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2003 Draft Class Looking Like Best Ever

by Staff Writer / Chicago Blackhawks
Every night. And I mean every night, while scanning NHL games, there's an item about players from the first round of the 2003 Entry Draft making an impact in the NHL. And it's no coincidence.

On Hall of Fame induction night in Toronto, there were only two games in the NHL. Yet there was little-used winger Eric Fehr, Washington's first-round pick in 2003, scoring his first goal of the season against Tampa Bay. But that's just a juicy bottom-line tidbit to the real story about this draft class that is quickly rivaling the best in NHL history. The '03 group is right there along with 1979 (Ray Bourque, Mike Gartner and Michel Goulet) and 1993 (Chris Pronger, Paul Kariya and Saku Koivu) drafts.

"I remember being a young scout for the Washington Capitals and listening to all of the veterans talk about that 1979 draft and all I know is that we've been using that draft as a measuring stick for all other drafts since," said Anaheim assistant GM David McNab, he of more than 30 NHL season and a long-time scouting guru in Washington, Hartford and New York with the Rangers. "Names like Bourque and Gartner, Goulet and (Kevin) Lowe and (Rob) Ramage, (Perry) Turnbull, (Mike) Foligno, (Rick) Vaive, (Craig) Hartsburg, (Laurie) Boschman, (Mike) Ramsey, (Paul) Reinhart, (Brian) Propp, (Brad) McCrimmon, (Jay) Wells, (Duane) Sutter.

"I think all 21 players in the first round of that draft played regularly in the NHL, didn't they? I'm not in that position of beating the bushes to see all of the top prospects anymore, but I got the sense that the 2003 draft was something very, very special when I heard our scouts buzzing about guys in our meetings. It was the same kind of buzz I heard scouts all over North America tell me about that 1979 draft."

McNab's Ducks wound up with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the first round of the '03 draft. Perhaps that's evidence enough.

On a given night, we'll find goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury making acrobatic saves. We'll see Thomas Vanek challenging for the League lead in goals along with Zach Parise. We see the likes of Eric Staal, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Getzlaf, Perry, Nathan Horton and Ryan Kesler making power moves toward the net. Nikolai Zherdev and Andrei Kostitsyn will dangle with the best of them, and Milan Michalek will dazzle with his speed. And how about defensemen Dion Phaneuf, Braydon Coburn, Ryan Suter, Brent Burns and Brent Seabrook?

That's 19 impact players from one draft -- and arguably more if you include NHL regulars Steve Bernier, Robert Nilsson, Mark Stuart, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Patrick Eaves, Anthony Stewart and Jeff Tambellini.

During the Stanley Cup Final last spring, Pittsburgh Penguins goalie coach Gilles Meloche talked about Fleury, his stingy, young netminder, who was the first pick in that 2003 draft of riches.

"We had the No. 3 pick in the draft and we knew we were going to get a great prospect anywhere in the top 12-15 players, but we were looking to build a championship team from goal on out and it was important for us to get a goalie somewhere along the line -- and not too many goalies like Marc-Andre come along," Meloche explained. "We felt we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get that goaltender for the present and the future in Marc-Andre Fleury."

Two things were very true about that statement. There were 12-15 and more top players in that draft ... plus Fleury was indeed very, very special.

So on June 21, 2003, Meloche, a pretty good goaltender himself, convinced then-Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick to make the trade -- a trade that included winger Mikael Samuelsson, a first-round pick (third overall) and a second-rounder to Florida for the first pick and a third-rounder.

You certainly couldn't go wrong with a lineup right out of the box that included Fleury, Staal, Horton, Zherdev, Vanek, Michalek, Suter, Coburn, Phaneuf and Kostitsyn.

The legend of Bobby Lou -- That's what Roberto Luongo is called by his nearest and dearest fans in Vancouver. Luongo's five shutouts already this season, plus a 242-minute, 38-second shutout streak are part of that legend. What's even more interesting is that this is the same goalie who was being dissed last season for being pre-occupied by the problems his wife was having in Florida with the birth of their first child.

Luongo said it was advice former Canucks captain Trevor Linden gave to him about dealing with the media in good times and bad.

Explained Luongo, "He told me there are certain things you can't control. Plus, it's not good to waste negative energy on that kind of stuff."

In other words, shut out the bad vibrations ... and that will help you shut down the rest of the shooters in the NHL.

Burke's Law -- Yeah, I know it's an old, old cop show. But it was the first thing I could think of to explain the great position Brian Burke left the Anaheim Ducks after he resigned as general manager and turned the duties over to assistant Bob Murray.

Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and J.S. Giguere are locked up long-term, and Chris Pronger and Teemu Selanne each have another year left on their contracts.

Sure Murray will have some tough decisions, such as a list of 12 players who could opt for unrestricted free agency July 1 that includes Scott and Rob Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin, Kent Huskins, Todd Marchant, Brad May, Travis Moen, Steve Montador, Brendan Morrison, Samuel Pahlsson, George Parros and Brian Sutherby.

