On this day in 2000, the Tampa Bay Lightning made one of the most important signings in franchise history, though no one could have known it at the time.
Looking for some additional scoring and a way to get that on a budget, the Lightning went out and plucked a 25-year-old named Martin St-Louis off the free agent pile, signing the diminutive winger to a two-year contract. The deal, which flew under the radar at the time, would end up being one of the biggest acquisitions the Lightning have ever made.
As we all know now, St-Louis would, in four short seasons, rise from a third-line winger to a top-six scorer, blowing everyone away by the 2003-04 season with a 38-goal, 94-point season that saw St-Louis earn the Hart, Pearson and Art Ross Trophies. That same season, St-Louis also finished top-five in voting for the Selke and Lady Byng, also earning a first team all-star nod in the process.
Over his remaining time in Tampa Bay, and throughout the remainder of his career, St-Louis was one of the most prolific scorers in the league. In fact, from 2005-06 onward, only 11 players managed more points than St-Louis, and when he retired following the 2014-15 season, he did so as one of the best players of his era. The most impressive thing about St-Louis is that he did all of this not just as a player who was passed over once he got into the NHL, but one who was passed over before his big league career even began. And that St-Louis went on to what is almost surely a Hall of Fame career, it makes him one of the greatest undrafted players in league history. But who joins St-Louis on that list?
10. Geoff Courtnall
Looking back on Courtnall’s WHL numbers today makes it hard to believe he went undrafted, but back when he was putting up 41 goals and 114 points with the Victoria Cougars, it was barely enough for the winger to crack the league’s top-20. So, from the WHL, it was off to the AHL, where Courtnall would spend one season before becoming a full-timer with the Boston Bruins in 1984-85. But it was in 1988-89 with the Washington Capitals that Courtnall really broke out, scoring 42 goals and 80 points in 79 games.
Over the next five seasons, he remained nearly a point per game player, registering 148 goals and 343 points in 393 games, before playing out his career as a bottom-six winger for the St. Louis Blues. Courtnall retired in 1999 with 367 goals and 799 points in 1,048 games.
9. Dan Boyle
Four successful years at Miami University should have put Boyle on the radar, but when he left following the 1997-98 season, he was signed by the Florida Panthers and came aboard as a minor leaguer for the club. Over the next three seasons, Boyle would bounce up and down from the NHL to the AHL before a mid-season traded in 2001-02 saw the rearguard move to the state rival Tampa Bay Lightning. And in Tampa Bay, Boyle caught on in a big way.
His offensive ability clicked with the Lightning and Boyle rose into the top spot on the back end, giving Tampa Bay a puck-moving defenseman who could put points on the board in bunches. Over the next five years, Boyle scored 61 goals and 233 points in 353 games before eventually moving onto the San Jose Sharks, where he would register another 68 goals and 269 points in 431 games. After two final seasons as a New York Ranger, Boyle retired with 163 goals and 605 points in 1,093 games.
8. Steve Thomas
Thomas, like Courtnall, had outstanding numbers in major junior, but nowhere near those of the top five scorers in the OHL at the time. Thus, when the draft came and went, Thomas was left to find his own home, signing ahead of the 1984-85 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That first season, Thomas only got into 18 games with the Leafs, but by 1985-86, he was a 20-goal, 57-point scorer in Toronto and he followed that up with a 35-goal, 62-point year in 1986-87.
Thomas would end up a Chicago Blackhawk the next season though, and over the course of his career pulled on jerseys for the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Detroit Red Wings. Thomas ability to adjust to a bottom-six role allowed him to continue his career until he was 40, at which point he retired with 421 goals and 933 points in 1,235 games.
7. Curtis Joseph
Goaltenders can be tough to scout, but it’s hard to imagine how Joseph, who is the fourth-winningest goaltender in NHL history and arguably the best eligible goaltender not yet in the Hall of Fame, went undrafted. Joseph’s numbers in the NCAA, where he played for Wisconsin, were enough to land him divisional player and rookie of the year honors, but he only managed to get to the NHL after inking an entry-level deal with the St. Louis Blues.
By his third full season in the league in 1992-93, Jospeh was already a star, finishing third in Vezina Trophy voting after posting a league-leading .911 save percentage. The following year he would match the mark, finishing fourth in Vezina voting, and go on to finish top-five for the award twice more before his career was up.
When Joseph retired in 2009, after stints with the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Phoenix Coyotes and Calgary Flames, he had 454 wins to his name. Only Ed Belfour, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur have more.
6. Joe Mullen
During his four years at Boston College, Mullen was as effective as any player in the NCAA. But standing just 5-foot-9 and less than 200 pounds, Mullen was passed over in the draft only to be signed by the St. Louis Blues following his final college campaign.
It wasn’t straight to the NHL for Mullen, though. He spent two seasons in the CHL before finally earning a call-up to the big club in 1981-82. Over 45 games, Mullen made quite the impression with the Blues, notching 25 goals and 59 points, and by 1983-84 he had broken out as a star sniper, contributing 41 goals and 85 points.
