June 26, 2009

10 Years Later: 1999 NHL Draft

The NHL Entry Draft is hope and hype, but in hindsight it is often about disappointment. Disappointment may be the word that best describes the class of 1999, now ten years into our rear view mirror. It is generally considered to be the worst draft of all time.

Maybe that's just fitting. Not long before the draft the NHL announced the league would retire jersey #99 right around the entire NHL, to honour the recently retired Wayne Gretzky. Yet at the draft what do we see - every first round selection being handed their first NHL jersey complete with the #99. It just seemed awkward and uncomfortable then, both for the kids and obviously for the hockey gods.

We don't always give NHL managers credit where credit is due. Perhaps NHL GMs of the time knew exactly how bad the 1999 NHL draft would turn out. The first overall pick was traded three times. In fact, Tampa Bay, the original owners of the top pick, trade right out of the first round altogether.

Atlanta ended up with the first choice overall, and selected Patrik Stefan. Though he played in 455 career games, Stefan may be the biggest first overall bust of all time, best remembered for missing an empty net goal on a breakaway.

The top four picks were moved a total of 10 times between four teams. The reason for this was Vancouver GM Brian Burke, who in a complicated barrage of trades secured the 2nd and 3rd selections in order to draft twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The twins have had a gradual ascent to the league's elite.

A decade later it looks like a brilliant move. Getting both was essential, as who knows how they would have faired apart. Since so much of their success is very dependent on each other, it is not hard to fathom being drafted apart could have seen one or each busts, much like the rest of the first round.

The Rangers took boom or bust Pavel Brendl fourth overall. He went bust, big time. The Rangers traded Dan Cloutier and Marc Savard to twice trade up to get their man.

The Islanders selected super-skilled Tim Connelly at five. Injuries have really derailed what otherwise has been a career full of promise.

Nashville selected Brian Finley as their goalie of the future at #6. He only played in 4 NHL contests.

Washington selected Kris Beech at number 7. He was supposed to be a good two way 2nd line center. The Capitals traded him two years later to Pittsburgh to get Jaromir Jagr. He was barely a 4th line center in the Steel City.

The Islanders had three picks in the top ten, also selected Taylor Pyatt at eight and Branislav Mezei at 10. Pyatt has made a career as a third or fourth liner who does not use his size well enough. Mezei is long forgotten.

Over in Manhattan the Rangers took Jamie Lundmark at #9, which was said to have been a steal. He was all heart and work ethic, and some people believed he was the safest player in the crapshoot of a draft. He played in 259 games, mostly on the 4th line.

Of the remaining 18 picks in the first round, only four players became NHL regulars - David Tanabe at 16, Barret Jackman at 17, Nick Boynton at 21 and Martin Havlat at 26. Including the Sedins that makes for only six NHL regulars in the entire first round.

Other busts included Denis Shvidki (76 games played), Jani Rita (66), Jeff Jillson (140), Kirill Safronov (35), Barrett Heisten (10), Maxime Ouellet (12), Mikhail Kuleshov (3), Kristian Kudroc (26) and three guys who never once played in the NHL Scott Kelman, Luca Cereda and Ari Ahonen.

Every draft mines a few gems in the later rounds, but 1999 even failed to produce much that way. I would identify only ten players in such a category for that year: Mike Commodore (42nd), Jordan Leopold (44th), Niklas Hagman (70th), Frantisek Kaberle (76th), Niclas Havelid (83rd), Mike Comrie (91st), Ryan Malone (115th), Ryan Miller (138th) Martin Erat (191st) and, surprise, surprise, Henrik Zetterberg (210th).

Yes, Henrik Zetterberg was unthinkably chosen in the 7th round, 210th overall in the worst draft in NHL history. Today he is one of the best players in the league and would most likely be chosen 1st overall if the players were somehow redrafted 10 years later. That is a testament to both how luck plays a big role in drafts, and player development. No one develops prospects better than Detroit as of late.

Craig Anderson (77th), Tom Kostopolous (204th), Garnet Exelby (217th), George Parros (222nd), and Doug Murray (241st) are all late bloomers that are also late finds that are now filling NHL roles.

In recent years we have been absolutely spoiled with an abundance of riches in NHL drafts that produced early and often. How will the class of 2009 turn out? Those in the know are saying both 2009 and 2010 offer a lot of talent, with 2011 already looking like a 1999-like dud. But the real answer as to how those drafts will turn out is: check back in ten years and I'll tell you.

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