I understand that hockey is the "fourth major sport," with much less of a following - but if one is a professional sports journalist, how can you pretend that the entire NHL doesn't exist? Here, again, ESPN is teh suq, in the person of Jim Baker, who compares three-fourths of the #1 draftees from 1980 on to see which sport got the best guy.
Again - how can you do that when you've left out an entire sport? Stooge. Of course, it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness:
2005 - Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh (C) - youngest NHLer ever to reach 100 points in a season. Barring injury, has Hall of Fame written all over him. Baker's choice (KC Royal 3B prospect Alex Gordon) has similar potential but hasn't gotten to the bigs yet, which makes me (for now) prefer his #2, Andrew Bogut. My call - NHL, NBA, MLB. (I think Alex Smith is a stiff.)
'04 - Alexander Ovechkin, Washington (LW) - 52 goals and 54 assists in this, his debut season in the NHL. Baker's 1-2, however, are as good as anything else on the list: the Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard and New York Giants QB Eli Manning. Ovechkin is special, but so is Howard, and he's had an extra year at the top level. Manning is a step behind either, both in his skills and in his accomplishments. My call - NBA, NHL, NFL.
'03 - Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh (G) - the hardest position to evaluate early on, since goalies (like pitchers and quarterbacks) take a statistical beating on horrible teams. His competition here is Cavaliers F LeBron James and Bengals QB Carson Palmer, so that hardly matters. The baseballer, Delmon Young, is considered a top-five prospect, though currently he's on indefinite hiatus because he chucked a bat at an umpire. My call - NBA, NFL, NHL.
'02 - Rick Nash, Columbus (LW) - not at all a passer, but his defense improved dramatically this year and he remains a dangerous goal scorer. The winner is clearly the tall gentleman, Houston's Yao Ming, but it's tough to judge Nash compared to David Carr, Texans QB. I won't be a homer about it. My call - NBA, NFL, NHL.
'01 - Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta (LW) - an Olympian and a Hall of Fame talent, putting him ahead of baseball's Joe Mauer and basketball's Kwame Brown. That leaves it a single-city rivalry: the football guy is Michael Vick of the Falcons. Vick has the highlight-machine talent and one of the greatest sport commercials ever (the Vick Experience spot where kids get strapped into a roller-coaster chair to simulate one of his scrambles). More importantly, Vick's made the playoffs, and Kovalchuk hasn't yet. My call - NBA, NHL, MLB.
'00 - Rick DiPietro, NY Islanders (G) - also an Olympian, though the HoF may have to wait. His only real competition is Kenyon Martin, the Nets' forward, who has made one All-Star team. He's also been traded, hurt, and may just pout himself out of his new city while his old team continues to prosper without him. His stock is falling, DiPietro's is rising. My call - NHL, NBA, MLB.
'99 - Patrik Stefan, Atlanta (C) - no contest. Stefan is well ahead of QB bust Tim Couch and career minor-leaguer Josh Hamilton, but well behind man-child Elton Brand, currently winning in the playoffs with the Clippers. (The CLIPPERS!) My call - NBA, NHL, NFL.
'98 - Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay (C) - you may have heard of the football guy - fellow named Peyton Manning. Individually, you'd have to say that he's ahead of Lecavalier, who is a fine player - but what the hell, I'll twist the knife: Lecavalier has won a championship. My call - NFL, then NHL - but Lightning, then Colts. (Baseball is third - Pat Burrell.)
'97 - Joe Thornton, Boston (C) - Another deep, deep year, with Tim Duncan in San Antonio and Orlando Pace in St. Louis. Plus side - Thornton led the league in scoring this year. Minus - he was traded for his inability to move the Bruins out of the first round of the playoffs. The twist - he moved his new team, San Jose, out of the first round this year. Not quite enough to move up, though, since both the other guys have won titles. My call - NBA, NFL, NHL.
'96 - Chris Phillips, Ottawa (D) - serviceable, stay-at-home defender who is still logging solid minutes with his original team. That leaves him fourth in another deep year. You can get serviceable defensemen any time you like, in nearly any round, but a #1 guy ought to be special - like Allen Iverson. I agree with Baker here. My call - NBA, NFL, MLB.