Murray explained, "Brian and I had talked about what our plan moving forward was since we lost in the playoff last spring. There are no surprises."

Looking to be challenged -- Jason Spezza was taken second in the 2001 Entry Draft. He has put up totals of 90, 87 and 92 points the last three seasons. But there's always that feeling that a player as skilled as Spezza can do more. This season, he's been challenged constantly by new coach Craig Hartsburg. Not to worry. Spezza said, "We sat down at the beginning of the year, I told him, 'If you don't think I'm playing well, I want to know. I want to know, and I want you to challenge me.' " Now, all Spezza has to do is convince the media in Ottawa. ... Montreal winger Chris Higgins whispered coming into this season that, after getting a career-high 27 goals last season, that 40 wouldn't be out of the question. After missing the first six games with an injury and having only one goal coming into a game against Ottawa on Nov. 11, Higgins showed that promise with his first career hat trick. Size, speed and an ability to finish off his chances. Next time you hear Chris' name in a trade rumor, laugh loudly. ... How about second-year player Patrick Kane saying he won't shave until he's held scoreless. Kane had 1 goal and 2 assists in Chicago's 6-1 win against Calgary on Nov. 8. It was Kane's League-high fourth three-point game this season, already halfway to his total for last season, when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. ... For those who still scoff at the idea of a shootout deciding a game, try to catch a peek at Dallas center Mike Ribeiro's shootout goal against Los Angeles on Nov. 11. What's even more impressive is that he was left bent over in a pool of blood late in the third period after being boarded by Kings captain Dustin Brown. ... Clarke MacArthur seemed to be buried in Buffalo's minor-league system when he was a center playing behind the likes of Chris Drury, Danny Briere and Derek Roy. Now, here he is producing for the Sabres while playing both center and left wing. Six goals in the early going is going to catch a lot of eyes. ... Don't be surprised when the Atlanta Thrashers dangle one of their goaltenders -- Kari Lehtonen, Johan Hedberg or Ondreij Pavelec for a right-handed shooting defenseman -- they have none right now. Rumors suggest that Lehtonen might be the most likely to be traded before the March 4 trade deadline. ... No. No. Norrena? With Pascal Leclaire ready to come off the injured reserve list and rookie Steve Mason becoming the first Columbus netminder to post a victory in his first game, then second, then third, the handwriting seems to be on the wall in the Blue Jackets goal crease, wouldn't you say? Said Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, "We needed something to change for us to get value for the work we were putting in. I looked at the way he played and the way the guys played around him and it's been an easy decision to keep putting him in there. I'd say the way Mase has played has opened the door for him."
A net gain? -- Kevin Weekes knows he has a great opportunity with Martin Brodeur down for three to four months with an elbow injury. If Weekes, who will become an unrestricted free agent in July, plays well, he'll likely earn a new contract. Said the journeyman New Jersey goalie, "I might have to light some candles and burn some incense to create some positive mojo amidst all the injuries we've had." ... Only time will tell if defenseman Matt Carle can regain the confidence he had as a rookie with San Jose in 2006-07, when he had 11 goals and 31 assists. Scouts say Carle began handling the puck like it was a time bomb the last couple of seasons. That spelled his trade from the Sharks to Tampa Bay in the deal for Dan Boyle this summer and a subsequent deal from the Lightning to Philadelphia for tough guy Steve Downie and defenseman Steve Eminger. Carle played 25 minutes in his first game with the Flyers and then came back with 26:59 in the next game.  ... One of the quietest good seasons on defense? It's by Minnesota's Kim Johnsson, who was overlooked by the New York Rangers when he was in their system and undervalued as a puck mover and steady defender when he was in Philadelphia. He leads all Wild players in minutes. ... Right hand. Left hand. The Stars think they are a better club up front now that they've acquired right-handed winger Mark Parrish, and Jere Lehtinen has returned to the lineup for the first time this season. It makes a difference when all four centers -- Mike Ribeiro, Brad Richards, Mike Modano and Toby Peterson -- are lefthanded. ... Two goals in his first game centering Jarome Iginla. That should earn rookie Dustin Boyd another shot at working with Calgary's star winger, don't you think? "Every level he's been at, he's always produced," Iginla said of the Flames' third-round pick in the 2004 Entry Draft. "You can see how much he wants to be out there and be a scorer and be counted on." ... One goal in his first 11 games got Boston winger Marco Sturm a trip to coach Claude Julien's doghouse and a demotion to the team's fourth line. Said Julien, "Marco needs to improve everything. When he's involved, he wins races and wins battles." Message received. Sturm had 2 goals and then 2 assists in his next 2 games. ... In case you didn't notice, Brendan Morrison's first goal with Anaheim came against Dallas' Marty Turco. One Michigan grad against another. On his slow start with the Ducks, Morrison said, "If the team wasn't going so good, I'd be on suicide watch."

