The main NHL draft gems since 2005

The NHL draft is one of the season’s most exciting events for a lot of NHL fans: two days of high expectations, an irrational belief in a better future for their beloved team and a rousing welcome of a franchise-saving bunch of teenage boys. It’s a chance to change the fortunes and history of entire organizations and that can happen not only on the first round but also during the frenzy of action of the crucial second day.

The value of late round picks has always been controversial and most fans usually disregard them when their GM’s throw it around like hot bread on trades that actually don’t do a lot for the rosters mid-season. In fact, it’s difficult to get all riled up for a player that won’t suit up for three, four, five years, but the history of the league has a basket full of superstars absolutely mined out of nowhere. The journeys of guys like Pavel Datsyuk (1998, 171th overall), Henrik Zetterberg (1999, 210th) or Henrik Lundqvist (2000, 205th) towards Hall-of-Fame-worthy careers are well documented even if the magic of the mysterious scout that uncovers gold on an eerie venue at the end of the (hockey) world is getting increasingly difficult on an era where information flows freely and instantly.

Until 2004, the NHL draft consisted of nine rounds that allowed for a plethora of home runs but the post-lockout landscape brought alterations that affected also the process of selecting young prospects, with the event now limited to seven rounds and (usually) 210 picks. Away from the first and second round choices, which a significant portion of everyday NHL fans have heard or read about on the weeks leading up to the event, dozens of players have their rights assigned to different teams although only a few pair of eyes have had the opportunity to witness their capacities on the ice. Obviously, most of them never reach the highest level but a selected few go on to make a real impact on the world’s best hockey league.

This article tackles the individuals that managed to fight those odds, highlighting the top players selected by NHL organizations on rounds 4 to 7 since 2005. After scouring the draft lists of each year, I ordered the top 10 players on that range based on the general impact they’ve already been able to produce, the individual and team success they’ve been a part off and, especially for the younger guys, the feats they may amount to.

The ranking is obviously biased by my own preferences but an overall overview shows that a single organization contributed with more than one name (no, not the Detroit Red Wings…) and there’s a balanced mix of positions and ages. However, unsurprisingly, the oldest events add more chips to the mix, with the latest choices hailing from 2011 – as expected, players picked since 2012 have yet to assemble a body of work worthy of consideration.

I assembled a small text for every player featured, including a resume of his earliest seasons, before and after getting drafted, their accomplishments and how they managed to develop in order to break into the NHL.

10. Niklas Hjalmarsson (CHI, 2005, 4th round, 108th pick)

Niklas Hjalmarsson, defenseman of the Stanley Cup Champions Chicago Blackhawks

Every time you can steal a core member of a roster that wins three Stanley Cups on the fourth round, you’re definitely doing something right.

The native of Eksjo was the fourth Swedish selected on the 2005 draft and the first defenceman at a time where the country was on the downside in terms of talent production, with only 12 players picked up on that weekend at Ottawa (at least 20 Swedes have been selected every year since 2009).

Hjalmarsson’s professional career started at HV71 but it was only in 2006-2007 that he asserted himself has a regular of the Jonkoping outfit, moving across the pond on the next summer to represent the Hawks affiliate on the AHL. He played 13 games for the NHL team during that season but his place was only secured towards the end of the following season, with the defenseman gaining valuable experience as a member of the emerging Chicago team on the playoffs. One year later, already established as a bonafide top 4 defenseman, Hjalmarsson was a key part on the team that brought the Stanley Cup to Chicago for the first time in 49 years, and his play was so impressive that the San Jose Sharks extended an (always rare) offer sheet to the defender, which was quickly matched by Chicago. Over the last few seasons he has collected two more titles and thousands of miles manning the Hawks’ blue-line and was also a member of the Swedish team that left the 2012 Sochi Olympics with a silver medal.

As a young prospect, Hjalmarsson was considered an unassuming, promising two-way defenseman with a good shot and capable of jumping on the play, but he ended specializing as a shutdown force for the Blackhawks, logging major minutes on the PK and punishing opponents with a physical brand of hockey.