'95 - Bryan Berard, Ottawa (D) - this is a tough one. Berard is a former Rookie of the Year and, even though he lost sight in one eye on a freak play, is still playing high-level hockey. The NBA and NFL guys were absolute busts so that leaves only Darin Erstad of the Angels - still playing with his original team, and in his second sport (he punted for Nebraska's football team). Injuries have forced him to play much more first base than center field lately, but has had a more solid career overall. Odd trivia - Erstad has played for the Angels his whole career - in California, Anaheim, AND Los Angeles. My call - MLB, NHL, NBA.
'94 - Ed Jovanovski, Florida (D) - he's up against three decent guys, but nobody to write home about. The best of those, Glenn Robinson, was a decent scorer, sometimes an All-Star, but hasn't been as durable: 51 games the past three years, none of them this past season. My call - NHL, NBA, NFL.
'93 - Alexandre Daigle, Ottawa (C) - an enigma, merely serviceable as a second or third-liner. His competition? Three Hall-of-Famers - A-Rod, C-Webb, and Drew Bledsoe. Ouch, babe. My call - MLB, NFL, NBA.
'92 - Roman Hamrlik, Tampa Bay (D) - well, Shaq-Fu went Numero Uno, the greatest basketball center of his generation. We'll put the Hammer a graceful second, ahead of third-sacker Phil Nevin. I'll only pause to note that, again, Baker's bias shows: "It can be argued that O'Neal has had the most successful career, in terms of personal and team achievement, of any #1... in any of the three sports since 1980." There's a fourth sport, chief, and you will meet their contender for this accolade in '84. My call - NBA, NHL, MLB.
'91 - Eric Lindros, Quebec (C) - tantalizing with its potential: Charlotte's Larry Johnson, who was dynamite before the injuries limited his skills, and Dallas' Russell Maryland, a defensive tackle with three titles. Lindros is right there, keying several deep playoff runs, and making a solid comeback from career-threatening concussions. Baker gives his nod to Johnson; I beg to differ. The Flyers could have won a couple of Stanley Cups with reliable goaltending. My call - NHL, NFL, NBA.
'90 - Owen Nolan, Quebec (RW) - ugh. The Atlanta Braves took Chipper Jones #1 this year. He has to win this competition, even though he's a Brave. (He's a nice Brave, but still.) The Nordiques could have had Marty Brodeur, but NOOOOOO. (There's a reason why they're on here three years in a row.) The other two guys were supremely talented basket cases - Derrick Coleman and Jeff George - who are no longer playing, which makes it a little easier to drop them behind Nolie. My call - MLB, NHL, NBA.
'89 - Mats Sundin, Quebec (C) - Absolutely neck-and-neck, but the tiebreaker is championships. Troy Aikman won three and therefore must go ahead of Sundin, even though they're both going to their respective Halls of Fame. My call - NFL, NHL, MLB.
'88 - Mike Modano, Minnesota (C) - a Cup winner, a captain, an All-Star, going to the Hall. Complete resume. Nobody from the other three leagues is close. My call - NHL, NBA, MLB.
'87 - Pierre Turgeon, Buffalo (C) - even the fourth guy on this list, Vinnie Testaverde, hung around and was productive for a good long while. Turgeon is still active, though the gruesome cheap shot he took in the '93 playoffs kept him from consistent All-Star status and he probably isn't quite HoF caliber. He gets third place. The other guys are both MVPs - second goes to David Robinson, because of the hurting Hakeem Olajuwon put on him in the playoffs during that MVP season. First goes to the guy considered the best player in baseball for a few seasons: Ken Griffey Jr. My call - MLB, NBA, NHL.
'86 - Joe Murphy, Detroit (RW) - nothing special, but managed seven 20-goal seasons and a Stanley Cup after busting with the Red Wings. That gets him ahead of the Pirates' Jeff King. I'm going to go ahead and keep the Cavaliers' Brad Dougherty ahead of Murphy, but unlike Baker, I'm going to put Dougherty second. He was a decent center and an All-Star but Robinson, Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and even Alonzo Mourning were better players. I'm moving Bo Jackson to the top spot - an All-Star in two sports and undoubtedly one of the most exciting athletes of my lifetime, even though it ended far too soon. Bo Knows, baby. My call - Bo, NBA, NHL. (And having to say "Bo" instead of "NFL" says it all, right?)
