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Draft Class of 2003 Looking Like Best Ever

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
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.
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