9. Brendan Gallagher (MON, 2010, 5th round, 147th pick)

The undersized Edmonton native was always an undervalued asset during his formative years and that didn’t change in time for his NHL draft day. A ninth round pick on the 2007 WHL draft by the Vancouver Giants, the (now) 5-9 right-wing took a season to join his junior squad but made a real impact in short order, scoring 41 goals and 81 points on his draft year (2009-10), the second season for the Giants. However, his strong numbers weren’t enough to convince the scouts that the feisty winger could succeed on the NHL and he was an unheralded player on the selection held in LA.

Gallagher spent two more years in Vancouver, amassing 40 goals twice more, becoming a League All-Star and the team’s all-time scoring leader, but his major eye-opening appearance came after he snatched a spot on the always competitive Canadian U-20 roster, that disputed the 2012 World Junior Championships. He went pro a few months later and, twelve months after being one of the last cuts for the Canadiens opening day roster, the NHL lockout provided some time to gain invaluable experience at the AHL level. On January, at age 20, came his long-awaited NHL debut and Gallagher ended the season with 28 points and a nomination for best rookie of the regular season.

Over 207 NHL games, the Canadiens spark plug has already added 116 points and 58 goals and his fast, gritty approach have made him a fan-favourite of the exigent Montreal crowd, putting him among the leading candidates to don a letter for the proud franchise on the future. With a nice and quick release, the 23-year crashes the net with abandon, battles hard in the corners and plays bigger than his size, having become a role model for small players looking to build a successful career on the NHL.

8. Patric Hornqvist (NAS, 2005, 7th round, 230th pick)

From last player selected on the 2005 NHL draft to the main winger on a team blessed with the two most gifted centres in the NHL. Drafted out of Vasby IK, a small club from the Stockholm region, the Swedish winger is another player who has succeeded in the NHL on the basis of an exceptional work rate and the maximization of his strengths.

Hornqvist debuted on the principal Swedish league only in 2005 and played for Djurgarden over three seasons, including a 23-goal performance in 2006-07 that earned him a rookie of the year nomination. He decided to join the Predators organization in 2008, splitting the season between Milwaukee (17 goals in 49 games) and Nashville (28 games), but his breakout came in 2009-10, when he collected 30 goals and 51 points to lead the team and was also called to represent his country on the Vancouver Olympics. In 2014, Hornqvist was traded for the Pittsburgh Penguins, equalling his biggest career point total despite missing 18 games due to injury.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ winger Patric Hornqvist

The Sollentuna native scored, at least, 21 goals on every (non-lockout) NHL season since 2010 and has turned into a dependable top 6 scoring forward that can hang with creative players, retrieve pucks efficiently and excel around the net. Usually placed among the players with the most shots on goal on the NHL, the Swede is considered a high volume shooter that lacks some foot speed and skating skills but certainly knows where to go on the ice.
After picking up more than 130 goals in 427 games, there’s no doubt that Hornqvist has severely outperformed the draft day expectations.

7. TJ Brodie (CGY, 2008, 4th round, 114th pick)

Born in Chatham, Ontario, the Calgary Flames’ defenseman played four seasons on the OHL for the Saginaw Spirit, developing his craft against the most talented Canadian major junior players. Brodie’s first full-time season for the Spirit came in 2007-08, his draft year, and the 30 points certainly didn’t jump of the page but it was enough to convince the Flames to take a chance on the smooth-skating defenseman.

The following year he amassed 50 points and on his last junior season the defenseman was traded for a contending Barrie Colts team, losing the OHL title but gaining valuable experience on high-stakes matches. Brodie turned professional in 2010 and made the Calgary roster out of camp but the season was spent mostly in Abbotsford, where he emerged as one of the Flames blue-chip prospects and represented the AHL team on the league’s All-Star Game.

