It’s not a secret that the 2003 NHL entry draft is one of the strongest drafts in history. It is arguably the strongest. The first skater taken is just a fistful of games from his 1000th NHL game, the guy taken 205th is on track to play his 800th NHL game before the season expires. I’ve made the argument you could put together a team from this draft that would beat a team from any other draft class.

Goaltending is the only position you can say this class might have as a weakness. The goalies taken in 2003 to have played serious time in the NHL are; Brian Elliot, Jaroslav Halak, Corey Crawford, Jimmy Howard, and Marc-Andre Fluery. All of these guys have played at minimum in the high three hundreds for games, and all have a sv% for their career in the teens. While I think Halak is capable of tremendous play, Crawford and Fluery are the guys I’d pick.

Defense is where it starts to get tough. Running quickly through the names draft, I came up with twelve defensemen who have played some really good hockey in their careers. My top four should surprise no one: Shea Weber and Ryan Suter as the number one pair. Next over the boards would be Dustin Byfugelin and Dion Phanuef. The physicality, offensive, and defensive ability of this foursome makes it almost irrelevant who the other guys are.

Matt Carle, Tobias Enstrom, and Marc Methot could all be expected to play the 12-14 minutes left over from the top top pairings admirably, but didn’t make the cut. Mark Stuart who’s very good in his own zone if lacking offensively, is clearly, if sadly starting to break down after roughly a bajillion hits and blocked shots. Looking at the third pairing, or arguably the 1C pair, you have to ask what the players have the other guys don’t. One is a gimmie, and that’s championships which means Brent Seabrook. The other is a powerplay specialist, which brings us to Brent Burns. Seventh defenseman is a little tougher, but I can comfortably go with Kevin Klein and sleep well.

I honestly won’t even try and number the top three lines, there’s just no point. You have Jeff Carter, Patrice Bergeron, Eric Staal, Joe Pavelski who it can be argued could all be your number one center, and all of them are worth talking about. Ryan Kesler, David Backes, and Nate Thompson are three more guys you have to look at for penalty killing, three zone play. and unadulterated ability to get under people’s skin. There’s also some guy named Ryan Getzlaf, and that’s just guys who have played a largely top nine position in their careers. Brian Boyle is worth considering for a pure checking line or penalty kill line.

The first gimmie on right wing is Corey Perry, even if he is consistently erratic in his scoring. Dustin Brown would have to be ironed out in practice as to which side he’d play, but thanks to the versatility of the centers, one or more of them will slide to a wing to fill a void.

The left side gives us Zach Parise and Matt Moulson

L to R the lines could look something like this:

Moulson – Carter – Pavelski

Parise – Bergeron – Perry

Brown – Getzlaf – Kesler

Boyle – Staal – Eriksson

Extra: Backes

In a best of seven series, I can’t see any draft class matching this one.

#1 Vs #8

The Chicago Blackhawks seemingly have everything going this season. They have two goalies putting up top flight numbers. they have an upgraded defense that has allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to reclaim the form that helped the team win the Cup a few years back. Better still, they have arguably the best forward group in the NHL; Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad and Sharp.

The Minnesota Wild are that new kid in playoff town no one knows quite what to make of. On paper the Wild have every tool they need to be dangerous, and even contend. In reality, they lack playoff experience, especially with Pominville and Heatley on the shelf. Add that to five of six blueliners who have never seen the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for a dicey playoff series.

Players to watch:

For the Wild, don’t be surprised if rookie Charlie Coyle comes up big in spots, Setogouchi is a threat, and Mikko Koivu is never to be underestimated.

On the other side of the puck for the Blackhawks, Kane, Hossa and Toews can all take over games individually.

Edge:

Chicago, it isn’t purely the quality that they lead in, it is the playoff experience, particularly on the blueline that will decide this series.

#2 vs. #7

Anaheim Ducks have almost no pressure this year. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are drawing an inexplicable amount of attention, and Chicago was start to finish the best team in the NHL. The Ducks simply have to get on the ice and execute. They have savvy older veterans in Koivu and Selanne. They have high quality younger veterans still in their prime in Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. They also have a surprisingly strong backend in net and on the blueline. They don’t have any dominant or elite players there, but they do have several really good ones.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs again keeping their two decade long streak intact. They have Jimmy Howard who again very quietly put up impressive numbers, they have Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. These are not your Dad’s Red Wing’s though, they just don’t have even one elite talent on their blueline, much less two or three as they have had in years past.

Players to watch:

If the Wings don’t have Howard playing top notch goaltending, they don’t have anything, For them to win,  guys like Tootoo, Smith, and other role players will have to elevate their game.

The Ducks need to have their defense continue to smother their opponents, and have at least one of their goaltenders show up and never take their eyes off of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Edge:

Wings can’t win this if the Ducks show up and execute. It’s just that simple.

#3 vs. #6

Vancouver Canucks, it is put up or shutup time in Vancouver. They drama in their net has covered up the fact that this isn’t as good a team as it was in years past. They only won their division by four points, by comparison the Washington Capitals won by 6, and of the six division winners this is the team that scored the least this season. The Sedin twins combined for less goals than Jiri Tlusty. They put up the mediocre season numbers with three of the bottom four teams in their conference playing in their division.

