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Members of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft class: Marc-Andre Fleury, Shea Weber and Corey Perry (Associated Press / Reuters)

Members of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft class: Marc-Andre Fleury, Shea Weber and Corey Perry

(Associated Press / Reuters)

The 2003 NHL draft changed the fortunes of a number of teams Add to ...

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.

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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.

“Unfortunately, we lost Suter (to free agency), but that draft set us up for the last six or seven years because the foundation of our team was Suter, Weber and our goaltender (Pekka Rinne).”

Of course, as with every draft, there were memorable hits and misses. Fleury went first overall to the Penguins and won a Stanley Cup with them, before his game went off the rails in the past two post-seasons. Nikolai Zherdev went to the Columbus Blue Jackets fourth overall and never found his way in the NHL, despite tons of talent. It was the same with Andrei Kostitsyn, No. 10 to the Montreal Canadiens. Perhaps no team fumbled the ball worse than the New York Rangers, who took Hugh Jessiman from Dartmouth at No. 12, passing on the likes of Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Parise, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler and others.

That same spring, the Ducks got to the Stanley Cup final and lost to the New Jersey Devils in seven games. Under today’s amended draft rules, that would have put them 29th in the draft order (because teams that advance to the conference final are automatically placed at the end of the first round). However, back then, the Ducks were able to stay at 19, because they only had the seventh best record in the conference, which is how they came to draft Getzlaf. As for picking Perry at No. 28, the Ducks traded up to get that pick, giving a pair of seconds to the Dallas Stars. Perry won an MVP award, the Stars actually did OK with their seconds, drafting Loui Eriksson as a decent consolation prize along with B.J. Crombeen.

The champion Devils meanwhile made an astute trade, moving up from No. 22 (a pick acquired from the St. Louis Blues) to No. 17, which is where the Edmonton Oilers were selecting. To move down five places, the Oilers received an extra second-round pick. New Jersey took a future superstar in Parise; Edmonton settled for Marc-Antoine Pouliot at 22 and J.F. Jacques at 68. Not a good day for the Oilers.

David McNab, the Ducks’ senior vice president of hockey operations, says he told his friend, Devils’ David Conte, the Devils’ executive VP of hockey operations: “This isn’t the way the draft is supposed to work. You guys won the Stanley Cup – and you get Zach Parise. When you think about it, the two teams in the finals got Getzlaf, Perry and Parise.

“Pretty good.”

Pretty great, actually.

According to McNab, the Ducks’ scouts had a group of players they wanted in the first round “and the last guy in that group was Corey Perry. So I give our scouts credit. We zeroed in on Corey Perry. It wasn’t as if we traded up get a first-round pick and then just take who was there. It was ‘we only would have made the trade if Corey Perry was there.’ So every time somebody picked and Perry didn’t go, Bryan Murray (the Duck’s GM) went to the next team and made an offer. And that’s sometimes a tough time to get a team to make a trade because the scouts are ready and anxious to make a pick and then the GM says, ‘OK, we’re moving the pick.’”

The story of how the Predators happened to land Weber 49th overall began with a pick that worked out far less well for them. Two years before, Nashville spent a second-round pick on Tomas Slovak, a Czech who came to North America and ended up playing for the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. Slovak was a top-four defenceman on the Rockets in 2002-03 and so the Predators spent a lot of time in his second draft year, watching him and seeing if he was worth signing. Spending all that time in Kelowna, they also had a chance to see a smallish defenceman playing on the third pair who seemed to have great hockey sense and a fierce competitive streak.

Weber is 6-4 and 234 pounds now, but he was considered undersized in his draft year.

“You talk about your good luck, or your bad luck, or however you want to characterize it, but as an organization, we had the ability to see Weber maybe more than what other teams would have been watching him because Slovak was in the top-four in Kelowna and killing penalties,” said Poile. “Weber was getting more irregular ice time and playing behind him. It’s a classic story of being in the right place at the right time and being good – but also being a little bit lucky.”

Some scouts believe every draft is good and others find flaws in them all. How do you anticipate a draft is this deep?

“It’s really hard, but that’s our job,” said Poile. “From a management standpoint, I ask our scouts all the time to try and differentiate this year’s draft from next year’s draft, so I can weigh the value of a second-round pick year over year – or if I don’t have one, should I go and get one.

“The good news is, in recent memory, they’ve almost all been good drafts. We’re producing way more players now than before, and higher quality players, from many different parts of the world. So I think it’s always good to have lots of picks at the draft. Development is really good in a lot of different places now.”

The Anaheim Ducks decision to sign Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to entry-level contracts before the 2004-05 lockout was largely responsible for helping them win the Stanley Cup in 2007. According to David McNab, the team’s senior vice president of hockey operations, Getzlaf and Perry were the last players signed to contracts before the lockout began, and as such, were subject to the 24 per cent rollback that eventually came.

Moreover, their signing bonuses didn’t count against the new salary cap, which was introduced when play resumed in 2005-06. The miniscule cost of Getzlaf, Perry and rookie forward Dustin Penner permitted the Ducks to spend their money elsewhere, to trade for Chris Pronger and sign Scott Niedermayer as a free agent away from the New Jersey Devils.

“I remember we were waiting for Perry and Getzlaf to come into the office to sign the contracts as Gary (commissioner Gary Bettman) was on television, saying, ‘at such and such a time, the lockout will start,’” said McNab. “We faxed them in literally 30 minutes before the rosters were frozen. When we won the Stanley Cup, the total between the three might have been $1.5-million against the cap. That is something that will never happen again – to have three players of that magnitude whose cap totals averaged about $500,000 each.”

A look at how the 2003 entry draft unfolded and how it might look 10 years later:

2003 DRAFT: THEN

2003 DRAFT: NOW

1

Marc-Andre Fleury

1

Shea Weber

2

Eric Staal

2

Eric Staal

3

Nathan Horton

3

Corey Perry

4

Nikolai Zherdev

4

Ryan Getzlaf

5

Thomas Vanek

5

Zach Parise

6

Milan Michalek

6

Ryan Suter

7

Ryan Suter

7

Patrice Bergeron

8

Braydon Coburn

8

Mike Richards

9

Dion Phaneuf

9

Thomas Vanek

10

Andrei Kostitsyn

10

Ryan Kesler

11

Jeff Carter

11

Dustin Brown

12

Hugh Jessiman

12

Brent Seabrook

13

Dustin Brown

13

Brent Burns

14

Brent Seabrook

14

Jeff Carter

15

Robert Nilsson

15

Nathan Horton

16

Steve Bernier

16

Loui Eriksson

17

Zach Parise

17

Dustin Byfuglien

18

Eric Fehr

18

David Backes

19

Ryan Getzlaf

19

Jimmy Howard

20

Brent Burns

20

Joe Pavelski

21

Mark Stuart

21

Milan Michalek

22

Marc-Antoine Pouliot

22

Dion Phaneuf

23

Ryan Kesler

23

Matt Carle

24

Mike Richards

24

Tobias Enstrom

25

Anthony Stewart

25

Matt Moulson

26

Brian Boyle

26

Braydon Coburn

27

Jeff Tambellini

27

Jaroslav Halak

28

Corey Perry

28

Marc-Andre Fleury

29

Patrick Eaves

29

Brian Elliott

30

Shawn Belle

30

Brian Boyle

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