Many moons ago, with the Devils securely owning the NHL cellar, I wrote an article asking who the best draft pick in Devils' history was. It seemed topical for the moment, considering we were all expecting the Devils to end up with a very high draft pick and a shot at a player who might fit into that discussion. A lot has happened in the interim. The Devils went on a magical run, and put a scare into many a playoff team before fading at the end of the season. Winning the draft lottery bumped the Devils back up into the Top 5 of the draft.
An excellent draft pick is quite memorable and brings many happy returns to his team. A lousy draft pick, on the other hand, is often just as memorable -- perhaps even more memorable, depending on circumstances such as who the team passed up. It can even be said that the worst draft picks do more to shape their teams, given their failure can set a franchise back for many years.
So who are the worst draft picks in Devils' history? How does one even determine who might make a "finalists' cut" for the list? I'll try and answer the question below.
What makes someone a "bad" draft pick?
Perhaps the quickest way to narrow down the field is to look at draft position. Expectations for a player often change significantly based on where he was drafted. At the very top of the draft, a team hopes for a franchise player. As picks proceed and players come off the board, teams are looking for key building blocks for future success. By the end of the first round, you're hoping for someone who can become an important part of your team at a bare minimum. Past the first round, teams are happy if they can find solid NHL players.
For the purposes of determining "worst" draft picks, I'll set a cut-off at the end of the first round. Considering the crapshoot that the draft process can be to begin with, the relatively lower values of draft picks as one gets deeper into player selection, and the odds against lower-round picks becoming regular NHL players, there's no reason to place lofty expectations on such athletes. If one is drafted in the later rounds and flops, that is the price of doing business. Teams take players in the later rounds for a variety of reasons, with most of them hoping to find a diamond in the rough.
Another measuring stick would be on-the-ice performance. Similar to the argument made in my previous article, gaudy numbers and League awards and playoff success would tend to label a player as a "success". Lack of any or all of the above would tend to label a player as a "failure". Also similar to my previous article, draft position will have some pull on this equation -- after all, expectations are higher for the top handful of picks than they are for players taken later on in the draft.
Finally, there's a more subjective measure that can be applied to players who change teams during their NHL career. Did a player have more success with another franchise (e.g. Markus Naslund)? Did a player get rushed and fail because he wasn't quite ready for the pressure of being "the man" early in his career (e.g. Alexandre Daigle)? Did a player leave the team who drafted him on bad terms?
Many of these criteria are subjective -- different fans will have different opinions of how much weight each one carries, or even which ones apply.
Without further adieu, the candidates:
The 2007 First-Round Draft Pick (26th overall)
The Devils didn't have a 2007 first-round pick. The process by which the Devils' gave away their pick, combined with the franchise's success at finding and developing NHL players at the bottom of the first round makes this a bit of a problem. The pick can't be labelled an outright bust, because there's no way of knowing who Lou Lamorello might have drafted with the pick.
The story begins with the free agency frenzy coming out of the lost lockout year. When Scott Niedermayer took his talents to Anaheim, Lou Lamorello scrambled for several "Plan B" moves to fill the gap. Immediately following Niedermayer's defection, Lamorello re-signed Brian Rafalski, followed by inking Dan McGillis and Vladimir Malakhov to two-year contracts. Two weeks later, Alexander Mogilny was brought back to provide some more offensive punch.
Rafalski's re-signing was a good thing. The comments to this FanShot following his retirement announcement last month are a good indication of just how well respected Rafalski was as a player and how much his steady play on the Devils' blue line has been missed. As for the other three, "unmitigated disaster" might not be too harsh a judgment of the results:
McGillis didn't last particularly long in New Jersey. After roughly half a season, McGillis was banished to the Devils' AHL affiliate, and played out the remainder of his contract there. From there, McGillis signed with a team in Germany. Mogilny would join McGillis in Albany during the 2005-2006 season, eventually injuring his hip. It seemed the Devils would be stuck with Mogilny's contract and cap hit the following season (that old 35+ rule), but Lou Lamorello found a doctor to certify the injury as career-ending and used that to stash Alexander on LTIR for the final year of his contract.
Vladimir Malakhov was an order of magnitude worse. Similar to McGillis and Mogilny, Malakhov also disappeared ("retired", if you believe the stories) when Larry Robinson abruptly quit as head coach. Similar to Mogilny, Vladimir Malakhov's deal fell under the rules governing contracts signed after the age of 35. Unlike Mogilny, the Devils didn't have an easy way to make the contract disappear from their cap.... and it probably shouldn't surprise Devils' fans that the team was operating near the cap ceiling and needed room when the next year began. To become cap compliant for the start of the 2006-2007 season, the Devils sent Malakhov's cap hit and a first-round pick to San Jose for the rights to Alexander Korolyuk, who had left the Sharks to play in Russia. (The Devils would trade Korolyuk's rights back to the Sharks at the trade deadline that year, only to have the trade nullified by the League when Korolyuk changed his mind about returning to the NHL.)
(The Blues would draft forward David Perron with the 26th pick.)
The Candidates (in reverse chronological order)
Adrian Foster (2001 / 28th overall)
Foster was a highly regarded forward prospect in the years before his drafting.... but an oft-injured prospect as well. When healthy, he was considered an elite prospect and had been rated quite highly by the scouting services that compile the rankings for NHL teams in the year leading up to a particular draft class. His injuries led to him being dropped off the list in its entirety.