San Jose Sharks are also at the point where if they don’t win the Cup it is tie to break up the band. Marleau, Boyle, and Thornton don’t have many more years left in them and behind them there isn’t much to write home about. What gives this squad a bit of believability is that Niemi, who was part of the Chicago cup run, has turned in the best regular season of his career and played in 43 of the teams 48 games.

Players to watch:

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are two guys you should never ever count out, for the Canucks to do well, these two will likely be the biggest impact players.

Joe Thornton appears to have learned how to play big in the playoffs, and Raffi Torres (when he plays clean) is a surprisingly good playoff player.

Edge:

This series is almost a push, but I give the edge to San Jose, Thornton, Marleau, Couture are are better right now than any three forwards you can name for the Sharks, and with Schneider’s injury and the general chaos in British Columbia I don’t like the Canucks chances.

#4 vs. #5

The Saint Louis Blues boast some damn fine players no one talks about because the team is too far south. David Backes is a game changer, Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Chris Stewart turned in more points in 48 games this year than he did in 79 last year. Goaltending is clearly this teams weakness, but with Oshie coming back the team gains immediately in two way play.

The reigning champions the Los Angeles Kings have to get scoring from more people than just Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, if for no other reason than Jonathan Quick is not as good this year as last. They’ve gotten a slight refresh adding Regehr and injecting Muzzin into the lineup, but the roster is really almost identical. You have to question the teams hunger a little.

Players to watch:

Drew Doughty emerged as an elite two way defenseman during last year playoffs establishing his bona fides in his own end in addition to the offensive ability he’s always displayed, he and Mike Richards who is frequently overlooked on this team will be crucial to this team going anywhere.

For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka just finds an extra gear in the playoffs and he can tilt the ice, but he won’t be enough, Bouwmeester, Oshie, and Perron will have to show up and put in work.

Edge:

This is a push, the Blues I think have the edge in hunger, the Kings have the edge in knowing how to win in the post season.

Total Wins by eliminated teams this round; 9

 

The Boston Bruins have the very unique opportunity to stay largely intact after a Stanley Cup Win, and potentially repeat. This hasn’t been done in years. Given that they finished their historic run just days before the NHL Entry Draft no one should be shocked they made no moves during the pause for breath between the two.  Since then they have made two moves. They signed a forward who is twice discarded. They traded a fourth round pick (the round both Marc Savard and Mark Recchi were drafted in) for a defenseman with a spotty off ice past who has been a minus player two of the last three seasons.

While I don’t think anyone could rightly complain about their two first round picks, neither will impact the line up this year or next. At six five and well under 200lbs Hamilton will need at least a year to bulk up enough to play at the NHL level, and likely a year in the AHL first as well.  Khokhlachev is a late 93 birthday with just one year of playing in North America under his belt. He’s likely as much as three years away unless he blows everyone’s doors off between now and the opening of the regular season. Neither of these guys, nor Corvo are likely to improve the powerplay this season.

Verdict: Loser short term.

The New York Rangers went big game hunting and pulled in the biggest name on the market in free agency. Brad Richards signed a long term deal for what is at least currently a pretty good cap hit for his talent level. The theory is clearly that he can make Gaborik and whoever ends up on his other wing more effective. The only other free agent signing was the aging Mike Rupp who will provide some physicality.  As for the draft, not much was done to correct their scoring woes. They left quite a few big names on the board in the first round, and their later picks are all likely long term prospects.

The Rangers off season is heavily marred by their having more players file for arbitration than any other team. Four players filing by itself would be bad enough. That last years two most effective forwards head the list, and that the defenseman number three in ice time joins them is potentially disastrous.  With sixteen player signed and less than sixteen million to fill the roster you have to wonder how they intend to do so. Montreal’s Plekanek, Boston’s Bergeron, and Minnesota’s Koivu are all reasonable comparisons for Dubinsky and each has a cap hit around five million.  When you add Brian Boyle who had more than twenty goals last season to the list of those filing arbitration, you have to wonder if they players themselves will need name tags when camp opens.

Verdict: Losers.

The Maple Leafs General Manager was roundly criticized for being Afghanistan rather than at the Brad Richards soiree or otherwise preparing to throw gobs of cash at one of the worst free agent markets in recent memory. Still once you roll in the premium bad team have to pay for free agent talent, and the markets paucity of it signing Tim Connolly away from a division rival works on a couple levels. First, it gets him a center with talent they should allow him to leave Kadri and Colborne in the AHL to develop another year. It adds recent playoff experience and  someone who is familiar with the system at least from the outside, while making your division rival replace someone.

At the draft, they picked up some solid prospects who mostly appear to be works in progress and don’t project towards hitting the NHL in the next year or two. In trades they jettisoned Brett Lebda while picking up another NHL experienced center, and defenseman in exchange. Given the injury history of Connolly and Lombardi it is something of a risk, but when you come right down to it all players are. Cody Franson is probably the best of the additions so far this off season.

Verdict: Winners. It’s clear that Burke is retooling slowly and he’s been pretty consistent in that, but in picking up some Franson, Connolly, and Lombardi all of whom have that recent playoff experience he doesn’t want his dressing room going into the playoffs blind if they should sneak in this year or next.