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Thursday, October 23, 2008
How have top picks delivered in recent years?

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

The general manager of the winning team in the lottery for the NHL's No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 entry draft will celebrate as if he'd just discovered that the lotto ticket in his wallet matched all the numbers … after 37 consecutive weeks in which no one hit the jackpot.

The prize will be Oshawa Generals superstar John Tavares, who was born only five days after the cutoff eligibility date for the 2008 draft and likely would be capable not only of playing in the league this season but also of immediately starring.

The buildup and hype are, well, Crosby-esque.

Or, to go farther back, like Lindros and Lecavalier.

It's a lot to live up to, as is the case for all the players taken in the upper echelon of the draft. For all but the handful of the extraordinarily precocious, the draft remains a "pick, wait and watch" process, and that's the way it's been ever since the NHL incrementally lowered its eligibility age from roughly 20 to 18 nearly 30 years ago.

The spotlight shines on the top pick, especially if in the preceding year, he's considered the inevitable, automatic, no-debate-needed first overall choice. But the others among the top five picks or so -- give or take, depending on the consensus belief about the strength of that year's crop -- face high expectations.

Here's a look back at the top five choices in the drafts since 2000, with special emphasis on the top overall picks:


Stamkos
2008
1. Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos, C, Sarnia (Ontario Hockey League): The Lightning already are in great makeover mode, and he doesn't have a point in six games heading into the weekend while averaging nearly 11 minutes a game. But the argument that he's the real deal isn't in dispute.

2. Los Angeles, Drew Doughty, D, Guelph (OHL): The Kings aren't babying the offensive-minded blueliner, especially in the wake of Jack Johnson's shoulder surgery. The OHL's top defenseman from last season has played nearly 21 minutes a game and scored his first career goal Monday night against the Avalanche. In theory, he still could return to Guelph before the 10-game cutoff, but …

3. Atlanta, Zach Bogosian, D, Peterborough (OHL): The Bobby Orr fan with football in his genes -- his father, Ike, was a star at Syracuse -- already is taking a regular shift with the Thrashers. Both extraordinarily mobile and big, he was considered more NHL-ready than Doughty.

4. St. Louis, Alex Pietrangelo, D, Niagara (OHL): The lanky defenseman often compared favorably with Chris Pronger has been out a week and is day-to-day with a head injury. But he's with the Blues, and the league's Johnson & Johnson injuries -- this one to Erik Johnson, out after knee surgery -- also has heightened Pietrangelo's possible role this season.

5. Toronto, Luke Schenn, D, Kelowna (Western Hockey League): The Adam Foote-type, who has been getting even more ice time than the other rookie defensemen taken ahead of him, was averaging nearly 22 minutes heading into Thursday night's meeting with the Bruins. He didn't have a point and was minus-3.


Kane
2007
1. Chicago, Patrick Kane, RW, London (OHL): The Calder Trophy win put the final stamp of validation on his top overall selection, and he's off to a fast start this season as one of the centerpieces of the Blackhawks' return to relevancy in the league's previous sleeping giant of a market.

2. Philadelphia, James vanRiemsdyk, LW, U.S. national under-18 team: Back for his sophomore season at the University of New Hampshire, Kane's fellow American has two goals and an assist in three games and is coming off a 34-point freshman season. Given the trends and pressures, it will be interesting to see whether he'll sign with the Flyers after this season or stick around for another year with UNH.

3. Phoenix, Kyle Turris, C, Burnaby (British Columbia Hockey League): Some heads were shaking when the Coyotes signed him last spring after the Badgers' season ended because at times he looked very much his age as a freshman and has a lot of physical maturing to do. But Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky's faith in his ability to get the most out of young players and to nurture them figured into the equation, and Turris was thrown in for three games down the stretch. He has a goal and three assists in the first five for the Coyotes this season.

4: Los Angeles, Thomas Hickey, D, Seattle (WHL): Hickey is back with the Thunderbirds, but the Kings have liked what they've seen so far.

5. Washington, Karl Alzner, D, Calgary (WHL): After a four-season stay with the Hitmen, Alzner is with the Capitals' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Heading into the weekend, "Burnaby Karl" -- a steady, stay-at-home type -- had three assists in six games.


Johnson
2006
1. St. Louis, Erik Johnson, D, U.S. national under-18 team: The Blues signed him after his freshman year at Minnesota, and he had a solid rookie season a year ago, but the dreaded golf cart accident and knee surgery have set him back.

2. Pittsburgh, Jordan Staal, C, Peterborough (OHL): After a 29-goal rookie season, he regressed in 2007-08. But he's still counted on as one of the centerpieces in Sid & Co., for now and for the future.

3. Chicago, Jonathan Toews, C, University of North Dakota: Arguably an even more deserving choice for the Calder last season than his teammate, the former Fighting Sioux scored 24 goals. He has yet to score this season but has five assists, and he could end up higher on the marquee and the topic of more conversation at the Billy Goat than Kane.