Since 2011, the 25-year-old has been part of the Flames roster, slowly climbing the depth chart until the definitive explosion in 2013-2014, when the pair formed with captain Mark Giordano was unanimously recognized as one of the finest in the NHL. In 2014-15, Brodie set career-highs in goals (11) and points (41) and anchored the team’s defence after Giordano went down late in the season, impressing everyone with his all-around prowess, capacity to log major minutes (over 25 per game) and poise. The Flames two-way blueliner even received some Norris trophy buzz, capping an under-the-radar progression that took most NHL fans by surprise.

6. Mark Stone (OTT, 2010, 6th round, 178th pick)

The finalist for the 2015 Calder Trophy still has a lot to prove at the NHL level, but the second part of his rookie season was thoroughly impressive and merited a place on this list.

The Winnipeg-native played his junior hockey for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL and was another player that spent all four years on the CHL before turning pro. His first two seasons were unspectacular, including a 28-point performance on a draft year that was marred by a concussion and a thumb injury, sending Stone’s name down the draft ranks. However, the Sens took a chance on a talented power forward with a suspect skating stride and are just starting to reap the benefits. Stone had 106 points in 71 games in 2010-2011, added 123 more the following year, and this success, coupled with a strong presence at the World Juniors, provided enough confidence to leave Brandon and join the Senators organization.

The right winger spent the next two seasons playing for the AHL’s Binghampton Senators and was capable of producing offense at decent levels (two 15-goal seasons) but nothing predicted the breakthrough he enjoyed in 2014-15. Stone led all NHL players in points after the All-Star break, diabolizing opponents alongside top center Kyle Turris, and was an essential piece on a Sens team that put on a magical run to secure a playoff spot on the last game of the regular season. He ended with 26 goals and 64 points to tie for the rookie lead and showcased his hockey smarts, impressive pair of hands and underrated release while using his imposing 6-3 frame to appear on the scoring areas.

Mark Stone, the Ottawa Senators star rookie winger in 2014-15

Some will argue that the Senators’ winger is poised for a sophomore slump next season and NHL history is full of guys that never delivered on triumphal entrances, but everyone who saw him dominate for stretches in March and April knows how talented he is. Further improving his skating will help him contribute when the pucks suddenly stop hitting the back of the net and build a successful NHL career.

5. Ondrej Palat (TBL, 2011, 7th round, 208th pick)

A product of his hometown club, HC Frydek-Mistek, and HC Viktovice’s youth teams, Palat was not selected on the 2009 draft and decided to move to North America, joining the QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs. However, 40 points in 59 games weren’t enough to convince an organization to give him a chance yet again and the forward had to go back to junior. 39 goals and 96 points later, someone had finally bought in on his style of play and the then 20-year-old had the chance to claim an NHL jersey.

The Tampa Bay Lightning signed Palat to an entry-level deal shortly after the 2011 selection and he immediately reported to the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, taking part on a team that would win a record 28 consecutive games and capture the Calder Cup. From the 30 points of his debut season, Palat jumped to 52 in 56 games during 2012-2013 and the reward was a 14-game stint for the Bolts after the NHL lockout ended.

Czech Republic’s Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning’s two-way force

The Czech made the Lightning roster out of training camp the following season, joining his AHL linemates Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik, and he was so impressive that his 23-goals and 59-points warranted a nomination for rookie of the year, alongside Johnson, and a place on his country Olympic Games’ roster.

His creativity, playmaking ability and quickness produced abundantly at the NHL level in 2014-15, amassing 16 goals and 63 points in 75 games, and Palat has also evolved into a top-notch two-way winger, extremely responsible on every zone, which resulted in a stunning +31 differential. The lack of size and strength that kept him down early on his professional career has been minimized and the Czech has every tool to have a long and fruitful NHL career.

4. Keith Yandle (ARI, 2005, 4th round, 105th pick)

The Boston-native was drafted out of high school, specifically the Cushing Academy, in 2005 and decided to forgo a commitment to the University of New Hampshire in order to join the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL. Yandle would only play one season of major junior since his 25 goals and 84 points led the Wildcats to the league’s Championship and were worthy of Defenseman of the Year honours, which persuaded the Coyotes to quickly pry away the offensive dynamo.

