also the youngest player in OHL draft history. Hockey Canada gave him an "exceptional player" exemption that allowed him to be selected when he was 14 years old.
NHL teams tried to get special exemptions like the one Tavares received from the OHL to take him No. 1 overall starting in 2007, but he was forced to wait until 2009.
You can make an argument the first decade of Tavares' career was wasted on the New York Islanders. He didn't play in the postseason until his fifth year and missed the playoffs seven times in nine seasons.
In 2018, Tavares turned down a seven-year, $91 million contract offer from the San Jose Sharks that would have made him the highest-paid player in NHL history and signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs for seven years and $77 million.
16. Vincent Lecavalier
Born: April 21, 1980 (L'ille-Blizard, Quebec, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1998
Career: 17 seasons (1998-2004, 2005-16)
Teams: Tampa Bay Lightning (1998-2004, 2005-13), Philadelphia Flyers (2013-15), Los Angeles Kings (2015-16
Career highlights: Stanley Cup champion (2004), King Clancy Trophy (2008), four-time NHL All-Star (2003, 2007-09)
Bottom line: Then-Tampa Bay Lightning owner Art Williams didn't do Vincent Lecavalier any favors. After the team drafted Lecavalier No. 1 overall in 1998, Williams said he would be the "Michael Jordan of hockey."
Lecavalier had an outstanding career but had to work through some bumps in the road early on. He became the youngest captain in NHL history in 1999, then had the captaincy stripped two years later by head coach John Tortorella.
Lecavalier proved to be incredibly resilient. He won back the captain position and led the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup championship in 2004.
15. Nathan MacKinnon
Born: Sept. 1, 1995 (Springhill, Nova Scotia, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2013
Career: 8 seasons (2013-present)
Teams: Colorado Avalanche
Career highlights: Calder Trophy (2014), four-time NHL All-Star (2017-20), Lady Byng Trophy (2020)
Bottom line: Nathan MacKinnon put the NHL on notice when he scored five goals for the Halifax Mooseheads in a 6-5 win over the Quebec Remparts in a QMJHL game. MacKinnon was the only 16-year-old playing against 18- and 19-year-olds, and Quebec was coached by his future NHL head coach Patrick Roy.
The Avalanche made MacKinnon the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, and he was named 2014 NHL Rookie of the Year.
MacKinnon seems to be in the prime of his career right now. He's scored over 90 points in each of the last three seasons, which included just 69 games in 2019-20.
14. Mats Sundin
Born: Feb. 13, 1971 (Bromma, Sweden)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1989
Career: 18 seasons (1990-2004, 2005-09)
Teams: Quebec Nordiques (1990-95), Toronto Maple Leafs (1995-2004, 2005-08), Vancouver Canucks (2008-09)
Career highlights: Nine-time NHL All-Star (1996-2004), Hockey Hall of Fame (2012), NHL 100 Greatest Players (2017)
Bottom line: Mats Sundin became a trailblazer when the Swedish center became the first European player selected No. 1 overall in 1989.
Sundin played one more season of pro hockey in Sweden before joining the moribund Quebec Nordiques in 1990 and quickly established himself as one of the league's best players with 114 points in his second season.
Sundin's career was doomed to play on teams that never lifted the Stanley Cup. In 18 seasons, he never even got to play in the finals.
13. Marc-Andre Fleury
Born: Nov. 28, 1984 (Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2003
Career: 16 seasons (2003-04, 2005-present)
Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins (2003-04, 2005-17), Vegas Golden Knights (2017-present)
Career highlights: Three-time Stanley Cup champion (2009, 2016, 2017), five-time NHL All-Star (2011, 2015, 2018-20)
Bottom line: No goaltender has been chosen No. 1 overall since the Pittsburgh Penguins picked Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003.
Fleury was one of the cornerstones for the franchise for the next decade-plus, winning three Stanley Cup championships and making five All-Star teams.
Fleury was taken by the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the 2017 expansion draft and led the team to the Stanley Cup Final in the franchise's first seasons. The Knights awarded Fleury with a three-year, $21 million contract after the season.
12. Denis Potvin
Born: Oct. 29, 1953 (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1973
Career: 15 seasons (1973-88)
Teams: New York Islanders
Career highlights: Four-time Stanley Cup champion (1980-83), three-time Norris Trophy winner (1976, 1978, 1979)
Bottom line: Denis Potvin was a junior hockey league star for the Ottawa 67s before he was picked by the expansion New York Islanders with the No. 1 overall pick in 1973.
Potvin became one of the cornerstones for the Islanders as they won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983. The year before they drafted Potvin, they had the worst record in NHL history.