4. Washington, Nicklas Backstrom, C, Brynas Gavle (Sweden): Although he has struggled in the early stages of this season, he had 14 goals in 2007-08 and showed highlight-footage flashes of the superstar he is expected to be.

5. Boston, Phil Kessel, C, University of Minnesota: Surviving early-detected testicular cancer was the big fight for the young center, and he already was honored with the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for that. The Wisconsin-born center is on a tear so far with the Bruins this season. At some point, the question will arise of whether he was undervalued in this draft.


Crosby
2005
1. Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby, C, Rimouski (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League): As if we need to say much here. The hype was potentially overwhelming, but he's lived up to it. He even understands that part of the burden is to answer the same questions 2,832 times as he makes the circuit.

2. Anaheim, Bobby Ryan, RW, Owen Sound (OHL): Well, one thing we know is that the Ducks won't be accused of rushing him. He's with Iowa of the AHL after scoring 21 goals in 48 games with the Portland Pirates last season. He's shown flashes in his 23 NHL games; at some point, if the Ducks don't find room for him, you'll have to start to wonder why.

3. Carolina, Jack Johnson, D, U.S. junior national team: The Hurricanes couldn't lure him to Carolina before his one season at Michigan, so traded his rights in a multiplayer deal in the fall of 2006. He was a minus-19 for the awful Kings last season but gained valuable experience. Still, his shoulder surgery now has him out until at least January.

4. Minnesota, Benoit Pouliot, LW, Sudbury (OHL): He spent much of his first two pro years in the AHL and is back with the injury-plagued yet fast-starting Wild. The organization has made little secret of its impatience with him, considering that part of a time-to-step-up challenge.

5. Montreal, Carey Price, G, Tri-City (WHL): The Game 7 shutout against the Bruins, after his work down the stretch in the wake of Cristobal Huet's trade, provided evidence that the Habs were right to think he was ready. He's been terrific in the first two weeks of this season.


Ovechkin
2004
1. Washington, Alex Ovechkin, LW, Moscow Dynamo (Russia): A Hart Trophy. A huge contract extension. A flare for showmanship that hasn't yet gone over the top to the me-me-me singing of the NBA. In many ways, he has been better -- and better sooner -- than he was even expected to be … and those expectations were high.

2. Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin, C, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Russia): When he stepped up during Crosby's injury-forced absence in his rookie season, that was confirmation; he also signed an extension that locks him up through 2013-14. His playoff funk at times last spring will soon be forgotten.

3. Chicago, Cam Barker, D, Medicine Hat (WHL): He split time between the Hawks and the AHL in his first two pro years, and he's back with the AHL team in Rockford, Ill. Although the Hawks denied it, his looming $2.8 million cap hit is an issue, at least until Chicago figures out what to do with his nearly $13 million goaltending tab. But if Barker, at 22, doesn't force the Hawks to find a way to put him on the NHL roster soon, that speaks volumes.

4. Carolina, Andrew Ladd, LW, Calgary (WHL): Ladd showed flashes with the Hurricanes, including the 2006 Cup run, and went to the Blackhawks for Tuomo Ruutu on March 26. But after scoring five goals in his 20 games with Chicago down the stretch, he's off to a slow start this season.

5. Phoenix, Blake Wheeler, RW, Breck School (Minn.): After playing three seasons for the Minnesota Gophers, Wheeler turned down the Coyotes' latest offer after last season, then became a free agent and signed with Boston for less than he could have earned with the Coyotes. He made the opening night roster after an impressive camp and preseason and had one goal in six games going into Thursday night's action.


Fleury
2003
1. Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Cape Breton (QMJHL): The Pens have him under contract through 2014-15 at what might turn out to be a bargain $5 million a season. It has been a trial by fire, and he hasn't always earned the highest marks, but he's held up and validated this selection, despite the success of …

2. Carolina, Eric Staal, C, Peterborough (OHL): His long-term extension is part of the prima facie case that he's already one of the league's elite (he won a Cup in 2006), and his upside remains tremendous. At this point, and probably always, he's the best of the multibrother act. He might even end up an honorary Sutter Brother.

3. Florida, Nathan Horton, C, Oshawa (OHL): He's been doing it in relative obscurity in Sunshine Country, but the Panthers power forward for the most part has lived up to the billing in his first four seasons with Florida. A buzz saw and fun to watch, he's off to another good start and is under contract through 2012-13.

4. Columbus, Nikolai Zherdev, RW, CSKA Moscow (Russia): When he came into the league, his obvious skills could be breathtaking. He was up and down in his first three seasons, scoring 26 goals in 2007-08 but chafing under Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock. He went to the Rangers in July with Dan Fritsche for defensemen Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin, and if the Rangers get more out of him, the deal could turn out to be embarrassing. He'll get his first chance back at Columbus on Friday night.

