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NHL Draft: Why the 2003 NHL Entry Draft Was the Best Ever

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 21:  (L to R) Craig Patrick, Executive Vice-President and General Manager, Greg Malone, head scout, first overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury, Ed Johnston, Assistant General Manager and new head coach Eddie Olczyk of the Pittsburgh Pennguins pose for a portrait on stage during the 2003 NHL Entry Draft at the Gaylord Entertainment Center on June 21, 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images/NHLI)
Elsa/Getty Images
Eric McKelvieSenior Writer IJanuary 13, 2017

With the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup win behind us and the 2012 NHL entry draft tonight in Pittsburgh, memories of previous drafts are beginning to surface.

Perhaps most notably, the 2003 NHL entry draft. It was one of the best draft classes ever and it featured current Kings Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and Mike Richards.

It was one of the deepest drafts in history, with so many talented NHL players being taken in the later rounds. But first, let’s examine look at the first-round selections, many of whom have become household names. 

1: Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins

2: Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes

3: Nathan Horton, Florida Panthers

4: Nikolai Zherdev, Columbus Blue Jackets

5: Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres

6: Milan Michalek, San Jose Sharks

7: Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators

8: Braydon Coburn, Atlanta Thrashers

9: Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames

10: Andrei Kostitsyn, Montreal Canadiens

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 21:  Jim Rutherford, CEO and General Manager, Eric Staal, Sheldon Ferguson, Scout, and Paul Maurice of the Carolin Hurricanes pose for a portrait on stage during the 2003 NHL Entry Draft at the Gaylord Entertainment Center on June 21,
Elsa/Getty Images

11: Jeff Carter, Philadelphia Flyers

12: Hugh Jessiman, New York Rangers

13: Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings

14: Brent Seabrook, Brent Seabrook

15: Robert Nilsson, New York Islanders

16: Steve Bernier, San Jose Sharks

17: Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils

18: Eric Fehr, Washington Capitals

19: Ryan Getzlaf, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

20: Brent Burns, Minnesota Wild

21: Mark Stuart, Boston Bruins

22: M.A. Pouliot, Edmonton Oilers

23: Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks

24: Mike Richards, Philadelphia Flyers

25: Anthony Stewart, Florida Panthers

26: Brian Boyle, Los Angeles Kings

27: Jeff Tambellini, Los Angeles Kings

28: Corey Perry, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim

29: Patrick Eaves, Ottawa Senators

30: Shawn Belle, St. Louis Blues

Of the 30 first-round picks, every single player has played at least one NHL game. Fourteen have become NHL All-Stars, nine have won Stanley Cups and 12 have represented their country at the Olympic Games. While many others such as Nathan Horton, Mark Stuart and Patrick Eaves are enjoying great careers in the NHL.

With so many star players taken in the first round, it’s hard to imagine there could be many solid players left in the later rounds. However, scrolling down the list of draftees, even the casual hockey fan could point out numerous NHL players.

Second-round selections included Loui Eriksson (Dallas, 33rd overall), Patrice Bergeron (45th to Boston), Matt Carle, (47th to San Jose), Shea Weber (49th to Nashville), Corey Crawford (52nd Chicago), Maxim Lapierre (61st to Montreal), David Backes, (62nd to St. Louis) and finally, Jimmy Howard (64th to Detroit). This is a remarkable group of second-round picks. If this draft was done over today, Weber, Backes and Bergeron would likely go fairly early in the first round.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 20:  Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott of the St. Louis Blues pose after winning the William M. Jennings Trophy during the 2012 NHL Awards at the Encore Theater at the Wynn Las Vegas on June 20, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Br
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Still not convinced? The later rounds boast further talent, including three depth players taken in the third round. Colin Fraser was drafted by Philadelphia with the 69th pick, Daniel Carcillo went 73rd to Pittsburgh and Clarke MacArthur was chosen 74th by Buffalo.

In Round 4, hockey’s social media king, Paul Bissonnette, was taken 121st overall by the Penguins. Kyle Quincey was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings later in the round, with the 132nd pick. Round 5 saw the Blues take Lee Stempniak 148th, while the Avalanche took Brad Richardson with the 163rd pick.

Joe Pavelski, a star forward with the San Jose Sharks and a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, was drafted 205th overall, in the seventh round.

Round 8 boasts two All-Stars, both of whom currently play for the Winnipeg Jets. Tobias Enstrom was taken 239th by the Atlanta Thrashers, while Dustin Byfuglien was taken 245th by the Chicago Blackhawks, who he would go on to win a Stanley Cup with in 2010.

Even the very last round (9) produced a number of successful NHL players. New York Islanders forward Matt Moulson went 263rd to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jets’ forward Tanner Glass was taken 265th overall by the Panthers, before signing as a free-agent with the Canucks. David Jones went 288th to the Colorado Avalanche.

There were also two goaltenders taken before the draft was over, the St. Louis Blues’ Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. Halak went 271st to the Montreal Canadiens and Elliott was taken 291st, the second-last pick in the draft, by the Ottawa Senators.

The goaltending duo of Elliott and Halak took home the 2012 William M. Jennings award for having the lowest goals-against average in the league, not bad for a couple of ninth-rounders.

There are even a couple of solid players who went undrafted in 2003. Mark Giordano, a standout defenseman with the Calgary Flames and Antti Niemi, the first ever Finnish goaltender to win the Stanley Cup.

What makes this draft class even more impressive is the fact that an unprecedented seven 2003 draftees are currently serving as captains of NHL teams, while Mike Richards is a former captain. Plus, an additional eight players are currently serving as assistant captains with their respective teams.

A total of 14 2003 draft picks played in the 2012 Canada vs. USA Olympic gold medal game and over a third of the first-round picks have played over 300 NHL games.

Just five years ago, the 1979 draft may still have ranked above the 2003 version as the best ever. It featured great players like Mike Gartner, Ray Bourque and Kevin Lowe. However, over the last few years, players from the 2003 draft have started to enter their primes and play to their full potential. The talent and depth from 2003 isn’t likely to be topped in the coming years. 

The 1979 draft was great and would have been even better had Wayne Gretzky been available, but it’s now been surpassed by the class of 2003, the best NHL draft of all time. 

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