The Young Way To Go!
Teams covet first-round draft choices for the simple reason that a great pick (Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman) can improve the team on and off the ice for decades, including bringing a Stanley Cup or two to the city. Some of the top few choices from recent drafts are now leaders on their teams, and have fans believing that the Cup could be coming home with them.
When Boston drafted Thornton first overall in 1997, the Bruins had high hopes that he would lead them back to the top of the league. As good as Phil Esposito? Thornton has similar size and skill, and that’s what Boston was hoping. Thornton has filled those hopes, and then some. His game has grown with each passing year, and last season the big man cracked the 100-point plateau. As this is written, the duo of Thornton and Glen Murray has the Bruins challenging for a 2nd round position with the Montreal Canadiens. Boston’s last Stanley Cup came in 1972, seven years before Thornton was born.
The year after Boston took Thornton, Tampa Bay had the first overall pick. They took Vincent Lecavalier, who is similar in Thornton in size and skill. Like Thornton, Lecavalier had dominated the junior leagues. Again, like Thornton, Lecavalier played his first NHL game as an 18-year-old, just a couple of months after being drafted. With back-to-back 30-goal seasons, Lecavalier is showing all the promise Tampa Bay had hoped for. At the moment, the Lightning are tied with the Islanders going into New York. Lecavalier’s linemate Martin St. Louis lead the NHL in scoring in the regular season, and the Lightning have people believing the Cup could summer in Florida. On the way, they may run into Thornton’s Bruins, causing a very exciting matchup of rising similar superstars.
Ottawa drafted Bonk with the 3rd overall pick in ’94. Over the last six seasons or so, Bonk has rounded into a steady center who can win draws, check, and score reliably at almost a point-a-game pace. He plays hard but smart. After too many Game 7 defeats in the playoffs, Ottawa fans hope the team will lose its promise label and actually win the Cup. With Bonk and stars like Alfredsson, Hossa and Bondra, they just may do it, but their first mighty opponent is the Toronto Maple Leafs. In my opinion, the winner of this series will win it as long as no more players get injuries.
Over the last few seasons, the San Jose Sharks have played like Jekyll and Hyde. In a season when you think they have a shot of winning it all, they miss the playoffs. In seasons when you think they’ll struggle, they storm into the playoffs and upset a favourite. So there’s no predicting what the Sharks will do this year. Stuart was drafted third overall in 1998, a few moments after Lecavalier went first. In his five NHL seasons since, Stuart has rounded into a steady defenceman who can shut down the other team’s top line while also chipping in about a half a point per game. San Jose sits second in the Western Playoffs and have an early 2-0 lead on St. louis, even after trading longtime captain Owen Nolan last season. As said, no one knew what to expect out of them, especially their opposition, which is what makes them maybe the most dangerous and exciting team in the playoffs.
The players mentioned above will be trying to take away the success brought to the New Jersey Devils by Brodeur, their first-round pick in 1990. For most of the 1980s, the Devils were a popular “dark horse” pick in the playoffs, chosen by newspaper columnists as a team no one suspects, but whom may possibly do some damage. Well, they never did. Until, that is, they started to assemble the three players who formed the backbone of their three Cups: Brodeur, drafted in 1990; Scott Niedermayer, taken first-round in 1991; and Scott Stevens, acquired shortly after the 1991 draft. Brodeur and Niedermayer especially show how wise draft choices pay back the investment quickly.
Lastly, it’s fair to give time to players who maybe weren’t drafted high, but have gone on to prove that they should have been. No one should overlook them because of the mistakes made by scouts and general managers. Pittsburgh took Recchi in the fourth round of the 1988 draft, and in 1990-91 he racked up 113 points as the Penguins won their first Cup. As a rookie, Theoren Fleury won the Cup with Calgary, after going 166th in 1987. One of his teammates that year was Doug Gilmour, taken in 134th position in 1985. The 1984 draft guarded two late-round superstars, who would go on to score more than 650 goals each, and win the Cup with Detroit in 2002. Step up Brett Hull (117th) and Luc Robitaille (171st).
Who is your favorite out of these guys to win it or spark in the playoffs?