Every year, the NHL entry draft seems like a bit like throwing darts blind and hoping you hit a bullseye. Much like in baseball, hockey prospects are not expected to make their professional debut until anywhere between one and five years after they are drafted, depending on many different variables of development. Most players drafted are 18-year olds playing in large junior hockey programs in North America or across Europe, and these players often need years to improve their game before touching the ice in the NHL.
Because of the time gap between draft day and their NHL debut, finding quality NHL players later in the draft relies on finding players that are willing to commit the effort to become better and are in a league where they can continue to grow their skills. Outside of the first round, the likelihood of a prospect becoming an NHL player drops significantly. These players have beat the odds to become some of the best at their sport in the entire world. There are many guys I had to leave off the list, factoring in the year and round they were drafted, as well as their accomplishment thus far in their careers. With that in mind, here are my top 10 NHL draft steals from the drafts ranging from 2003 to 2013.
Honorable Mentions: Shea Weber (2003, second round); Alexander Edler (2004, third round); Keith Yandle (2005, fourth round)
Too Soon to Call: Tommy Wingels (2008, sixth round); Nikita Kucherov (2011, second round); Gustav Possler (2013, fifth round)
10. Marek Mazanec (2012, sixth round, 179th overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 13 games played, 5-6-1 record, 2.31 goals-against average, .922 save percentage
The Nashville Predators are the best team in the league at finding quality goaltenders in the last few rounds of drafts, and although it’s a bit early Mazanec appears to be the next man to join that club. Drafted in 2012 just before his 21st birthday, Mazanec was years older than most of his draft’s counterparts, so that could have played a factor in determining his ceiling as a sixth-round prospect. However, it’s rare to see goaltenders break into the NHL at 22, and that is exactly what this native of the Czech Republic has done.
Aided by a nasty infection in the hip of starting goaltender Pekka Rinne, Mazanec has found his way to the NHL level and has been very successful as the Predators’ current starter. Among his 12 starts thus far, Mazanec has an impressive 27-save shutout against the Detroit Red Wings as well as wins over quality teams like Chicago, Toronto, and Phoenix. At the very least, Mazanec has earned the backup role for Nashville when Rinne returns, and with Rinne at 31 years old, Mazanec could well become the goaltender of the future for the Predators.
9. Andrew Shaw (2011, fifth round, 139th overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 114 games played, 55 points (29 goals + 26 assists), 111 penalty minutes
Shaw shares a very important characteristic with Mazanec, and that would be that he was drafted at a much older age than most high-profile draft prospects, as the 5’11”, 180-pound forward turned 21 a month after being drafted in 2011 by the Chicago Blackhawks. He was an instant difference maker for Chicago’s AHL affiliate in Rockford, posting 12 goals and 11 assists in 38 games. He was then called up to the Blackhawks for the remainder of the 2011-12 season and posted those same scoring totals in his first 37 NHL games.
To date, Shaw’s biggest claim to fame would be his nine points in 23 playoff games that led to the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. In that Stanley Cup final, Shaw took a puck to the face in the first period of Game Six, got stitched up, and went back out in the second period to finish the game. Those stitches also were sold on eBay for $6,500, with all proceeds going to the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research. It’s safe to say Shaw has had an eventful two-year NHL career to date, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.
8. Patrice Bergeron (2003, second round, 45th overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 607 games played, 446 points (161 goals + 285 assists), 190 penalty minutes
To call a second-round draft pick in arguably the best draft in NHL history is a reach, but looking back at that legendary draft class, Bergeron is no doubt one of the top 10, maybe even top five players from that 2003 draft. The Boston Bruin has become a perennial contender for the Selke Trophy, given annually to the league’s best defensive forward, having posted ratings of plus-20, plus-36, and plus-24 over the last three seasons. Bergeron is also a major leader on one of the NHL’s most successful franchises over the last five years.
Bergeron went straight to the NHL after being drafted following a stellar year with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan, and he scored 16 goals and 23 assists in 71 games in 2003-04. Bergeron’s promising career nearly took a turn for the much worse after a severe concussion limited him to 10 games in 2007-08, but since then he has evolved into one of the NHL’s best centers. Bergeron has missed just 36 games to injury since that concussion, and his scoring totals have risen steadily. Now 28 years old, Bergeron has many strong years ahead of him, and could well become the captain of the Bruins when Zdeno Chara eventually departs the team.
7. Gustav Nyquist (2008, fourth round, 121st overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 48 games played, 20 points (8 goals + 12 assists), 10 penalty minutes
Nyquist is another player for whom it may be too early to judge his career path, but early indications are that he could be the next in a long line of Detroit Red Wings star players to be found late in the draft. Much like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen before him, Nyquist is slowly developing into a go-to player for the Red Wings.
Nyquist has taken more of the traditional path to the NHL, drafted at 18 before heading to play college hockey at the University of Maine. In three years with the Black Bears, the 5’11”, 170-pound Nyquist scored 114 points (50 goals and 94 assists) in 113 games. Nyquist is now in his third year in the Red Wings organization, and after being a point-per-game producer with their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Nyquist is becoming a leading scorer for a Detroit team ravaged by injuries. With four goals and three assists in eight games thus far in 2013-14, it’s possible that Nyquist has finally arrived on the NHL level.