Potvin also won three Norris Trophies as the best defensemen in the NHL — all before the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup.
11. Connor McDavid
Born: Jan. 13, 1997 (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2015
Career: 6 seasons (2015-present)
Teams: Edmonton Oilers
Career highlights: Hart Trophy (2017), four-time NHL All-Star (2017-20), Ross Trophy (2018)
Bottom line: Connor McDavid is a once-in-a-generation player and one of the fastest skaters of all time — so talented he was given a rare "special exemption" by Hockey Canada to play in the OHL beginning when he was just 15 years old.
Through just five seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, McDavid has made four All-Star teams, won the NHL Fastest Skater Competition three times in a row, and won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 2017. He's also led the league in scoring twice.
He signed an eight-year, $100 million contract with the Oilers in 2017.
10. Gilbert Perreault
Born: Nov. 13, 1950 (Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1970
Career: 17 seasons (1970-87)
Teams: Buffalo Sabres
Career highlights: Calder Trophy (1971), Lady Byng Trophy (1973), eight-time NHL All-Star (1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1984)
Bottom line: Gilbert Perreault left home at age 16 to play junior hockey and wound up the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 NHL draft at 23 years old — also the first pick in Buffalo Sabres franchise history.
Perreault played his entire career with the Sabres and was the center of the famed "French Connection" line alongside Rene Robert and Richard Martin.
The trio helped lead the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Final in 1975, and Perreault still holds franchise records for games (1,191), goals (512), assists (814) and points (1,326).
9. Steven Stamkos
Born: Feb. 7, 1990 (Markham, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2008
Career: 13 seasons (2008-present)
Teams: Tampa Bay Lightning
Career highlights: Stanley Cup champion (2020), six-time NHL All-Star (2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019), NHL YoungStars Game (2009)
Bottom line: The Tampa Bay Lightning hit the ball out of the park by picking Toronto native Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall in 2008.
Stamkos became a star for the Lightning almost immediately, no matter how much former head coach Barry Melrose tried to hold him back early on.
Stamkos has led the NHL in goals twice, is a six-time All-Star and put the final feather in his cap when he helped lead Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup championship in 2020.
8. Joe Thornton
Born: July 2, 1979 (St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1997
Career: 24 seasons (1997-2004, 2005-present)
Teams: Boston Bruins (1997-2004, 2005), San Jose Sharks (2005-2020), Toronto Maple Leafs (2020-present)
Career highlights: Six-time NHL All-Star (2002-04, 2007-09), Hart Trophy (2006), Art Ross Trophy (2006)
Bottom line: Joe Thornton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NHL draft, was beloved in Boston, and his trade is generally looked at as one of the low moments in the history of the franchise.
Thornton is the only player to switch teams midseason and win the NHL Most Valuable Player award, which he did in 2005-06 when he was traded from the Bruins to the San Jose Sharks.
Few players in NHL history have had the passing ability of Thornton, who has played in four decades after making his NHL debut at the age of 18.
7. Auston Matthews
Born: Sept. 17, 1997 (San Ramon, California)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2016
Career: 5 seasons (2016-present)
Teams: Toronto Maple Leafs
Career highlights: Four-time NHL All-Star (2017-present), Calder Memorial Trophy (2017), NHL All-Rookie Team (2017)
Bottom line: In 2016, the Toronto Maple Leafs made Auston Matthews the first American-born No.1 overall pick since Patrick Kane in 2007.
It's scary how good Matthews already is, at just 23 years old, and scary to think of how good he will continue to get as he comes into his prime.
Matthews spent his childhood in Arizona as a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes and played professionally in Switzerland before making the leap to the NHL in 2016. He was an All-Star in all four of his NHL seasons through 2020.
6. Mike Modano
Born: June 7, 1970 (Livonia, Michigan)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1988
Career: 23 seasons (1988-2011)
Teams: Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars (1988-2010), Detroit Red Wings (2010-11)
Career highlights: Stanley Cup champion (1999), eight-time NHL All-Star (1993, 1998-2000, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2009), Hockey Hall of Fame (2014)
Bottom line: Mike Modano was just the second American to be taken No. 1 overall when the Minnesota North Stars picked him four days after his 18th birthday.
Modano didn't join the North Stars for another year because of a pay dispute. He played there for 22 seasons, including the move to Dallas. Modano's skating form was pretty much perfect, and he had a big slapshot to go with it. The nine-time All-Star won his lone Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999.
No American-born player in NHL history had more of a role in expanding the game's popularity in the U.S. than Modano.