Former Arizona Coyotes’ defenseman Keith Yandle

In 2006-07, Yandle developed the defensive aspects of his game against more experienced players at the AHL level, adding 33 points for the San Antonio Rampage, and the decisive jump for the NHL would arrive on the second half of the following season, playing 43 games for the Phoenix side. Since 2008-09, the skilled blue liner has established himself as one of the best powerplay quarterbacks in the league, using a lethal one-timer, excellent offensive instincts and superior skating ability to help his teammates create scoring chances. Naturally, Yandle has picked up interesting point totals over the years, scoring over 10 goals from 2009 to 2012, and collecting a career-high 59 points during the 2011-2012 campaign.

His mobility helps him get away from the fearless forecheckers in the NHL but he suffers with the bulkiest forwards on physical confrontations, something that, along with his positional lapses, has limited his usage on defensive situations. Yandle was traded to the New York Rangers before the 2014-15 trade deadline and the move will significantly increase his profile and the pressure to perform on a major market, far away from the obscurity of Phoenix. The way he deals with that will define how the 28-year-old career will be remembered.

3. Braden Holtby (WAS, 2008, 4th round, 93rd pick)

Drafting goalies is always a challenge and, consequently, the current group of elite goaltenders in the NHL was selected all over the place, from Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury, all top 5 picks, to Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne, 7th and 8th round picks, respectively. In this sense, Braden Holtby is like Jonathan Quick, a third round pick in 2005, since one understands that they could just as easily had flamed out.

Holtby had a 0.895 SV% in 2006-07 for the Saskatoon Blades and on his draft season the numbers were slightly better but not eye-popping (2.84 GAA, 0.908 SV%). He left the WHL a year later to join the Hershey Bears (with some ECHL starts here and there) and won the AHL Championship during his first season, posting interesting numbers (37 W, 2.32 GAA, 0.917 SV%) and solidifying his status as one to watch on a pipeline brimming with talent on the position.

November of 2010 marked his NHL debut and he collected 10 W and 2 SO from 14 stellar games before being sent down. He played just seven games for Washington the following regular season, amassing 40 wins for the Bears, but was named the Caps starting goalie in the playoffs as the team fell in the second round to the Rangers. In 2012-13, he finally took regular duties in Washington after the end of the lockout and enjoyed a nice season (2.13 GAA, 0.920 SV%) but his numbers suffered a bit in 2013-14, as he split time with Michal Neuvirth.

Washington Capitals’ goalie Braden Holbty showing off his athleticism

And then, last season arrived, with Holtby capitalizing on the trust of new coach Barry Trotz to play an incredible 72 times in the regular season plus 13 playoff games. The Saskatchewanian was one of the top goalies in the NHL, breaking the 40-win mark, and posting a 2.22 GAA and 0.923 SV% due to his above-average mix of athleticism, size and agility, coupled with an unwavering self-confidence. Just 25-years-old, the workhorse goalie has claimed the net after some years of instability at the position for the franchise, and the Caps are certainly happy they choose to bet on him after letting go other high-prized goalie prospects like Semyon Varlamov and Neuvirth, both picked on the top 34 of the 2006 draft.

2. Johnny Gaudreau (CGY, 2011, 4th round, 104th pick)

Johnny Gaudreau, the Calgary Flames’ offensive wizard

A natural of New Jersey, the diminutive left winger played on the Philadelphia region growing up and moved to the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010, collecting 72 points in 60 games during his draft year to be named the league’s best rookie. His small frame (5-6), though, scared a lot of NHL teams and despite outstanding offensive instincts, more than 100 names were called before Gaudreau’s at Minnesota on draft weekend.

