Hockey players just love to prove the scouts wrong. Teams take a huge amount of heat from fans and media alike when they bet the farm on a player who seems like a lock to become a star in the NHL, but ultimately turns out to be a bust. But the scouts are rarely given their due credit when the outcome is reversed. Every now and then a player will defy the odds, selected late in the draft and with bleak prospects of an NHL career, these players will surprise everyone by making their respective teams, and in some cases, becoming NHL stars. When this happens it seems the scouts still take heat, since everyone wonders how 29 other teams passed on this next coming of Wayne Gretzky for so many rounds. Either way, it’s tough to win as a scout, but these hard working hockey gurus who travel countless miles to scour the world for hidden talent can take satisfaction in the fact they’ve made their team better by seeing NHL potential in a player when everyone else saw a never-will-be. Here is my list of those hidden gems. The top 10 NHL draft steals since the current entry draft rules were implemented in 1980.
10 – Dominik Hasek
Dominik Hasek would rank a lot higher on this list had the Chicago Blackhawks actually believed he would one day play for them when they selected him 207th overall in the 1983 draft. At the time, Hasek’s native country of Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, and there seemed no way possible that Hasek would ever make it to North America to play hockey. Chicago’s gamble paid off though, and Hasek came to the NHL when communist rule ended in his country. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks they did not wait long enough for Hasek to develop, and the unorthodox goalie went on to 6 Vezinas, and 2 Hart trophies in Buffalo, and a pair of Stanley Cups in Detroit.
9 – Pavol Demitra
Drafted by the Ottawa Senators back in 1993, this late Slovakian superstar proved himself to be one of the greatest NHL draft steals ever. Drafted 227th overall, Demitra never did much for that lowly Senators team, but his talent really started to reveal itself once he joined the St. Louis Blues in 1997-98. He spent 7 productive seasons there, netting 490 points in 486 games for the team.
8 – Steve Sullivan
The inclusion of this diminutive speedster might surprise some people, but as evidenced by his 233rd overall selection, it seems that people are continually underestimating him. Though a mere 5′ 8″ tall and 165 lbs, Sullivan has proven that he can play head to head against the biggest, strongest players in the game, using his speed, agility, and exceptional hands to rack up points against the opposition, and many of his goals are of the highlight reel variety.
7 – Evgeni Nabokov
There could arguably be 10 goalies on this list of the top 10 NHL draft steals of all time. Goalies develop so late in their hockey careers compared to other players that it is exceptionally difficult to determine how good one will be at the age of 18. The San Jose Sharks probably were just crossing their fingers and hoping when they took Nabokov 219th overall in the 1994 NHL entry draft. It took Nabokov nearly 7 years before he became a regular starter in the NHL, but he rewarded the Sharks posting nearly 250 wins and more than 40 shutouts during his time there.
6 – Daniel Alfredsson
Back when the Ottawa Senators rejoined the league in the early 90s their woeful record gave them an enviable position at the draft table. Yet it never seemed to be those high first round picks that panned out for them, but rather those hidden gems mined in the later rounds of the NHL entry draft. The longtime captain, and all-around best player on the Sens for the better part of two decades, Daniel Alfredsson is a great example of this. He amassed more than 1,000 points as an Ottawa Senator before moving on to join the Red Wings in the twilight of his great career.
5 – Henrik Zetterberg
Even Hakan Anderson, Detroit’s director of European scouting, admits he got lucky with Zetterberg, snagging him 210th overall in the 1999 NHL entry draft. The superstar Swede didn’t crack Detroit’s lineup until the 2002-2003 season and put up average numbers his first 2 seasons. However, after the lockout in 2004-05, Zetterberg returned to the NHL a changed man. He had matured physically and mentally and his skill set was far superior to what it had been. Since then he has averaged well over a point a game, while establishing himself as a premier defensive forward in the league. By the time his career is done he will no doubt be remembered as one of the biggest draft steals in NHL history.
4 – Theoren Fleury
The NHL, much like the NBA, has a problem with discrimination against small players, and this list of the top 10 NHL draft steals of all time has a liberal sprinkling of these “little” men. Fleury, at only 5′ 6″ tall played as big as anyone during his career, and was never afraid to go to the tough areas to get his points. He racked up over a 1,000 points in his NHL career after being passed over until the 166th pick of the 1987 entry draft.
3 – Pavel Datsyuk
Boy, Detroit sure has a bright future ahead of them. Not only did they land the biggest draft steal in 1999 with Zetterberg, but the year previous they perpetrated an even bigger heist, landing slick Russian forward, Pavel Datsyuk with the 171st pick. Whatever they are paying Hakan Anderson, they should double it, because this guy is lights out when it comes to recognizing potential talent. Datsyuk is arguably the most skilled stickhandler in the game, and his superb offensive game and stellar defensive play make him one of the best two-way players in the game.
2 – Doug Gilmour
Not only was Gilmour one of the biggest NHL draft steals ever, but he could earn a spot on a list of all time trade steals as well. He only weighed 175 lbs, but 150 of that was heart. Gilmour was drafted 134th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 1982. He put up great numbers in St. Louis but was traded to Calgary after allegations of sexual misconduct. He continued his torrid scoring pace, and helped Calgary to their only Stanley Cup championship in team history. He was traded to Toronto in one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history. “Killer” was as determined as any player in hockey history and his 1,414 career points prove he was a great draft steal.
1 – Luc Robitaille
Despite putting up astronomical numbers in junior, “Lucky” wasn’t drafted until the 9th round, 171st overall by the L.A. Kings. Scouts worried that his poor skating ability would make him a liability, but Robitaille used his hockey sense, and an exceptional shot to prove that skating isn’t the be-all-end-all in the game of hockey. He won the Calder trophy as rookie of the year, appeared in 8 All star games, won a Stanley Cup and finished his career as the NHL’s all time leading scorer at the left wing position with 668 goals and 1,394 points. Lucky Luc proved them all wrong, and is fully deserving of the number one spot on the list of the top 10 NHL draft steals of all time.