The NHL Draft, like all other major North American sports leagues, looks to the future on Draft Day, as the best young players from around the world wait to hear their name called by one of the league’s 32 teams.
Adding to the excitement is the typical flurry of Draft Day trades, as rebuilding teams look to strengthen their draft position while clubs in Stanley Cup contention deal away their future for a chance to win it all next season.
However, history has proven that some of the best all-time players in NHL got their start as a late pick in the NHL Draft.
Here’s a look at the top five NHL Draft picks of all time.
1. Henrik Zetterberg – Center
Draft: 210th overall, 1999
Team: Detroit Red Wings
Few teams in NHL history can match the dominance of the Detroit Red Wings during the 1990s and 2000s. Winners of four Stanley Cup titles over a 12-year span, Henrik Zetterberg emerged as a key, albeit unlikely, part of the team’s later success.
Discovered by Red Wings management as a teen playing youth hockey in his native Sweden, Zetterberg was selected by Detroit with the 210th pick in the 1999 NHL Draft.
He would go on to score 337 goals and 960 points over a 16-year career in the Motor City, including a memorable 2008 Stanley Cup win in which he earned Conn Smythe Trophy honors as playoff MVP.
In addition, Zetterberg also set the Red Wings team record for most goals and points scored during a single NHL postseason by potting 13 goals including the Cup winner and 27 points during the team’s march to the 2008 Stanley Cup title.
2. Domink Hasek – Goalie
Drafted: 199th overall, 1983
Team: Chicago Blackhawks
There was little doubt about Dominik Hasek’s ability to stop pucks as a teenager. “The Dominator” established himself as one of the best young goalies in the game while leading his native Czechoslovakia to a silver medal at the 1983 World Junior Hockey Championship.
But with the Cold War still raging, NHL teams remained hesitant about drafting players from behind the Iron Curtain.
That did not deter the Chicago Blackhawks, who selected Hasek with the 199th pick in the 1983 NHL Draft.
Hasek would go on to have a legendary NHL career. In addition to raising the Stanley Cup on two occasions, Hasek also claimed Vezina Trophy honors as the NHL’s top goaltender on six occasions and twice won the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
3. Pavel Datsyuk – Center
Drafted: 171st overall, 1998
Team: Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings scouting staff hit another home run when they called the name of Pavel Datsyuk with the 171st selection in the 1998 NHL Draft.
Considered undersized for a center by NHL standards of the day, Datsyuk went largely unnoticed until the Red Wings stumbled upon him during a scouting mission in the summer of 1997.
The club’s efforts paid huge dividends, with Datsyuk going on to become one of the greatest two-way players in NHL history while leading the Red Wings to two Stanley Cup wins.
Datsyuk also proved to be a superstar on the international stage, leading his native Russia to the 2012 World Championship and playing a pivotal role in that nation’s march to Olympic gold in 2018.
Datsyuk also claimed Lady Byng Trophy honors as the “NHL player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability” in four straight seasons, and set up the game-winning goal that would clinch the Stanley Cup title for Detroit in 2008.
4. Brett Hull – Right Wing
Drafted: 117th overall, 1984
Team: Calgary Flames
Being the son of the one of the most prolific goal scorers in NHL history did little to boost the stock of Brett Hull as a hockey prospect.
Viewed in his own words as a “pudgy, fun-loving, music-crazed bum”, Hull was overlooked by junior teams as a teenager growing up in Canada. That indifference extended to the NHL Draft, with the talented winger failing to get selected in his first two years of draft eligibility in 1982 and 1983.
The Calgary Flames took a chance on the “Golden Brett”, taking him with the 117th pick in 1984.
But it wasn’t until Calgary general manager Cliff Fletcher discarded Hull, shipping him to the St. Louis Blues in a misguided trade three years later that this legendary sniper would finally fulfill his vast potential.
Hull eventually went on to top his father Bobby Hull’s spectacular NHL numbers, racking up 741 career goals, fifth most in NHL history, and twice raising the Stanley Cup.
5. Daniel and Henrik Sedin – Left Wing/Center
Drafted: Second and third overall, 1999
Team: Vancouver Canucks
While scouting expertise is key to unearthing hidden gems on NHL Draft Day, two of the most notable draft picks in NHL history resulted from wily wheeling and dealing by Brian Burke during his tenure as general manager of the Vancouver Canucks.
Already in possession of the third overall pick in the 1999 NHL Draft, Burke was determined to make a splash on Draft Day.
It was no secret twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin would go high in the draft, but given the almost supernatural chemistry the Swedish brothers displayed on the ice together, Burke believed that they could best meet their individual potential by playing together in the NHL.
Accordingly, Burke embarked on some of the most creative Draft Day dealing in NHL history, pulling the trigger on three deals in speedy succession just hours before the start of the NHL Draft, landing both Daniel and Henrik Sedin with the second and third overall picks.
Burke’s moves both elevated his status as an elite NHL executive as the Sedins went on to enjoy a spectacular two-decade career in Vancouver, where they went on to rewrite the Canucks’ record book while scoring a combined 633 goals and 2111 points.