We decided to take a look back at the number one overall picks since the league instituted its amateur draft in 1963 and determine which ones have had the most success in senior IIHF competition. Naturally, there are some interesting caveats to keep in mind.
NHL players did not start going to the Worlds until the 1977 tournament in Vienna. Although the IOC voted as early as 1986 to allow NHLers to compete in the Olympics, full NHL participation did not begin until 1998 in Nagano. NHLers then appeared at the next four Olympics, but did not take part in PyeongChang in 2018.
Bottom line: certain players have had bigger opportunities to crack our ranking, which takes into account both team and individual accomplishments.
Here are the top 10 number one overall picks who shone at the Olympics and Worlds.
1) Sidney Crosby, Canada — #1 overall to Pittsburgh, 2005The Penguins captain achieved immortality at age 22. Crosby scored the “Golden Goal” for Canada on the U.S.’s Ryan Miller at 7:40 of overtime at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In our lifetime, we may never again witness a country’s top forward getting a sudden-death winner on home ice against a neighbouring archrival in an Olympic final.
However, there’s much more to Crosby’s IIHF story. As the Canadian captain, he got the second goal in the 2014 final in Sochi, beating Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway en route to his second Olympic gold medal. Crosby is the only player with the same number of Olympic gold medals as Hart, Art Ross, Maurice Richard, and Conn Smythe Trophies.
This three-time Stanley Cup champion made his mark early on at the Worlds, too. At age 18, he led the 2006 tournament in Riga with 16 points, becoming the youngest player ever to do so. In 2015, Crosby captained Canada to gold in Prague as the marquee talent on the most offensively dominant squad of the 2010’s (66 goals).
2) Mats Sundin, Sweden — #1 overall to Quebec, 1989This 2013 IIHF Hall of Fame inductee (#1 overall to Quebec, 1989) invariably shone for the Swedish national team. Sundin capped off his international career perfectly, wearing the “C” at the 2006 Turin Olympics as he set up Nicklas Lidstrom’s third-period gold-medal winner versus Finland.
The towering centre emerged as a World Championship game-breaker in the 1990’s. In 1991 in Turku, Sundin, 20, outwitted Vyacheslav Fetisov for the go-ahead goal in Sweden’s final 2-1 victory over Russia. Sundin topped the scoring derby with seven goals and 12 points. In 1992 in Prague, he opened the scoring as Tre Kronor ousted the Russians 2-0 in the quarter-finals en route to gold. The newly minted Toronto Maple Leafs captain led the points parade again in Zurich with 11 points in 1998.
Even when Sweden fell short, Sundin stepped up. In an extreme example, the three-time Olympian had nine points in four preliminary-round games at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. He was named a tournament all-star in spite of Sweden’s shocking 4-3 loss to Belarus in the quarter-finals.
3) Ilya Kovalchuk, Russia — #1 overall to Atlanta, 2001Before the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Canada, Ilya Kovalchuk was already a veteran of two Olympics and four Worlds, but only had three bronze medals to show for it. The passionate, hard-shooting Tver-born forward, who tied Rick Nash for the NHL lead with 41 goals in 2004, solidified his IIHF fame by scoring the 5-4 overtime winner as Russia rallied to shock Canada in the gold medal game in Quebec City.
Kovalchuk turned up the heat in 2009 in Berne. He earned Best Forward and all-star honours with 14 points, and Russia beat the Canadians again, 2-1, in the final. In 2018, “Kovy” returned after a two-year absence from the national team to serve as captain at the Olympics, and was named MVP with five goals for the golden Russians.
4) Rick Nash, Canada — #1 overall to Columbus, 2002Rick Nash was limited to just four playoff games in his nine seasons with the Blue Jackets. However, the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner had virtually no limits when it came to international glory.
He was voted to the media all-star team with a tournament-leading nine goals for the Canadian silver-medal team in Vienna in the NHL lockout year of 2005. Nash scored twice in a 4-2 gold-medal win over Finland at the 2007 Worlds in Moscow. On Canada’s fourth goal, the 2007 MVP famously powered to the net with defenceman Pekka Saravo draped all over his back and shoveled a backhander past goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Perhaps most significantly, this three-time Olympian is the only #1 overall pick besides Sidney Crosby with two Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014). In 2010, Nash’s 3-0 goal, set up by Jonathan Toews on the rush, in Canada’s 7-3 quarter-final romp over Russia electrified the Vancouver crowd.
5) Alexander Ovechkin, Russia — #1 overall to Washington, 2004The eighth-highest goal-scorer in NHL history with 706 goals, Alexander Ovechkin has earned his place in this ranking as much through dedication as through skill.
Dating back to his 2004 senior IIHF debut and including the abbreviated 2019-20 NHL season, this surefire Hall of Famer has amazingly suited up for Russia in 14 out of the last 17 seasons. The Washington superstar was unavailable in 2009 when his Capitals played two consecutive seven-game playoff series, losing to Montreal, and in 2018, when they beat Vegas for their first Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin’s IIHF torch actually burned brightest in his early years. The explosive left winger has struggled with expectations at the Olympics since debuting with five goals in 2006. His two World Championship all-star team selections were back in 2006 and 2008. That said, Ovechkin boasts three Worlds gold medals (2008, 2012, 2014), not to mention two silvers and four bronzes, and the Moscow native will most likely represent Russia again before hanging up his skates.
