The year was 2003. Everywhere around the NHL, there was excitement about the annual entry draft – not because there was any great sense that this would yield one of the greatest bumper crops of prospects in years, but because it was being held in Nashville for the first time. Nashville, with its cowboy culture. Nashville, with its great hospitality. Nashville, because of Tootsie’s and all the great gin joints on Broadway, just across the way from the Gaylord Entertainment Centre.
In much the same way that the upcoming 2013 draft class has been characterized as the year of Seth Jones/Nathan McKinnon/Jonathan Drouin, it was that way 10 years ago too – except the names at the top were Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal and Nathan Horton.
But it turned out to be so much more than just the Big Three.
The hometown Predators essentially built their defence for close to a decade around three players they landed that year – Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Kevin Klein. The Anaheim Ducks drafted two cornerstones, Ryan Getzlaf at 19 and Corey Perry at 28, while the Philadelphia Flyers plucked Jeff Carter at 11 and Mike Richards at 24 and essentially helped put the finishing touches on the Los Angeles Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup winner.
NHL draft gurus like to talk about draft years the way oenologists talk about wine vintages. Most of the hockey variety will say the 1979 draft, which was a double cohort because of the NHL-WHA merger was the deepest and most profoundly influential draft class in NHL history.
But once you get past 1979, there are those who believe 2003 might be the next greatest, a year in which future Hart and Norris Trophy candidates were drafted, Stanley Cup champions, dozens of Olympians and many, many cornerstone players.
“At every draft, you hear the same thing from teams – that you’ve got to get players who will play in the NHL,” said former Calgary Flames’ general manager Craig Button, now a draft analyst for TSN. “The players that came out of the 2003 draft didn’t just play. These guys were captains, won gold medals, won Stanley Cups, won major awards – and we’re talking about key contributors at key times. Eric Staal became a big-time performer when Carolina won. Ryan Getzlaf was a big-time performer when they won. Even though Zach Parise fell a little with New Jersey (in 2012), they were riding on his back.
“When you think about the offer sheet on Weber, the biggest offer sheet in history was on Shea Weber, another one from that draft. We’re talking about front-line players at every turn.”
Salary is not always a good measure of impact, but among the NHL’s top-paid players for the upcoming 2013-14 season in terms of actual dollars paid, four of the top six were drafted in 2003 (Weber, Zach Parise, Suter and Eric Staal). By salary-cap average, it is even higher: Six crack the top 10 (Perry, Staal, Getzlaf, Weber, Parise and Suter) and Thomas Vanek is at No. 15.
By any measure, that is a significant bounty of talent, one that changed the fortunes of a number of teams, including the host team Nashville.
“The ‘03 draft just set so many people up,” said David Poile, the Nashville Predators’ general manager. “We all think the drafts are good, but I don’t think anybody realize that ‘03 would be as great as it was.
“I know, from a Nashville standpoint, we were excited for a lot of reasons. We were still in that expansion era of our franchise, so we got a lot of extra picks that year, not just because it was a good draft, but because it was in Nashville. It was important to our fans. We ended up with four defencemen that ended up playing for our team and in the NHL – Suter, Weber, Klein and (Alexander) Sulzer, which is phenomenal. We ended up taking two Russians in the middle of all that who never came over to play. When I look at that draft, there were still players there. We could have had maybe six guys who could have played on our team.