5. Buffalo, Thomas Vanek, LW, University of Minnesota: He's already in triple figures in goals in his fourth season and the target of an $50 million offer sheet from Edmonton that the Sabres matched before the 2007-08 season. He's off to a flying start this campaign, and his performance underscores the star nature of the 2003 draft. He signed in 2004 after playing two years with the Gophers and spent one year in the AHL before making the jump. That seems to have been the right approach.


Nash
2002
1. Columbus, Rick Nash, LW, London (OHL): The Blue Jackets got this one right, although it wasn't as if they had to rack their brains to make this choice. The big winger is off to another fast start this season, too.

2. Atlanta, Kari Lehtonen, G, Jokerit Helsinki (Finland): Under the gun much of the time, he's been a bit inconsistent and more injury-prone than you'd like your No. 1 goalie to be, but he's shown himself capable of greater things on a good team. He's not a disappointment, so much as a guy doing a decent job in what has been a bad situation.

3. Florida, Jay Bouwmeester, D, Medicine Hat (WHL): A potential unrestricted free agent after this season, he could hit the jackpot. For now, though, he tantalizes with his skating ability and size, and he could be a superstar if he plays more physically and assumes more of a leadership role. But he did just turn 25.

4. Philadelphia, Joni Pitkanen, D, Karpat (Finland): Already traded twice and with his third team, Pitkanen is with Carolina after the Oilers sent him to the Hurricanes for Erik Cole in July. But the trades were more about his being a valued commodity than suspect, and he still has tremendous upside as an offensive defenseman who also can be physical.

5. Pittsburgh, Ryan Whitney, D, Boston University: Another cornerstone of the Penguins' future as, among other things, a key element in the power play, the heady defenseman signed a six-year deal a year ago. But he's out now after foot surgery.


Kovalchuk
2001
1. Atlanta, Ilya Kovalchuk, LW, Spartak Moscow (Russia): One of the more electrifying players in the league who conjures thoughts of what he might be like if he were on a better team or in a hotter hockey market, he's still worth the price of admission alone on some nights. In this era, that's really saying something.

2. Ottawa: Jason Spezza, C, Windsor (OHL): Articulate, wryly funny and the object of much attention long before he ever signed, he's delivered on many levels and scored 34 goals in each of the past two seasons. Maybe he hasn't quite stepped up to that unquestioned superstar status, but he will, and he's under contract through 2014-15.

3. Tampa Bay: Alexander Svitov, C, Avangard Omsk (Russia): Traded to Columbus in early 2004, he played the 2005-06 season in Russia, returned to the Blue Jackets for the following season, then pulled off the feat of signing with both Columbus and Avangard Omsk for last season. He's playing in Russia and is under NHL suspension.

4. Florida, Stephen Weiss, C, Plymouth (OHL): His high-water mark was a 20-goal season for the Panthers in 2006-07, and all in all, he's been a mild disappointment. But he's a solid two-way center, the kind teams need -- but maybe not from the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

5. Anaheim, Stanislav Chistov, LW, Avangard Omsk: Small and speedy with breathtaking talent that screamed of potential, he has had only 19 goals in 196 NHL games -- and might not get any more. Traded to Boston in 2006, he played 60 games for the Bruins in 2006-07 and then returned to Russia, where he's now in his second stint with Metallurg Magnitogorsk.


DiPietro
2000
1. New York Islanders, Rick DiPietro, G, Boston University: He's under contract until the next millennium, so if he doesn't shake his reputation for being prone to injury, it will be a disastrous deal for the Islanders. He hasn't been a disappointment, but there are such high expectations -- and deservedly so -- he might not be able to live up to them.

2. Atlanta, Dany Heatley, LW, University of Wisconsin: The Dan Snyder tragedy still blots his reputation and made his trade to the Senators necessary. But he not only was a worthy Calder winner and twice a 50-goal scorer, he's also one of the league's elite talents and is off to a fast start with the Sens this season.

3. Minnesota, Marian Gaborik, LW, Dukla Trencin (Slovakia): One of the more entertaining aspects of attending Wild games is fantasy hockey -- wondering what Gaborik could do if he truly were unleashed. Coach Jacques Lemaire has made him a better hockey player but has taken some of the fun out of it. We'll see where he ends up if he doesn't sign a long-term deal with the Wild.

4. Columbus, Rostislav Klesla, D, Brampton (OHL): The genuine article as a physical defenseman, the Blue Jackets got this one right, too.

5. New York Islanders, Raffi Torres, LW, Brampton (OHL): Torres played only 17 games for the Isles before being traded to Edmonton, where he showed flashes, including when he had 27 goals in 2005-06. He's been injury-prone of late, missing the latter half of last season with the Oilers with a knee injury. After going to Columbus in a July trade, he is out with a separated shoulder.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."