6. Ryan Callahan (2004, fourth round, 127th overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 426 games played, 240 points (128 goals + 112 assists), 258 penalty minutes
A native of Rochester, New York, Ryan Callahan took traditional route to the NHL level much like Nyquist currently is. Callahan spent four years in the OHL with the Guelph Storm before formally joining the Rangers’ organization after the full-season lockout in 2006. From there, Callahan’s workman-like attitude has earned him the respect of his peers, and that work ethic has made him the captain of one of the NHL’s most revered franchises in the United States, the New York Rangers.
At 5’11” and 190 pounds, Callahan isn’t the biggest skater, nor is he the fastest. But Callahan plays a physical, gritty game and contributes in all phases of the game and at both ends of the ice. At right wing, he is the quintessential forward that every NHL team would love to have. Callahan will become an unrestricted free agent in July 2014 if he does not sign an extension with the Rangers, and he could be in line for a hefty raise from the $4.275 million he currently makes annually.
5. Kris Letang (2005, third round, 62nd overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 406 games played, 220 points (50 goals + 170 assists), 253 penalty minutes
The 6′, 205-pound Letang became a franchise defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins as an excellent puck mover and running the power play. Also, often playing behind Sidney Crosby will do wonders for anyone’s stat line, but Letang gets that honor for the most part.
Letang won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in just his second full NHL season, and his career really took off after that season. Although he was hampered heavily by injuries in 2011-12 and 2012-13, Letang was able to post 80 points in 86 games, which is unreal production for a defenseman. That earned him an eight-year extension from the Penguins worth a total of $58 million. When he is on the ice, Letang is one of the league’s most dynamic defensemen in the offensive end.
4. Joe Pavelski (2003, seventh round, 205th overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 508 games played, 363 points (159 goals + 204 assists), 199 penalty minutes
Going back to that legendary 2003 draft, not only did the top few rounds produce a large number of NHL stars, but the later rounds also saw some future great NHL players selected. Among those late-round picks in 2003, Pavelski may be the best. After he was drafted, Pavelski played one year in the USHL and two years at the University of Wisconsin before entering the San Jose Sharks organization. Once he left college, though, Pavelski had enough talent to be an impact player at the NHL level.
In his rookie season, posted 28 points in just 46 games as a 22-year old in 2006-07. From there, posting season point totals of 40, 59, 51, 66, and 61 in the next five seasons. Although the Sharks have not made the Stanley Cup Finals in Pavelski’s career, he has been a major producer in the postseason, with 50 points in 74 career playoff games. With so many aging veteran players, the Sharks’ window may be closing for the present, and Pavelski may be asked to lead the next generation of Sharks teams with 24-year old phenom Logan Couture.
3. Jonathan Quick (2005, third round, 72nd overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 296 starts, 159-105-29 record, 2.32 goals-against average, .914 save percentage, 26 shutouts
As we saw with Mazanec earlier, goaltender development can be wildly unpredictable, so the league’s best goaltenders could come anywhere. Jonathan Quick, a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings, is one of the top three goaltenders in the game today. After two seasons at the college level and two more bouncing around the Kings organization, Quick ascended to the throne and became the centerpiece of the Kings at 24 years old.
The 6’1″, 212-pound Quick is one of the top overall players in the world without a doubt. He is one of the best goalies in the league in terms of lateral movement, and he routinely makes saves that any NHL goaltender has no business making. Quick is in the first year of a 10-year contract with the Kings, and they will surely hope that the coming decade brings the Los Angeles franchise tremendous success on the shoulders of Quick.
2. Jamie Benn (2007, fifth round, 129th overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 290 games played, 218 points (89 goals + 129 assists), 209 penalty minutes
The 2007 NHL draft sorely lacked talent outside of the top two rounds, but Benn has easily become one of the top five players that draft class has produced. In just four years, Benn has become the top player and captain on a young Dallas Stars team. The 6’2″, 208-pound sniper paid his dues with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, scoring 147 points in 107 games at that level before joining the Dallas Stars in 2009-10.
From there, it has only been an upward ascent for Benn. As a rookie in 2009-10, Benn posted 41 points in 82 games, including 22 goals. Now playing left wing on a line with fellow young phenom Tyler Seguin and promising 2013 draft pick Valeri Nichushkin, Benn is a point-per-game producer and he could easily be the focal point of the Stars’ offense for the next 12 years.
1. Pekka Rinne (2004, eighth round, 258th overall)
Career NHL Statistics: 291 starts, 157-92-35 record, 2.36 goals-against average, .919 save percentage, 30 shutouts
How poetic it is to have a Nashville Predators goalie of European descent at the beginning and end of this list! Rinne is without a doubt the greatest draft steal of the past decade having been drafted in the eighth round in 2004. The NHL doesn’t even have an eighth round in their drafts anymore, reducing the draft to seven rounds after the 2004-05 season was lost in a lockout. That lost season was Rinne’s first after being drafted, and it was also when the 22-year-old Rinne showed the talent that proved himself an NHL talent. In 10 games in the Finnish SM-Liiga, Rinne did not lose a game, posting an insane 1.68 goals-against average.
From there, Rinne played three years as the starter of Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee before becoming the Predators’ top goaltender in 2008-09. From there, Rinne’s worst goals-against average in a single season was 2.53, and he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy – awarded annually to the NHL’s top goaltender – in 2011 and 2012. Now 31 years old, Rinne still has at least five seasons of prime goaltending play ahead of him. And to his record, he may go down as one of the greatest draft steals of all time. After all, nobody’s ever getting drafted in the eighth round again.
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