5. Mario Lemieux
Born: Oct. 5, 1965 (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1984
Career: 19 seasons (1984-97, 2000-06)
Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins
Career highlights: Two-time Stanley Cup champion (1991, 1992), three-time Hart Trophy winner (1988, 1993, 1996), two-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner (1991, 1992), 12-time NHL All-Star (1985, 1986, 1988-90, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2001-03), three-time NHL All-Star Game MVP (1985, 1988, 1990), Calder Trophy (1985)
Bottom Line: Mario Lemieux
It was terrifying to face Mario Lemieux in his prime. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, he was the perfect combination of speed and size.
Lemieux became one of the greatest players of all time after the Penguins drafted him in 1984, winning two Stanley Cup titles and two NHL Most Valuable Player trophies despite battling chronic injuries his entire career.
Lemieux has owned the Penguins since 1999, when he bought the franchise and its AHL affiliate, the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins, for $107 million. In 2020, the franchise's value was estimated at $650 million.
4. Alexander Ovechkin
Born: Sept. 17, 1985 (Moscow, Russia)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2004
Position: Left wing
Career: 16 seasons (2005-present)
Teams: Washington Capitals
Career highlights: Stanley Cup champion (2018), 11-time NHL All-Star (2007-09, 2011, 2012, 2015-20), three-time Hart Trophy (2008, 2009, 2013), Conn Smythe Trophy (2018), Calder Trophy (2006),
Bottom Line: Alexander Ovechkin
Few players in NHL history have been as revered by their contemporaries as Alexander Ovechkin, a three-time NHL Most Valuable Player.
Ovechkin was projected as the No. 1 overall pick by the time he was 15 years old. His birthday was just two days past the date that would have made him eligible for the 2003 draft, and the Florida Panthers attempted to take him in the ninth round, contending leap years had actually made him eligible.
Ovechkin also had one of the all-time NHL beefs with Evgeni Malkin, who was picked No. 2 overall in 2004.
3. Patrick Kane
Born: Nov. 19, 1988 (Buffalo, New York)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2007
Position: Right wing
Career: 14 seasons (2007-present)
Teams: Chicago Blackhawks
Career highlights: Three-time Stanley Cup champion (2010, 2013, 2015), Hart Trophy (2016), nine-time NHL All-Star (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015-present), Calder Memorial Trophy (2008), NHL All-Rookie Team (2008), Conn Smythe Trophy (2013)
Bottom Line: Patrick Kane
Patrick Kane is arguably the greatest American-born NHL player of all time and the first American-born player to win NHL Most Valuable Player honors, which he did in 2016.
The 2007 No. 1 overall pick is also a three-time Stanley Cup champion and nine-time NHL All-Star. Kane has played his entire career with the Chicago Blackhawks and seems like a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
When his current contract runs out in 2023, he will have surpassed $130 million in career earnings.
2. Sidney Crosby
Born: Aug. 7, 1987 (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 2005
Career: 16 seasons (2005-present)
Teams: Pittsburgh Penguins
Career highlights: Three-time Stanley Cup champion (2009, 2016, 2017)
Bottom Line: Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby's hockey talent was evident at a young age. He did his first interview when he was just 7 years old. By the time Crosby was 16 years old, it was obvious he was going to be the No. 1 overall pick whenever he was eligible to enter the draft in 2005.
Because there was no season in 2004-05 because of the lockout, teams were entered into a lottery based on playoff appearances and past draft lottery results — a lso known as "The Sidney Crosby Lottery."
Crosby became the youngest player to lead a North American sports league in scoring and was the youngest captain in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup.
1. Guy Lafleur
Born: Sept. 20, 1951 (Thurso, Quebec, Canada)
Drafted No. 1 overall: 1971
Position: Right Wing
Career: 17 seasons (1971-85, 1988-91)
Teams: Montreal Canadiens (1971-85), New York Rangers (1988-89), Quebec Nordiques (1989-91)
Career highlights: Five-time Stanley Cup champion (1973, 1976-79), three-time Art Ross Trophy winner (1976-78), two-time Hart Trophy winner (1977, 1978), Conn Smythe Trophy (1977)
Bottom Line: Guy Lafleur
There have been some great "Who goes No. 1?" debates in sports history, and in the NHL perhaps the toughest was in 1971.
Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock had his choice between what he thought were two generational talents — Guy Lafleur or Marcell Dionne — after maneuvering for months to get the No.1 pick.
Pollock chose Lafleur, who won five Stanley Cup titles in the 1970s with Montreal and was a two-timen NHL Most Valuable Player. He's still the franchise leader with 1,246 points.
Related: Worst No. 1 NHL Draft Picks of All Time