6) Eric Lindros, Canada — #1 overall to Quebec, 1991As in the NHL, Eric Lindros delivered quality over quantity in his IIHF career. Mean and talented, the ultimate 1990’s power forward racked up 11 points in his 1992 Olympic debut in Albertville, and Canada settled for silver behind the Viktor Tikhonov-coach Unified Team. Lindros got the dramatic shootout clincher in the 4-3 quarter-final victory over Germany.
Coming off his rookie season with the Philadelphia Flyers, Lindros was even better at the 1993 Worlds in Germany, although Canada finished fourth. His 11 goals were the most by any Canadian in the post-Soviet era until Dany Heatley got 12 goals in 2008. Lindros won the ‘93 scoring title with 17 points.
The 1995 Hart Trophy winner was less successful as Canada’s captain at the inaugural “NHL Olympics” in 1998. Lindros had five points as Canada lost to the Dominik Hasek-led Czechs in the semi-final and the Finns in the bronze medal game. Although concussions took a toll on him in the new millennium, he finished his Olympic career as a champion with gold in Salt Lake City.
7) Mario Lemieux, Canada — #1 overall to Pittsburgh, 1984When Mario Lemieux scored the 6-5 winner against the Soviet Union in Game Three of the 1987 Canada Cup final, the 21-year-old prodigy became a certified Canadian legend for converting Wayne Gretzky’s set-up with 1:26 left. However, in official IIHF competition, Lemieux also made his mark.
Two years earlier, Pittsburgh’s future six-time NHL scoring champion helped Canada secure a silver medal at the Worlds as host Czechoslovakia took the gold. Lemieux shone with two goals in a 3-1 victory over the Soviets.
Injuries and deep playoff runs would keep “Super Mario” out of a Canadian uniform until the new millennium. However, when Gretzky, as Team Canada’s executive director, asked him to captain the 2002 Olympic squad, Lemieux stepped up. He recorded six points in five games at age 37, and the Canadians took home their first Olympic gold medal in 50 years. Perhaps the most gifted forward in NHL history, he was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2008.
8) Joe Thornton, Canada — #1 overall to Boston, 1997With 1,509 career points, Joe Thornton is the all-time active NHL scoring leader, sitting 231 points ahead of Alexander Ovechkin. Although the veteran San Jose Sharks centre is still seeking his first Stanley Cup, “Jumbo Joe” has built an enviable IIHF resume.
In 2005, he earned two MVP designations during the NHL lockout. First, he led Davos to the Swiss NLA championship, and then he tallied a tournament-high 16 points for the stacked Canadian squad that fell 3-0 to the Czechs in the final in Vienna. Thornton played a quieter role en route to gold at the 2010 Olympics, earning an assist against Norway and a goal against Germany.
Outside IIHF competition, Thornton is also known for setting up Shane Doan’s 3-2 winner versus Finland in the inaugural 2004 World Cup of Hockey final.
9) Patrick Kane, USA — #1 overall to Chicago, 2007Patrick Kane arguably boasts the niftiest hands in modern hockey. The three-time Stanley Cup champion and 2016 Hart Trophy winner has grabbed the steering wheel at all three of his IIHF World Championships.
Most notably, when the U.S. won the bronze medal in Copenhagen in 2018, Kane became the first player to hit 20 points since Dany Heatley in 2008. He also shone at that ‘08 tournament in Canada, making his senior debut with 10 points. And last year, when Kane wore the “C” for the second straight year, he racked up 12 points even though the U.S. lost 4-3 to Russia in the quarter-finals.
A two-time Olympian (2010, 2014), Kane stepped up with five points when the Americans earned the silver medal in Vancouver. He scored twice in the 6-1 semi-final romp over Finland and assisted on the goals by Ryan Kesler and Zach Parise in the 3-2 overtime final loss.
10) Connor McDavid, Canada — #1 overall to Edmonton, 2015It’s early days yet for Connor McDavid, but the Oilers superstar, a two-time Art Ross Trophy winner, has already enjoyed considerable team success in IIHF competition.
In 2016, he joined Canada at the Worlds in Russia after his NHL rookie year. The lightning-fast centre from Richmond Hill, Ontario had eight assists but remained goalless heading into the gold medal game against the Finns. However, McDavid drew first blood in the first period, executing a choppy give-and-go with Matt Duchene and roofing a forehander in tight over future Edmonton teammate Mikko Koskinen. The goal stood up as the winner as Canada downed Finland 2-0.
After earning the Hart Trophy in 2017, McDavid returned to the IIHF fray in 2018. He totalled five goals and 17 points, leaving him third in the Worlds scoring race. He put on a clutch performance when Canada beat Russia 5-4 in overtime in the quarter-finals. McDavid had three assists, including a beautiful feed to Ryan O’Reilly for the game-winner.
Even though the Canadians came fourth after losses to Switzerland and the U.S., McDavid signalled that he could lead the way at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.