Fixing every NHL team's biggest draft error: Kucherov to Flames ...

14 Jun 2024

With the 2024 NHL Draft closing fast — less than two weeks away now — I’ve been studying previous draft results. Second-guessing is always fun and it’s particularly easy because NHL teams are drafting teenagers, and so they’re trying to project what happens when boys become men.

NHL - Figure 1
Photo The Athletic

Sometimes, it’s not a linear thing.

Mostly, I was thinking: Is drafting better, worse or the same? When I started covering the NHL full-time, it was a 20-year-old draft. It changed in 1979, adding underage players for the first time, effectively creating a double cohort. It also included all the juniors who’d bolted to the WHA and were suddenly available — Rob Ramage, Mike Gartner, Rick Vaive and others. Ray Bourque went No. 8 and Mark Messier was 48th, two of the seven future Hall of Famers in that class (also Gartner, Michel Goulet, Kevin Lowe, Guy Carbonneau and Glenn Anderson).

Arguably, that draft had more sure things than any draft, before or since, but even in a draft as deep as that one, there were still some missteps along the way. What if Chicago had taken Bourque rather than Keith Brown at No. 7? Or if Winnipeg had taken Goulet instead of Jimmy Mann at 19? If the New York Rangers had taken Brian Propp at 13 instead of Doug Sulliman?

These are all examples of players who immediately went next in the draft and were there for the plucking. Anyway, it got me thinking, what if you could go back in time and allow each team one chance to switch its pick — from the player it chose to the next player off the board? How might that have changed the arc of the franchise?

Full disclosure: What got me down this rabbit role was reviewing some past Calgary Flames drafts, specifically 2011. On the surface, it looked good. Calgary had only five choices that year and all five eventually played some NHL games. That’s rare. One pick was absolutely prescient — Johnny Gaudreau at 104, a complete home run. But it could have been even better if, at 57, instead of taking a defensive prospect, Tyler Wotherspoon, they’d selected the player who was picked immediately just after him.

That was Nikita Kucherov — to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Wotherspoon ended up playing 30 NHL games. Kucherov is a Stanley Cup champion and MVP, and remains one of the most dynamic players in the game today.

If only, right? That’s a dangerous game, but fun and sometimes enlightening, too. So let’s do it for every team, and spoiler alert, my favorite turned out to be Vancouver for reasons you’ll discover below.

One final caveat: By no means is this intended as an exercise with only a single correct answer. I chopped 1,000 words just to get it this length. On the contrary — it’s something that can be debated endlessly, and at length.

Remember, my only rule is you can’t pick a player that was available at some later point in the draft. It’s the player who turned out to be the next man up. Let’s begin.

Anaheim Ducks

At No. 42 in 2007, P.K. Subban instead of Eric Tangradi. That year, the Ducks won the Stanley Cup with a team anchored by Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, two future Hall of Famers, and with a couple of young pups, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, just getting started in their respective careers. With Subban, who eventually won a Norris Trophy and played 834 NHL games, on board, maybe there would have been another championship in their future.

Boston Bruins

At No. 15 in 2025, Mathew Barzal instead of Zach Senyshyn. As good a team as Boston has been of late, the 2015 draft represented a series of missed opportunities. With three consecutive picks between 13 and 15, they drafted — in order — Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Senyshyn. The next players off the board were Barzal, Kyle Connor and Thomas Chabot. Yikes, what a difference that trio could have made. Still, to remain true to the purpose of this exercise, only Barzal applies. He might have been the center they’re searching for now, someone who probably would have played the wing early on and shifted to the middle after Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci stepped aside. Honorable mention: In 2007, at No. 8, they could have had Logan Couture instead of Zach Hamill. Couture has 933 NHL games on his resume and Hamill has 20. In 2000, Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams, was available at 27, but they took Martin Samuelsson. And maybe the pick they’d most like to do over: Back in 1987, they could have had Joe Sakic at 14, but instead chose Stephane Quintal.

NHL - Figure 2
Photo The Athletic
Buffalo Sabres

At No. 8 in 2016, they could have selected Mikhail Sergachev instead of Alexander Nylander. Or at No. 26 in 2008, John Carlson was available, but they took Tyler Ennis. Carlson was the No. 1 defenseman on a lot of capable Washington teams, and Ennis, a serviceable NHLer. Sergachev, meanwhile, has been a solid No. 2 on the Tampa Bay-era championship teams, whereas the younger Nylander has moved around constantly and only toward the end of this year showed hints he might be an NHLer after all.

Calgary Flames

Kucherov instead of Wotherspoon. See above in the intro. Not much else to add.