Personal recollection: I watched the first round of the draft that year. Lou Lamorello brought the entire draft screeching to a halt when he made the pick of Foster -- as if the draft were an old-fashioned phonograph playing and Lamorello's selection was the equivalent of lifting the needle. First, the NHL had to figure out who Lou had picked, as Foster's injuries had resulted in his removal from the databases. Then, things turned a little comic because Foster was in the building and popped out of the audience!
Foster's run of injuries would continue following his pick. After having played a grand total of 12 games in the two years prior to his drafting, Adrian would only manage 27 games in his final two years in the WHL. Foster would miss most of two years while with Albany (out of four where he was with the Devils' affiliate) and would eventually leave as a free agent. After one year with Minnesota's minor-league club in Houston, Foster would call it a career without ever reaching the NHL.
Ari Ahonen (1999 / 27th overall) and Jean-Francois Damphousse (1997 / 24th overall)
It's hard to separate these two, as they had such similar "careers" insofar as the Devils are concerned. Both goalies, they were tabbed at the tail end of the first round under the philosophy of picking the "best player available" as opposed to drafting for a specific need.
Ahonen remained in Finland for two years after his drafting before coming to North America. Four up-and-down years would follow at Albany with a lot of losses mixed in (disclaimer: the Albany River Rats lost a ton of games each season -- it wasn't all Ari's fault). Ahonen would get a cup of coffee in New Jersey during the 2002-2003 season, but wouldn't actually appear in a game during his brief time with the big club. After the 2005-2006 season, Ahonen returned to Scandinavia for good.
Damphousse's drafting looks a little curious, if one reviews his numbers from the 1996-1997 season (his last prior to being drafted). Jean-Francois would play two more years in the QMJHL and then enter the Devils' organization, playing part of one year in the ECHL and two-plus seasons at Albany. Damphousse would also get a brief call-up to the Devils in 2001-2002 and appeared in six games.
Damphousse's main contribution to the Devils could well be construed as being part of the big trade between New Jersey and Anaheim that helped the Devils to the 2003 Stanley Cup. (Damphousse and Mike Commodore would be dealt to Calgary at the trade deadline as part of a package for Rob Niedermayer.) Once Damphousse left the Devils, he would never again see action in an NHL game and eventually called it a career in 2005.
Mike Van Ryn (1998 / 26th overall)
Mike Van Ryn was a sturdy defenseman toiling at the University of Michigan at the time of his drafting. Van Ryn chose not to sign with the Devils. Perhaps he thought he was a better player than his draft position, perhaps it was an agent looking for a loophole. Whatever the reason, Van Ryn would eventually leave Michigan to play in the OHL, and an arbitrator declared him an unrestricted free agent.
Van Ryn signed with the St. Louis Blues and played parts of three seasons there before being traded to Florida for Valeri Bure. After several solid season with the Panthers, he would be shipped to Toronto for Brian McCabe. Van Ryn has had a solid career, but the Devils got nothing out of their draft pick. On the bright side, Lamorello traded two second-round picks to Dallas for their first-round pick immediately after drafting Van Ryn, and tabbed a young center by the name of Scott Gomez.
Lance Ward (1996 / 10th overall)
Based on his WHL numbers, one would have to describe Lance Ward as a bruising defenseman. The Devils "earned" the 10th pick in 1996 by not making the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup, and Ward was their selection. Similar to Van Ryn above, Ward chose not to sign with New Jersey, and would re-enter the draft in 1998. The Florida Panthers would take Ward at the top of the 3rd round that year (63rd overall), and Ward would eventually play 134 games for Florida and 75 more for Anaheim after a 2003 trade (Ward never played in the 2003 playoffs for the Ducks). Following the lockout, Ward played one year for Ottawa's AHL affiliate before moving along to the Swedish Elite League, where he still plays.
Jason Miller (1989 / 18th overall)
Jason Miller had a prolific scoring record with Medicine Hat in the WHL, and put up two more terrific offensive seasons following his drafting. Once he arrived in New Jersey, however, he was unable to stick with the parent club. His numbers show he continued to score with some regularity at the AHL level, but he never received a consistent opportunity to demonstrate those skills at the highest level. After his North American playing days ended, Miller would spend five more years scoring goals in the German League.
Corey Foster (1988 / 12th overall)
Corey Foster was an offensive defenseman with Peterborough of the OHL at the time of his drafting. Foster would have a busy season following his draft, playing in the OHL, the World Juniors, the Memorial Cup, and even making a brief appearance with the Devils. Following the season, Foster would be shipped to Los Angeles for a first-round pick, who we've already met above.
Foster's career trajectory and numbers imply he was a very good AHL defenseman, but never much more than that. Corey Foster would bounce around from team-to-team, making NHL appearances in four different seasons with four different Patrick Division clubs. A vagabond journey across three continents would eventually end in 2005.
Neil Brady (1986 / 3rd overall)
The final nominee, Neil Brady was a well-rounded center with Medicine Hat in the WHL. Like many other prominent Devils' prospects, Brady would spend several seasons bouncing between the parent club and the AHL affiliate (at this time, the Devils' AHL club was in Utica, NY), putting up fine numbers in the Minors but not being able to break through while in East Rutherford. Brady would be left exposed during the 1992 expansion draft but go unselected. Come September of 1992, Lamorello traded Brady to Ottawa for "future considerations". After a year with Ottawa and a cup of coffee with the Dallas Stars, Brady would play out the remainder of his professional days in the IHL, retiring in 2001.
So who is the "worst draft pick" in Devils' history? Is it one of the ballyhooed high draft picks who couldn't stick with the parent club? Is it one of the prospects who couldn't even make it to the NHL? Might he be a player who never played for the Devils but did make a mark elsewhere? Or perhaps there's a candidate missing from this list who fits the criteria?