Film study -- While in the Pittsburgh locker room recently, Maxime Talbot was talking about how the coaches had him watching tape of Detroit's crease-crashing power forward Tomas Holmstrom. That's the highest form of flattery, don't you think? ... Don't look now but the Blackhawks lost only once in regulation -- 6-1-2 -- in their first nine games under new coach Joel Quenneville. "I couldn't believe how young we were when I stepped into our locker room for the first time. But they're good kids. The fun part is they have a real willingness to improve and learn." ... Johan Franzen didn't register a point in his first nine games back after missing 10 games with a sprained right MCL last year. Showing how much he has created a niche for himself as a power forward for the Red Wings in their stretch run and in the playoffs last spring, "The Mule" scored a goal and had seven shots in his first game back after missing five games with a knee injury this year. ... Good touch? Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz puts young defenseman Ville Koistinen alongside veteran Greg de Vries for a game in San Jose to help make the kid a little more comfortable. Voila! The offensively skilled Koistinen gets the game-winner in overtime to halt the Sharks' perfect 9-0 start at home. ... More goaltending? Is someone else wondering about the multi-million reasons why Washington signed Jose Theodore to be their No. 1 goaltender and yet coach Bruce Boudreau tows the line -- saying he's going to play the best goalie, which has been Brent Johnson for more than a week now. ... Edmonton fans were wondering if they should show their allegiance for veteran Dwayne Roloson or Mathieu Garon and up pops Jeff Drouin-Deslauries, who is younger (24) and seems to cover more of the net than the other two. What makes this assessment even more interesting is that Roloson makes $3 million, Garon $1 million and Drouin-Deslauriers just $601,000. ... When talking about Eastern Conference goaltenders who should be on the All-Star team, don't overlook Tampa Bay's Mike Smith, who went into this weekend with the NHL's second-leading save percentage of .934. .... How about the revival of winger Ethan Moreau for the Oilers? He's playing like the he's got a bionic left leg to take care of the injury that limited him to just 25 games last season. The hard-charging, honest captain in Edmonton has been putting up points -- enough to earn him a spot on the No. 1 line with Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner. ... There are times -- probably not enough for my liking -- that I swear Markus Naslund makes the same powerful move off the sideboards and whips his devastating wrist shot on goal like he did earlier in his Vancouver days when averaged 39.2 goals and 47.2 assists per season. Five goals in his first 18 games for the New York Rangers doesn't look the same, but he told a friend recently that he has found a stick that makes him feel more comfortable -- switching from wood to a one-piece composite. Said Markus, "They feel lighter and feel more like wood."

Frolov gets the message -- Credit new Los Angeles coach Terry Murray with putting the buzz about being a more all-round, responsible player into the ear of Alexander Frolov. Frolov still has 5 goals in the early going and his shootout tally gave the Kings a 3-2 triumph against Dallas on Nov. 11. ... A turn-it-on, turn-it-off stat? Here's a number that will likely come as a surprise to you: Dallas has not won two in a row in the regular season since Feb. 28, when the Stars finished last season with a 4-8-2 stretch. That came before Dallas beat Anaheim and San Jose in the playoffs and went six games in the Western Conference finals against Detroit. ... T.J. Hensick got another chance to return to Denver recently when Joe Sakic was out of the lineup with a back injury. If you watched the Avalanche with T.J. in the lineup, you saw a skilled playmaker with poise who is pretty productive down low. This time, Hensick may be in Denver to stay. ... David Perron and Patrick Berglund both were plus-3 in a 4-3 loss in Buffalo. Perron contributed 1 goal and 2 assists and Berglund extended his scoring streak to 5 games with 1 goal and 1 assist. Amidst a stretch in which the St. Louis Blues failed to win in regulation in six-straight games, St. Louis fans will be clamoring for more ice time for their young players -- and who could blame them after they've seen Chicago give tons of ice time to youngsters like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and others and sink or swim with the kids. Mostly swim in the last couple of years. ... Aspiring young power forwards, take a second to watch how a small power forward moves in and out of traffic like New York Islanders veteran Bill Guerin to put himself into position to score. ... Add a healthy Bryan McCabe to a lineup on defense that includes Jay Bouwmeester, Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, Karlis Skrastins and Jason Cullimore and it's no wonder why Craig Anderson was blanking Tampa Bay 4-0 on Nov. 12. McCabe has provided a swagger to the Panthers defense, plus it's helped reduce the 29 minutes a game Bouwmeester was playing. With fewer minutes against the Lightning, Bouwmeester showed the kind of production we've always expected from him. Six shots, two hits, two blocked shots. Now that's the kind of line we should be seeing from Bouwmeester every night. Instead, we hear lingering doubts about whether Bouwmeester will be a Panther by the time the March 4 trading deadline is over because there reportedly is unhappiness with management amid his potential status as an unrestricted free agent July 1. Insiders say there's no heading off a Bouwmeester trade before the deadline -- and that's a shame because South Florida fans don't deserve to see another of their promising, young athletes heading elsewhere.

Author: Larry Wigge | Columnist

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