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes started out as the Hartford Whalers in 1979, so let’s break it down into two components, the current era and the previous one. In Carolina, in 2016, at No. 13, they could have had Charlie McAvoy instead of Jake Bean. In 2014 at No. 7, they could have had William Nylander instead of Haydn Fleury. In 2008 at No. 14, they could have had Erik Karlsson instead of Zach Boychuk.

Turning back to the Hartford days, in 1989 at No. 52, the club had a shot at Nicklas Lidstrom but took Blair Atcheynum instead. And in the same draft, at No. 73, they could have had Sergei Fedorov but opted for Jim McKenzie instead — who, to be fair, played 880 NHL games, but not at Fedorov’s level.

The Blackhawks could have drafted Andrei Vasilevskiy. (Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

Chicago Blackhawks

In 2012 at No. 18, Andrei Vasilevskiy instead of Teuvo Teravainen. Teravainen has been a solid NHLer ever since the Blackhawks traded him to Carolina, but there’s a difference between solid NHLers and arguably the greatest goaltender of his generation, which is what Vasilevskiy became in Tampa Bay. Honorable mention: In 2020 at 17, they could have had Dawson Mercer instead of Lukas Reichel. It’s still early in the career arcs of both players, but Mercer has settled in almost as an emerging core piece in New Jersey while Reichel is still lingering on the periphery of the Blackhawks’ forward group.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche franchise operated in Quebec from 1979 until moving to Colorado in 1995 and promptly winning the Stanley Cup. Organizationally, the Nordiques had as many misses as hits at the draft. In 1988, with two picks in the top five, they took Curtis Leschyshyn and Daniel Dore. But the players chosen just behind them, at No. 4 and 6, were Darrin Shannon and Scott Pearson. So not much difference. Unhappily, this exercise doesn’t allow us to examine the players chosen with Nos. 7-10, which produced Martin Gelinas, Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour and Teemu Selanne. Instead, let’s turn to 2003, where at No. 204, Joe Pavelski was available but they took Linus Videll. To be fair, every team in the league had multiple chances to draft Pavelski before San Jose did in the seventh round. That he played 1,332 NHL games and may be destined for the Hall of Fame makes him one of the greatest long-shot draft choices of all time.


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Columbus Blue Jackets

In 2008, Roman Josi at No. 37 instead of Cody Goloubef. There were lots of options for Columbus, but a future Norris Trophy candidate to anchor that defense might have changed a lot.

Dallas Stars

At No. 25 in 2016, Tage Thompson instead of Riley Tufte. At No. 14 in 2014, Dylan Larkin instead of Julius Honka. Probably no team has drafted as well as Dallas since 2017, but can you imagine if it had nailed these two picks just a couple of years before? Thompson and Larkin on a team that went to the Stanley Cup semi-finals this year? The only issue would have been how to shoehorn all that talent under the salary cap.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have been in a rebuild for years now but think about how much further along they’d be if, at No. 6 in 2018, they’d taken Quinn Hughes instead of Filip Zadina. Or at No. 39 in 2017, Jason Robertson instead of Gustav Lindstrom. Or going back to a previous managerial regime, in 2009 at No. 32, Ryan O’Reilly instead of Landon Ferraro. Or in 2008, when two goalies went back-to-back at Nos. 30 and 31, the Red Wings opted for Tom McCollum, from nearby Guelph, leaving Jacob Markstrom to go next to Florida.

NHL - Figure 3
Photo The Athletic
Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton was one of the best drafting teams in NHL history between 1979 and 1981 and then became one of the worst drafting teams in the half-dozen years that followed. But given how it turned out, what if, in 2009 they’d taken Mattias Ekholm at No. 101 instead of Toni Rajala? It would have solved the problem of having to trade for him at the deadline a couple of years back. Two others to note: At No. 25 in 2004, Cory Schneider could have been had instead of Robbie Schremp, and most recently in 2021, Xavier Bourgault was the player chosen just ahead of Wyatt Johnston.

Florida Panthers

Since we love chaos here, let’s turn the calendar back to 1998, where at No. 63, the Panthers could have chosen Brad Richards instead of Lance Ward. Ward had a credible NHL career, playing just over 200 games, but Richards was MVP of their cross-state rival Tampa Bay’s 2004 championship team. Richards playing against the Lightning (and Vincent Lecavalier) instead of for them would have made for some good theater. Honorable mentions: At No. 38 in 2016, Alex DeBrincat was available, but they took Adam Mascherin. Or in 2005, they could have had Tuukka Rask at No. 20 and instead took Kenndal McArdle.