However, “Johnny Hockey” would not be discouraged and joined the Boston College in the fall to start a prized NCAA career. On his freshman year, the winger had 44 points in 44 games and was named the MVP of the traditional Beanpot tournament, before improving to 51 points in 36 games as a sophomore, the NCAA’s best point per game average, thus effectively becoming the team’s go-to guy. A finalist for the Hobey Baker award during a season where he also represented the USA on the World U-20 Championships – shining with a tournament-leading 7 goals and a place on the All-Star team – Gaudreau decided to return to Boston for a third college season.

The choice proved right as he set the NCAA on fire by establishing historical offensive figures, namely a 2 points-per-game pace (80 in 40 games), the highest of any player in more than a decade. Despite losing the title on the final against Union, he was obviously nominated as NCAA’s top player of the season and joined the Calgary Flames’ organization at the end of the regular season, taking advantage of the opportunity to open his professional scoring tally on the first shot of his only game. Before going on vacations, he still had to leave his mark on the World Championships, tallying 10 points on his first senior international competition.

Heading into 2014-15, the tantalizing Gaudreau had to carry the weight of expectations in Calgary and, after a slow start, he definitely did not disappoint. The 21-year-old delighted the fans with his elusiveness, creativity, superb puck control and stickhandling on the road to a 64-point rookie season, tying for the lead among his equals, taking part on the All-Star Game, and willing the Flames to a surprising playoff appearance. Now 5-9, the baby-faced star promises to be a dazzling NHL player for years to come and is yet another proof that the biggest talents always find a way to stand out at every level.

1. Jamie Benn (DAL, 2007, 5th round, 129th pick)

At the age of 25, the Victoria, BC native is already an Olympic Champion, an Art Ross Trophy winner and an NHL captain. Yet, most NHL teams had, at least, five chances to take him and none jumped at the opportunity.

Maybe the reasons can be rooted to a draft season played on the secondary BCHL, for the Victoria Grizzlies, instead of the major junior Canadian leagues, which he joined only on the 2007-2008 season, suiting up for the Kelowna Rockets. The left winger posted 65 points during his rookie season on the WHL, far from impressive totals at that level, and improved to 82 in just 56 games the following year to secure an All-Star team nomination. In the post-season, he performed even better, pacing the Rockets to the WHL title and a place on the Memorial Cup final, lost to Taylor Hall’s Windsor Spitfires even though Benn cracked the tournament’s All-Star team.

By this time, Jamie Benn was already a coveted prospect, having also taken part of Canada´s World Junior title in 2009, and it was only a mild surprise that he cracked the Dallas Stars’ line-up on his first professional season. He scrapped the usual AHL seasoning until the Calder Cup playoffs, when Benn led the Texas Stars to the final, amassing 26 points during the campaign.

Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn, the best late draft gem of the NHL since 2005

Displaying raw power forward qualities, the young winger scored 22 times during his rookie season and hasn’t stopped getting better since then, polishing his game and cracking 63 points in 2011-2012, before emerging as one of the best and most complete players in the world in 2013-2014, barely missing the elusive point per game mark with 79 in 81 appearances. He was also a key member of the Canadian team that triumphed at the Sochi Olympics.

In 2014-15, the Stars captain took his final step to stardom by tallying 87 points during the regular season, tops in the NHL, while his versatility and large frame, along with excellent sniping abilities and deft hands, create an invaluable specimen for the Dallas Stars and the envy of many other NHL organizations.

To end, a list of honourable mentions, players I also considered when comprising this list.

2005: Anton Stralman (TOR, 7th, 216th)
2007: Alec Martinez (LA, 4th, 95th); Jake Muzzin (PIT, 5th, 141th); Carl Hagelin (NYR, 6th, 168th)
2008: Gustav Nyquist (DET, 4th, 121th)
2009: Sami Vatanen (ANA, 4th, 106th), Marcus Kruger (CHI, 5th, 149th)
2010: John Klingberg (DAL, 5th, 131st); Frederik Andersen (ANA, 7th, 187th)
2011: Andrew Shaw (CHI, 5th, 139th)

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