RALEIGH — The expansion Vegas Golden Knights proved this season that a team can not only compete but thrive with a team-first mentality. That doesn’t change the fact that the NHL is a league of superstars, and the team that ultimately wins the Stanley Cup — in this year’s case, the Washington Capitals — almost always has the most top-end talent.
In fact, the last 10 teams to win the NHL’s ultimate prize have included a player who was selected first or second overall in the NHL Draft. And since 2001? Fourteen of the last 17 Cup winners had such a player (or players) on their roster — only the 2008 Red Wings and 2001 Avalanche did not boast a player picked first or second overall.
Enter the Carolina Hurricanes.
Carolina hit the jackpot by jumping from 11th to second overall in this year’s draft lottery, earning the right to select any player not named Rasmus Dahlin at No. 2. Chances are, that player will Russian Andrei Svechnikov, the OHL’s Rookie of the Year with the Barrie Colts who scored 40 goals in 44 regular season games this season.
The Hurricanes have drafted well in recent years, most notably landing emerging star Sebastian Aho in the second round of the 2015 draft. They have similar hopes for last June’s 12th overall pick, Czech-born Martin Necas, who is expected to make the jump to the NHL this season after playing the last two year’s in Extraliga, the top men’s league in his home country.
While Aho, Necas and other young players form the foundation of what Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon and new general manager Don Waddell hope is a contender, the addition of a top-two talent, like Svechnikov, figures to be a difference-maker.
It’s not hard to see why Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles had success over the past decade. First overall picks Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane were all key players — if not the pivotal player — in their team’s Cup wins. Second overall selections Evgeni Malkin and Drew Doughty were — and still are — similarly responsible for the success of the Penguins and Kings, respectively.
And while goalie Cam Ward was the Conn Smythe winner when the Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006, it was Eric Staal — their second overall pick in the 2003 draft — who led the team in postseason scoring.
Not only is top-two talent a game-changer for NHL teams, but the success it breeds generally goes to the team who picked the player. In 12 of the 14 instances since the 2000-01 season that a player being selected first or second overall was part of a Cup-winning team, that player was drafted by the championship team.
Coincidentally, the two top-two picks who weren’t chosen by the team they won with were former Hartford Whalers: Chris Pronger, who won the Cup in 2007 with the Ducks, was the second overall pick by Hartford in 1993; and Brendan Shanahan, the No. 2 pick by New Jersey in 1987 and a member of the loaded 2002 Red Wings Cup team, was traded to Detroit in 1996 after two games of the Whalers’ final season before relocating to North Carolina.
Carolina has been deemed an “on-the-rise” team for a few seasons now, but has yet to parlay that into on-ice success. Chances are, the player they take at No. 2 will finally be the piece to end a nine-season playoff drought — and bring perhaps even greater success.