'85 - Wendel Clark, Toronto (LW) - 330 career goals, a few trips to the semis, and still arguably fourth - it depends on how much you like BJ Surhoff. I happen to like the guy a lot. Clark really only had one stand-out season (46 goals for Toronto in '92-93). Surhoff started as a catcher and was succesfully converted to both outfield and the corner infield spots, and was a reliable hitter. The two-spot belongs to Patrick Ewing and the number-one is Buffalo's Bruce Smith, which is what every NFL club dreams of when the commish goes to the podium. My call - NFL, NBA, MLB.
'84 - Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh (C) - poor Hakeem Olajuwon. The Dream won two titles, and elevated himself above his peers at the center position, beating Ewing and Shaq in successive Finals appearances and embarassing the Admiral at every opportunity. He was a total package and a Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, he's second. Super Mario matches the Dream's two championships, exceeds his All-Star appearances, and rests higher on the single-season and career ledgers. He did all this while rescuing hockey in Pittsburgh as a player and then owner, overcoming debilitating and chronic back injury AND life-threatening Hodgkins Disease. He was possibly the best player in all of hockey while Gretzky was still playing. My call - NHL, NBA, NFL, and it's not debatable.
'83 - Brian Lawton, Minnesota (LW) - There's a fellow name of Elway who was drafted this season, and all y'all know what he did, with so little help, for so many seasons. The basketballer was Ralph Sampson, the fellow "Twin Tower" with Olajuwon, All-Star caliber until injured and still somewhat productive afterward. The other guy is Tim Belcher, who pitched productively for years. Considering how hit-and-miss baseball drafts always are, and especially when it comes to pitchers, you've got to put that ahead of just another fourth-line forward who lasted fewer than 500 games. I'm swapping Baker's two and three, since Belcher was more easily replaceable than Sampson. My call - NFL, NBA, MLB.
'82 - Gord Kluzak, Boston (D) - Kluz lost two full years to injury, and won the NHL's Masterton Trophy in 1990, given to "player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey." Players are only eligible once in their careers; to get it usually means that you've been through hell and back to keep the skates on. (Berard and Lemeuix have also won it, in their comebacks from severe injury.) It's unfortunately the most notable thing about Kluzak's playing days, but it does get him ahead of New England's pedestrian lineman, Kenneth Sims - Kluzak went to a Stanley Cup finals and was a steady contributor in his four full years. The Lakers' James Worthy, Hall-of-Famer, is the chalk choice for first, followed by talented if erratic shortstop Shawon Dunston (he had some fine seasons with the Cubbies). My call - NBA, MLB, NHL.
'81 - Dale Hawerchuk, Winnipeg (C/W) - Baker's pick is the underrated Mark Aguirre, which makes it hard on me, because Hawerchuk is the guy who had the record that Crosby just broke - youngest player with 100 points in a season. The year he joined the Jets, they won 24 more games than the previous season. He had five other 100 point years, along with a 98, two 96s, and a 91. When he retired, he was tenth on the league's scoring list with 1409 points (and is still top-20). Hawerchuk was an All-Star five times to Aguirre's three; he went top-ten in scoring four times to Aguirre's five, but was eleventh three other times. Nor can you plead longevity for Aguirre - each man retired at 34. Just about the toughest call on the board. My call - NHL, NBA, NFL.
'80 - Doug Wickenheiser, Montreal (RW) - this is the year that the Mets tabbed Darryl Strawberry, who was headed for the Hall until he stuck it all up his nose. After that, you're looking at Lions RB Billy Sims, who had a pretty good career - truncated by injury, like so many runners, but still better off than the others on our list. Joe Barry Carroll was known more for his nickname, Joe Barely Cares, but it's a little unfair - he averaged 20 ppg four times in ten years and had career numbers of 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. That leaves us Wickenheiser, who played 11 underwhelming seasons with 5 diappointed teams, finishing with more penalty minutes than points. My call - same as Baker's. MLB, NFL, NBA.
The only sport that didn't lose any first-place finishes from Baker's list was football. The NBA is still ahead, but remember that their draft has been only two rounds for some time, since their rosters are the smallest by far. It's much more likely for one of their #1 picks to excel under those circumstances. The least successful group, not surprisingly, was baseball.