Since 1963 the NHL has held an amateur draft where young men are selected by teams to join their organization. As you can guess, many of the first selected were Canadian. Eventually the rest of the world caught up a bit and were chosen first overall. These are the Non-Canadian born players selected first overall in the NHL draft and how their careers turned out.
1983 Brian Lawton – United States
The man to break the taboo barrier as the first non-Canadian player drafted first overall was Brian Lawton. The New Brunswick, New Jersey native was selected by the Minnesota North Stars with their first pick. In his NHL career Lawton would go on to score 112 goals; his best days in the latter half of the 1980s.
1988 Mike Modano – United States
Repeating what they did 5 years earlier, the Minnesota North Stars took a man from the United States with their first overall pick. They had a lot more success with Modano who is arguably the best hockey player ever born in the United States. Modano finished his career in the 2010-2011 with 561 goals and 1374 points. Once eligible, he is a Hall of Fame lock.
1989 Mats Sundin – Sweden
In addition to not being born in Canada, Mats Sundin was also the first man taken number one from Europe. The Swedish born forward spent the majority of his NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs after a stint with the Quebec Nordiques. In total Sundin scored 564 goals with 1349 points; numbers very similar to Modano.
1992 Roman Hamrlik – Czechoslovakia
An ageless defenseman drafted in 1992 who played his final game in the 2012-2013 season, Czechoslovakia Roman Hamrlik was taken first overall. Hamrlik was taken by the Tampa Bay Lightning, although he would spend his career with 7 different teams. Hamrlik finished his career with 638 total points from the blue line.
1995 Bryan Berard – United States
Like Hamrlik, Bryan Berard was a defenseman taken first overall in the NHL draft. Berard was selected by the New York Islanders and won the Calder Trophy his rookie season. However the Rhode Island native never quite reached an elite level. Thanks in part to playing for several bad teams in his career, Berard finished with a negative 54 in plus/minus.
1999 Patrik Stefan – Czechoslovakia
The first pick by the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999, Patrik Stefan hailed from Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately for Stefan, his career lined up perfectly with the history of the Thrashers, a team that began in 1999 with Stefan on the team and in 2011 moved to Winnipeg. Stefan finished his 7 year career with only 64 goals and 188 points.
2000 Rick DiPietro – United States
Berard may not have worked as planned, but this didn’t stop the New York Islanders from drafting another man from the Northeast with the first overall pick. Goalie Rick DiPietro was the man taken by the Islanders in 2000. Once he earned an opportunity to become the starting goalie he actually did pretty good, finishing with above .500 records in all but one of those seasons. His save percentage however declined and along with frequent injuries he lost a permanent spot on the roster.
2001 Ilya Kovalchuk – Russia
Once again the Atlanta Thrashers looked to Europe for the first overall pick. They took Ilya Kovalchuk and had far different results than they did with Stefan. Kovalchuk would end up scoring 328 goals during his time 8 seasons with the Thrashers. He was later traded to the New Jersey Devils who ended up signing him to a ridiculously long contract. Long before the contract was up Kovalchuk decided to retire from the NHL and leave to play in the KHL.
2004 Alex Ovechkin – Russia
Copying the Thrashers, the Washington Capitals made Russian Alex Ovechkin the first overall choice in 2004. So far he has won 3 Hart Trophies and scored 422 goals in 9 seasons. With exception to his lackluster defensive skills, Ovechkin is a great player and everything the Capitals could have wanted.
2006 Erik Johnson – United States
In 2006 the St. Louis Blues had the first pick in the draft and took Minnesota native Erik Johnson. A defenseman, Johnson got off to a good start with the Blues before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche during the 2010-2011 season. Most recently Johnson had a very respectable 2013-2014 season where he tied his career high of 39 points and had a new career high of plus 5 in plus/minus.
2007 Patrick Kane – United States
The Chicago Blackhawks took possibly the best current player from the United States in the draft back in 2007 with the first pick. This man is of course Patrick Kane. While his numbers do not standout, he is incredibly consistent. If not for Kane the Blackhawks may not have won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013.
2012 Nail Yakupov – Russia
Not quite at the level as other first overall Russian picks, Nail Yakupov has still showed some signs that he will improve. The 20-year-old forward employed by the Edmonton Oilers regressed in his second NHL season as did the team. If the Oilers are able to give him more weapons or Yakupov joins a more talented team he will surely reap the benefits.