When speaking of the greatest busts in NHL Entry Draft history, there are a few names that come to mind. Alexandre Daigle, the massive letdown who went first overall to the Ottawa Senators in 1993. There is also Brian Lawton, the first American-born player to go first when he was taken by the Minnesota North Stars in 1983. Not to mention Rick DiPietro, the one-man M.A.S.H. unit of a goaltender taken with the first pick in the 2000 Draft.
And then there’s Patrik Stefan.
Stefan, the first pick in the hideous 1999 Draft, was an eighteen-year-old Czech Republic native who had spent two years with Long Beach Ice Dogs of the now-defunct International Hockey League after starting his young career with HC Sparta Praha in his native Czech Republic.
Despite concussion problems leading up to the draft, Stefan was a highly regarded prospect. Here are a few quotes from Stefan’s coach during his time in Long Beach, John Van Boxmeer:
“He is a big, strong play-maker who sees the ice very well,” said John Van Boxmeer, coach of the Ice Dogs. “The early consensus from scouts is that he could be the first overall pick next year in the NHL Entry Draft.”
“He is going to be a dominating, play-making center,” Van Boxmeer said of the 6-foot-3 195 pounder. “He is a guy who looks to make the play rather than shoot himself. He’ll be a guy who can get 100 assists and 20-25 goals in the NHL.”
“Patrik is a world-class player,” said LA Kings General Manage Dave Taylor. “He is a good skater, a tenacious player, very skilled with the puck and possesses excellent size, strength and work ethic.”
There’s also this dandy from Bob Owen of RHO Hockey:
“I have followed Patrik’s progress since December of 1995. The impression he left with me then and throughout the various tournaments I have seen him play, is that he is the brightest young prospect developed in the Czech Republic since Jaromir Jagr.”
And the pièce de résistance:
“He is a cross between Mike Modano and Sergei Fedorov,” said coach Boxmeer.
Pretty lofty words for an eighteen-year-old, no? Well everyone believed that the expansion Atlanta Thrashers (since moved to Winnipeg) had gotten a cornerstone for their new franchise.
Stefan would struggle with injury and inconsistency during his first four years, with career-highs of 14 goals and 34 points during that time leading many to believe the Thrashers had struck out in the worst way. Watching him, it was obvious that he was a bust. He looked lost on the ice and didn’t ever flash the sort of talent that number one overall picks usually show even at their worst.
Yet, after playing his first full season in 2003/04 and posting career-highs in goals (14) and points (40), many were willing to believe that he was simply a late bloomer. But after posting a medicore-even-for-him 10 goals and 24 points in an injury-shortened season, that was the last straw for the Thrashers.
On June 24th, 2006 he and defenseman Jaroslav Modry were dealt to Dallas for Niko Kapanen and a seventh round draft choice. Talk about a huge fall from being the top pick in the draft.
But the worst was yet to come. Playing the Edmonton Oilers on January 4th, 2007, Stefan would make the worst kind of highlight reel and earn himself more negative notoriety on one play than he had since being drafted. Words don’t even do this one justice so I’ll just leave this to the video:
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I can’t even form full sentences when seeing that clip and I’ve seen it about a thousand times since it actually happened. If you ever wondered why Patrik Stefan was a bust, just show someone that clip and they will fully understand.
That season (2006/07) would be Stefan’s last in the NHL. A serious hip injury in three games with SC Bern of the Nationalliga A would officially end his playing days. He has since become a registered player agent with the NHLPA, probably warning his clients of the dangers that come with missing a wide-open net.
Stefan, if one were being generous, could be lumped in with those first overall picks who had a career hampered by injuries. He always fought through to come back but missing time consistently perhaps robbed him of confidence and rhythm.
But more than anything else: Patrik Stefan failed on the ice. And for that, he’ll always be one of the great busts ever.