NHL’s Best Draft Happened 21 Years Ago

It was a weekend to remember at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville in late June, so many years ago.

It was an enormously successful event – that summer’s entry draft – and its impact is still, some how, being felt around the National Hockey League today.

It not only produced a bounty of sure-fire Hockey Hall of Fame skaters; it also was one of the very few drafts that saw a goalie go first overall as well as producing a guy who’s become hockey’s biggest podcast icon and media powerhouse.

The year?


The proclamation?

It was the best NHL entry draft in history.

And why, Dave, are you writing about a happening from more than two decades ago?

Because after last week’s entry draft, and upon further reflection, doesn’t every team speak the same speak following the process? Isn’t it – “We hit a home run.” Or – “I can’t believe the player we wanted was still around at pick No. ‘pick-yer-digit.’”

Bless their big hearts . . . everyone genuinely believes they’ve rolled out of the draft a winner.

And back in 2003, most would be right.

I mean, here we are 21 years later and there remains a number of skaters still active in the league. Check it out – Marc-Andre Fleury (the aforementioned first selection, and the very last netminder to be selected first overall), Corey Perry, Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Brent Burns, Jeff Carter and Joe Pavelski all played somewhat significant roles on their teams as they approached the age of 40.

The numbers and names are staggering:

• Twenty-seven players from that entry draft have captured spots over the years on the league’s all-star roster.

• The draft was so rich that the second-to-last player picked (291st, right between legends Loic Burkhalter and Arseny Bondarev), Brian Elliott by Ottawa, played 16 seasons and appeared in two all-star games.

• These days the draft goes just seven rounds. In 2003, it was nine. Here are some of the players who would have been missed a week and a half ago: Elliott (obviously), Dustin Byfuglien (8th round), Tobias Enstrom (8th round), Shane O’Brien (8th round), Matt Moulson (9th round), Tanner Glass (9th round), Nick (Nasty) Tarnasky (9th round), Jaroslav Halak (9th round) and David Jones (9th round).

• Byfuglien won a Cup with Chicago in 2010 and skated in close to 1,000 games (regular season and playoffs), ending his career with a charge in Winnipeg.

• Thirteen players from the first round went on to skate in more than 1,000 NHL games.

• Pavelski, a seventh-rounder, has appeared in 1,332 games.

• Suter leads this impressive list in games played with 1,444 (and isn’t interested in retiring just yet).

• The NY Rangers and St. Louis Blues were the only two clubs to truly stub their toes in the opening round. NY took Hugh Jessiman (nicknamed ‘Huge Specimen’) at No. 12, one pick ahead of Dustin Brown (LA, 1,296 games) and two ahead of Brent Seabrook (Chicago, 1,114 games). Hugh laced them up for just two NHL games . . .

• . . . The Blues then took Shawn Belle at the end of the round. He hit the ice just 20 times and none were with St. Louis.

Now that we’ve hit on the opening round and the last couple, a further look at the rest of the draft brings more quality names to the fore.

Round No. 2 conjured more gems.

Three more skaters hit the 1,000-game plateau in the great Patrice Bergeron (Boston, 45th overall), the great Shea Weber (Nashville, 49th overall) and the pretty-good Loui Eriksson (Dallas, 33rd overall).

David Backes (St. Louis, 62nd) would surely have joined the 1,000 gamers if not for injuries.

In Round 3, Dan Carcillo, Clarke MacArthur and Zach Stortini made a splash.

Round 4 brought the wildly entertaining pod-meister Paul Bissonnette into pro hockey. Bissonnette is currently considered one of the most powerful voices in hockey (he also lumbered through 202 NHL games, mostly with Phoenix).

In Round 5, Brad Richardson, Lee Stempniak and John Mitchell were selected. All three plateaued the 500-game mark.

A couple of Ottawa Senators in Marc Methot of the London Knights and Nate Thompson of the WHL went to market in the next round.

Pavelski and Edmonton Oiler standout Kyle Brodziak were feature picks of Round No. 7.

While dipping into the research pond to put this rant together, I cruised by a couple of ‘NHL 2003 Re-Draft!’ pieces. Interesting stuff too.

The best – that I could find – was likely an NHL.com column from about four years ago that had Patrice Bergeron ahead of Fleury at No. 1. Tough call and while it’s hard to separate diamonds from diamonds, I can’t argue . . . Bergeron was one of (and maybe the best) two-way, clutch centres in the history of the NHL.

Others in their Top-10?

Eric Staal (2nd), Ryan Getzlaf (3rd), Ryan Suter (4th), Shea Weber (5th), Brent Burns (6th), Fleury (7th), Joe Pavelski (8th), Zach Parise (9th) and Corey Perry (10th).

Me, I’d put Weber higher. Stud blueliner with a killer shot, savvy defensively and mean.

Lots to tackle and debate here but there is no denying that 2003 produced a jaw-dropping amount of talent.

The best in class.


HEADER IMAGE: Marc-André Fleury was selected by the Penguins as the first-round pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. PHOTO: Getty Images