Los Angeles Kings

Speaking of cross-state rivals, what if in 2003, at No. 27, the Kings had drafted Corey Perry instead of Jeff Tambellini? The Kings had three No. 1 choices in that seminal draft and took Dustin Brown at No. 13 and Brian Boyle at No. 26. Not terrible. With the second of two consecutive picks, they opted for Tambellini, the son of former NHLer Steve. Jeff played 242 NHL games. Perry? He won a Hart Trophy and, this year, made the Stanley Cup Final with his fifth different team, something that had never been done before. Also, the idea of Perry wreaking havoc for the Kings against the cross-town rival Ducks is just too delicious a scenario to imagine. By the way, in that same draft, at No. 44, the Kings selected Konstantin Pushkarev. The next player off the board at No. 45 was future Hall of Famer Bergeron to Boston. Ouch.

Recency bias pick: At No. 5 in 2019, they could have had Moritz Seider instead of Alex Turcotte. Seider won the Calder as the top rookie. Turcotte has yet to solidify himself as an NHL regular.

Minnesota Wild

At No. 4 in 2005, Carey Price instead of Benoit Pouliot. Think about the Wild’s goaltending throughout the years and then think about what Price, in his prime, might have done to stabilize the position.

Montreal Canadiens

You could probably devote a whole column to second-guessing Montreal picks, going back to 1980 when they took Doug Wickenheiser at No. 1 when everyone in the province was clamoring for Denis Savard (who went third to Chicago; No. 2 was Dave Babych to Winnipeg). The next year, in 1981, the Canadiens took Mark Hunter at No. 7; the next player off the board was Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr. Fast forward to 2017, and a similar scenario unfolded at No. 25. Montreal chose Ryan Poehling. The next player off the board was Jake Oettinger to Dallas. Then in 2018, the move that probably stings the most in the here and now, the Canadiens took Jesperi Kotkaniemi at No. 3, leaving Brady Tkachuk for division rival Ottawa.

Nashville Predators

In 2007 at No. 23, Mikael Backlund instead of Jonathon Blum. Blum was one of the first players drafted from California as part of the Gretzky Effect. He was born in Long Beach and played four years of junior in Vancouver but spent most of the final decade of his career playing overseas in Russia, Sweden and Germany. Backlund, meanwhile, has 990 games of NHL service to his credit, all with Calgary, where he’s been on the edges of the Selke Trophy conversation for years, is the team’s captain and is considered one of the better leaders in the NHL today.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils have drafted reasonably well for a lot of years, but at No. 53 in 2002, they could have had Duncan Keith and instead chose Barry Tallackson. Tallackson played 20 NHL games. Keith finished with 1,256, was part of three Blackhawks championship teams and is eventually destined for the Hall of Fame.

NHL - Figure 4
Photo The Athletic
New York Islanders

Controversial choice here, but at No. 1 in 2009, Victor Hedman instead of John Tavares. Tavares was an excellent player for years in New York and has been a reliable scorer now in Toronto. But Hedman, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, could have been a latter-day Denis Potvin. Defensemen with size and skill are so hard to find, develop and then retain. Tampa Bay has done that with Hedman. But the Islanders had the first crack at him and passed. Honorable mentions: In 2006, Brad Marchand could have been had at No. 70 instead of Robin Figren, or in 2003 at No. 48, Shea Weber was available but they took Dmitri Chernykh instead.

New York Rangers

Adam Fox is a stalwart on the Rangers blue line, but what if, at No. 9 in 2018, they’d taken Evan Bouchard instead of Vitali Kravtsov? Other options: At No. 21 in 2006, they could have had Claude Giroux instead of Bobby Sanguinetti. Or in 2003 at No. 12, Dustin Brown instead of Hugh Jessiman.

Ottawa Senators

At No. 1 in 1993, Chris Pronger instead of Alex Daigle. Daigle once said no one remembers who goes No. 2. That year, they did.

The Flyers could have drafted Miro Heiskanen. (Chris Jones / USA Today)

Philadelphia Flyers

At No. 2 in 2017, Miro Heiskanen instead of Nolan Patrick. Injuries undermined Patrick’s career, while Heiskanen is one of the top 10 defensemen in the NHL and always on the fringes of the Norris debate. True No. 1s are hard to come by, and two were available at this pick (Cale Makar the other). The Flyers managed to secure neither.

Pittsburgh Penguins

At No. 7 in 1973, Bob Gainey instead of Blaine Stoughton. This goes back a long way, so some may not remember Stoughton’s solid NHL career that included two 50-goal seasons with Hartford. But Gainey became the prototypical defensive forward of his era and won multiple Selke Trophies. In a Penguins organization that sometimes lacked direction early on, Gainey’s leadership might have calmed some of the turbulent waters that characterized the franchise before Mario Lemieux arrived to save the day.