Mullen bounced around as his career continued, moving to the Calgary Flames, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, but he did so because he was incredibly useful. A prolific scorer, he ended his playing days in 1997 having scored 502 goals and 1,063 points in 1,062 games. He has three Stanley Cups to his name and is one of only five American players with 500 goals.
5. Dino Ciccarelli
One tough season was all it took for NHL teams to pass on Ciccarelli, a decision which is somewhat hard to fathom in hindsight given he not only challenged but defeated Wayne Gretzky for the OMJHL goal-scoring crown in 1977-78. Ciccarelli’s 72 goals in 68 games were two more than Gretzky’s 70 in 64 games. Come the 1978-79 season, though, Ciccarelli was only able to suit up in 30 games. That played a part in his being passed over in the 1979 draft.
Everyone else’s loss was the Minnesota North Stars’ gain, however, and they signed Ciccarelli to a contract. It took only three seasons for the signing to look like a stroke of genius, because in 1981-82, Ciccarelli scored a whopping 55 goals and 106 points to finish ninth in NHL scoring, and he went on to score 332 goals and 651 points in 602 games as a North Star.
From 1988-89 to 1998-99, Ciccarelli would suit up for four more teams before hanging up the skates for good following 1,232 games, across which he put up 608 goals and 1,200 points. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.
4. Borje Salming
On the international stage and in the Swedish League, Salming was a budding young star when he was discovered by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it didn’t take long before he brought that same level of talent to the NHL. In his first season, Salming was a Calder Trophy finalist and finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting, and he remained top-five in Norris voting for the next six seasons. In his first seven seasons, Salming would register an outstanding 97 goals and 431 points in 522 games, and the only defensemen with more points was Denis Potvin.
Salming continued his career with the Maple Leafs and remained a key member of the organization until 1989-90, when he ended his career following a one-year stint with the Detroit Red Wings. Salming’s 1,099 games are the third-most of any Maple Leaf and no Toronto defenseman has more points than Salming’s 768.
Salming was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996, the IIHF Hall of Fame in 1998 and had his jersey retired by the Maple Leafs in 2006.
3. Peter Stastny
Salming may have been a budding star when he came over to the NHL, but Stastny was already there. With HC Slovan Bratislava in the Czech Republic, Stastny was an all-star, player of the year and a superstar internationally. But he left that all behind in 1980-81, signing on to join the Quebec Nordiques, and he more than proved himself in the world’s best league as a rookie. That first season, Stastny scored 39 goals and 109 points in 77 games, and followed that up with at least 100 points in six of his next seven seasons.
Stastny remained with the Nordiques for nearly 10 seasons, but finally moved along in 1989-90, landing with the New Jersey Devils before finishing out his playing days with two brief stints in St. Louis. Stastny ended his career after six games with the Blues in 1994-95, retiring with 450 goals and 1,239 points in 977 games.
Stastny was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 and the IIHF Hall of Fame in 1999.
2. Adam Oates
For Oates to go undrafted after posting nine goals and 42 points in 22 games as an NCAA rookie is one thing, but that he went undrafted after 83- and 91-point years — both in 38-game seasons — is baffling. But as Oates prepared to leave college, the Detroit Red Wings stepped up and signed the Hobey Baker Award finalist to a contract shortly after he helped RPI to a national title.
Oates’ first four seasons in the NHL, all with the Red Wings, were impressive, but his 54 goals and 199 points were only a taste of what he could achieve. And after a trade to the St. Louis Blues in June 1989, Oates’ career took off. He put up back-to-back 100-plus point campaigns before a trade to Boston set him up for the best year of his career. In 1992-93, Oates scored an outstanding 45 goals and 142 points to earn MVP consideration.
Considered by some to be the set-up man of his era, Oates’ career ended in 2003-04. Then 41, Oates retired with 341 goals and 1,079 assists in 1,337 games. His assist total remains the seventh-most in league history, and, after a long wait, Oates was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
1. Ed Belfour
When it comes to performances by a rookie netminder, it’s difficult to look past Belfour’s as arguably the greatest of all time. In his first season, he led the league in save percentage, goals-against average and wins, putting up a remarkable 43 in his debut campaign and earning the Calder, Vezina and Jennings trophies. And considering that, it’s hard to believe he made his way to the NHL as an undrafted free agent.
Belfour was coming off of one season with the NCAA’s University of North Dakota when he signed on with the Blackhawks in 1987. He wouldn’t make his full-time debut until the 1990-91 season, but over the next seven and a half campaigns, Belfour would become the backbone of the Blackhawks. He won another two Jennings Trophies, one more Vezina, finished top 10 in voting another three times and consistently guided Chicago to the playoffs.
Eventually, though, Belfour would move on, first to the San Jose Sharks before landing with the Dallas Stars in 1997-98. And as a Star, Belfour would finally capture a championship, winning the 1999 Stanley Cup. Belfour played another seven seasons following the Cup victory with one additional year in the Swedish League before hanging up his skates.
In 2011, Belfour became a first ballot Hall of Famer.