Rick Dudley isn’t one for hyperbole but the longtime hockey executive doesn’t hold back when asked about the 2003 draft class and its possible impact on the NHL.
“This draft, in my opinion, will go down as the best in NHL history,” Dudley told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.
It’s still too early to get a full measure of this group of players but just five years after that entry draft, it’s clear something special is happening.
Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Dion Phaneuf, Thomas Vanek, Shea Weber, Milan Michalek, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Brent Burns, Zach Parise – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg with this group.
“It was definitely a special year and probably the best that I’ve ever been involved with,” said Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant GM and director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues.
Want more names? How about Marc-Andre Fleury, Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Andrei Kostitsyn, Brent Seabrook, Braydon Coburn, Ryan Suter, Steve Bernier, Ryan Kesler, Nikolai Zherdev, Patrick O’Sullivan, Tobias Enstrom, Joe Pavelski, Jaroslav Halak, Matt Carle, Loui Eriksson, Lee Stempniak, Dustin Byfuglien.
“You usually start to rate them five years down the road and that’s where we are and yes, it’s got to be one of the best drafts,” said Trevor Timmins, director of player recruitment and development for the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s got to be – the depth of it.”
“It was so deep that you were talking about people in the second round that in most years would easily be in the top 15 overall,” said Dudley, now the assistant GM of the Chicago Blackhawks. “For me, that was an incredible year.”
As of right now, 26 of the 30 players taken in that first round are playing in the NHL and all but one – Rangers pick Hugh Jessiman – have at least played one NHL game.
“There’s usually a bust in the top 10 – a guy that doesn’t make it or pan out,” said Timmins. “But that didn’t happen in 2003. That speaks for the strength of that class.”
So talented that some hockey people are beginning to wonder, like Dudley, if it’s the best ever. That honour has long belonged to the 1979 draft – a class that produced Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet and Ray Bourque.
“With all due respect to the 1979 draft, I think they may have to move over for this draft,” said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier.
That’s a bold statement. The ’79 draft is widely considered the grand-daddy of them all.
Among those drafted that year were Rob Ramage (first overall), Mike Foligno (third), Gartner (fourth), Rick Vaive (fifth), Craig Hartsburg (sixth), Bourque (eighth), Mike Ramsey (11th), Brian Propp (14th), Brad McCrimmon (15th), Goulet (20th), Kevin Lowe (21st), Lindy Ruff (32nd), Pelle Lindbergh (35th), Mats Naslund (37th), Dale Hunter (41st), Neal Broten (42nd), Guy Carbonneau (44th), Messier (48th), Glenn Anderson (69th), Anton Stastny (83rd), Dirk Graham (89th), Thomas Steen (103rd).
No wonder the Oilers built a dynasty after getting Lowe, Messier and Anderson in that draft.
“It’s hard to compare the two right now because the ’79 draft has players that have all ended their careers,” said Dudley. “This one, many of the players are just beginning to have the impact they can have.”
And it’s not just the number of players from the ’03 draft already in the NHL that impresses.
“It’s the quality of those players and the maturity of those players,” said San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson. “The number of those players that are not only playing but having huge impacts on their teams.
“I would have to say it does rival the ’79 draft.”
Wilson’s Sharks had a field day at the ’03 draft table. Among their picks that weekend were Michalek (sixth overall), Bernier (16th), Carle (47th) and Pavelski (205th).
“It had a huge impact on our organization,” said Wilson. “Because in many ways it enabled us to do the (Joe) Thornton deal. When you take a look at the players we traded, Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau going out and the people we were able to fill in with underneath that we selected in that 2003 draft.
“Because it doesn’t make any sense to fill a huge hole but then create many other holes. Tim Burke (San Jose’s director of scouting) and his staff did a remarkable job.”
When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup last season, GM Brian Burke was quick to single out his predecessor, Bryan Murray. Why? Because Murray picked up two major gems in that ’03 first round in Getzlaf (19th) and Perry (28th) – two key contributors to the Cup last spring and for many more years to come.
Looking back, it’s amazing to think Getzlaf and Perry went that low.
“I think the reason Getzlaf slipped a bit in the draft is that a few people thought that he may not play hard every night, that the transition from junior would be hard, so we were fortunate to get him that low,” Murray said Tuesday. “With Perry, Dallas had the pick. I phoned over to Doug Armstrong’s table (former Stars GM) and he didn’t really have anyone in particular in mind at the time so we were able to flip the two second-round picks we had to get the 28th pick and get Perry.”
Murray also drafted forward Drew Miller 186th overall and defenceman Shane O’Brien 250th. Not a bad weekend.
“It ended up real good for us overall,” said Murray, who also credited brother Tim Murray, head scout with the Ducks at the time.
The ’03 draft, held in Nashville, was the first for Timmins in his new job with Montreal after spending 10 years with the Ottawa Senators. Timmins had a good weekend. Kostitsyn, who has exploded on the scene this season, was taken 10th overall. Forward Maxime Lapierre went 61st overall, defenceman Ryan O’Byrne 79th and Halak in the very last round at 271st.
“We hit a home run there with Halak,” said Timmins.
Halak was one of many steals that year. Bergeron went 45th overall to Boston and looking back he certainly would have been a top-15 pick. Weber at 49th overall is also a major coup for Nashville. Many people have him right there with Phaneuf right now. Kekalainen made Stempniak a Blue at 148th overall. As mentioned, Pavelski went 205th to San Jose and the Blackhawks did well with the emerging Byfuglien at 245th.
“This draft is far from finished in terms of its impact,” said Dudley.
Dudley was in control of events that year. He was GM of the Panthers and the team held the first overall pick. Pittsburgh, with the third overall pick, came along with an offer to swap spots because it urgently wanted to draft their franchise goalie in Fleury and wasn’t sure what Carolina was going to do at No. 2 overall.
Dudley didn’t mind making a deal since he had Horton and Staal as “1a and 1b” in his books and would have been happy to take either one after Carolina.
So Dudley traded the first overall pick and the 73rd pick to the Penguins for the third overall pick, the 55th pick and forward Mikael Samuelsson. Pretty good deal.
But then again, it was hard to go wrong that year.
“That ’03 draft is like none other,” said Dudley. “You look at the draft and it’s more about who didn’t make it then who will. And some of those kids are still probably going to have a chance to make it.”