St. Louis Blues

At No. 4 in 1971, Rick Martin instead of Gene Carr. You can read a detailed account of the life and times of Gene Carr below.


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Arguably, Carr’s greatest notoriety came from being a friend of Glenn Frey’s and the subject of The Eagles’ song “New Kid in Town.” Carr had a respectable career undermined greatly by injuries, but Martin starred as a member of the Sabres’ French Connection and had 701 points in only 685 games before injuries derailed his career.

San Jose Sharks

In 1996, Zdeno Chara at No. 55 instead of Terry Friesen. Brief historical note: The four players drafted just before Chara and the two players drafted just after didn’t play a single NHL game. Chara managed 1,680 — the seventh-highest all-time and more than any defenseman in NHL history. He became a legendary leader in his time with Boston, helping to set the culture there. San Jose came close a lot of years with a lot of good teams. Could Chara as an anchor have pushed them over the finish line? We’ll never know.

Seattle Kraken

Not enough of a track record to really begin second-guessing, so let’s go with No. 4 in 2022, Cutter Gauthier instead of Shane Wright. Gauthier was a highly prized acquisition by Anaheim this year, and Wright is slowly gaining ground in the Seattle system where Coachella Valley looks poised to win a championship again. The jury’s still out.

Tampa Bay Lightning

At No. 94 in 2001, Patrick Sharp instead of Evgeny Artyukhin. Sharp was drafted by Philadelphia, traded to Chicago in one of the most lopsided trades of the decade (Philly got Matt Ellison), proceeded to play 939 NHL games and was a top-six presence on all the Blackhawks championship teams.

Toronto Maple Leafs

At No. 34 in 2015, Sebastian Aho instead of Travis Dermott. Like Montreal, Toronto has a rich history of draft hits and misses, but Aho is the sort of reliable 200-foot player who might have contributed to a Core Five and maybe even the odd playoff victory over time.

Utah Hockey Club

In 2015, at No. 3, Mitch Marner instead of Dylan Strome. Marner is rumored to be on the trade block this year and one destination that makes sense is Utah, where a new owner is trying to get the team more competitive more quickly. One way to do that would be to trade for Marner and then sign him to a contract extension. But what if Arizona had simply drafted Marner instead? Strome is a quality NHLer, but over the past six seasons, Marner has the eighth-most regular-season points in the league.

Vancouver Canucks

This is a cheat, a two-way tie for first place. At No. 5 in 2016, they could have had Matthew Tkachuk instead of Olli Juolevi. In 1990, at No. 18, they could have had Keith Tkachuk instead of Shawn Antoski. Matthew is in his second straight Cup Final and Keith is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. Remarkably, the Canucks had a chance to draft both the father and the son and went in different directions.

Vegas Golden Knights

The problem with the Golden Knights is twofold: One, they’ve only been in the league since 2017, and two, after their first draft in which they had three first-round selections, they’ve mostly traded away their premium picks in exchange for ready-made NHLers, some of them stars. And while there were better players at No. 6 in 2017 than Cody Glass, Glass has performed better than the player taken right behind him, Lias Andersson to the Rangers. Nick Suzuki, at No. 13, was excellent and better than Cal Foote at 14. And at 15, Erik Brannstrom vs. Juuso Valimaki, the next player chosen, is really a wash. But since we’re picking one from every team, let’s get nitpicky and say at No. 62, in 2017, they could have taken Fabian Zetterlund (163 NHL games) ahead of Jake Leschyshyn (77 NHL games).

Washington Capitals

In 2004 at No. 62, David Krejci could have been taken instead of Mikhail Yunkov. Krejci played 1,032 games for the Bruins, mostly as the 1B behind Bergeron, and led the 2011 and 2013 playoffs in points. If Krejci had been aboard to supplement the Alex Ovechkin–Nicklas Backstrom era, maybe all those good Capitals teams that won regular-season titles — without getting to the Stanley Cup (until 2018) — might have won a few more, and earlier. Krejci was always dynamic in the postseason (128 career playoff points in 160 games).

Winnipeg Jets

In 1999, when the Jets were still the Atlanta Thrashers and had the first pick, they could have had Daniel Sedin but instead selected Patrik Stefan. Vancouver eventually scooped up both Sedins, but the reality is, the twins thought they were headed to different NHL teams and if Atlanta had grabbed Daniel, maybe at some point along the way, it could have traded for Henrik as well. Concussions and a hip injury limited Stefan’s development, and he was out of the NHL by 2007, never scoring more than 14 goals in a single season. The Sedins ended up in the Hall of Fame.

(Top photo of Nikita Kucherov: Sergei Belski / USA Today)

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