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.

The off season has barely begun, and yet we’re under a year from Brent Burns becoming an unrestricted free agent. While he has easily had the best years of his career from a production standpoint in San Jose the team hasn’t won anything, and is unlikely to be better two years from now than it was this spring. Burns may well decide to move on, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for him.

If you look at the team you have two players from the 1996 draft who have never won, and are nearing the end of their careers. Joe Thornton is a far better competitor than people give him credit for, and he was a point a game in the regular season last year. But at 36 years old that almost has to be counted as a fluke given that it was his best production since the 2009-10 season. Perhaps even more gratifying for fans of the future hall of famer is that Thornton stayed very nearly at that pace through the playoffs. Patrick Marleau will be 37 when hockey starts up this fall. His production numbers have been sliding for years, and it is very unlikely he’s anything but a 3rd line winger and maybe powerplay specialist in two years, assuming he is still playing.

That leaves the teams other stars, and Brent Burns should he decide to stay, as the team’s foundation. Logan Couture proved he lives up to the hype by being productive all through the playoffs and into the Stanley Cup Finals. Then there’s the newly minted 33 year old Joe Pavelski, who aside from sensational faceoff prowess in the finals was a no show. One point in six games. Is he going to be better and more productive at 35 and 37 in the playoffs than he is now?

If you go further down the roster to guys who can be expected to be around in two years, you get Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl, two young forwards with a lot of upside who haven’t yet peaked. But no one sees these two as franchise cornerstones the way Thornton and Marleau were viewed, or even at the level of Couture and Pavelski.

So maybe Brent Burns does what is in his own best interest and moves on. Perhaps the best model for him to follow would be the one Marian Hossa used several years ago. Like Burns he was in his prime and he and the Atlanta Thrashers weren’t going to get a deal done. He was traded to a contender for some serviceable players, picks, and prospects. Then the next year he signed with a different contender before finding his long term home in Chicago.

It’s hard to imagine any team not throwing a bid at his agent if Burns does hit free agency. In all likelihood, his rights even as late as the draft next year would fetch a respectable return. We know when he moved from Minnesota to California he had to give up his herptoculture, maybe he wants to take it up again, or play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps he thinks together him and Ovechkin can raise the Cup. Whatever he decides, there are a lot of reasons not to stay in San Jose.

The Pacific division is probably the murkiest to forecast, you’ve got the defending champs last seasons top team in the western conference, an several teams that made changes that could add up to a better or worse finish.

Top Shelf

Anaheim Ducks

Last season they were one of two teams to finish with more than 50 regulation or overtime wins. They addressed the need for a second line center when they acquired Ryan Kesler, and solidified the third or fourth line by adding Nate Thompson. They did get a bit more questionable in goal moving on from Hiller and bringing John Gibson into the mix. One can ask how much of a distraction the absence or even the potential return of Sheldon Souray is, but it is impossible to know. They were handily the best regular season team in the league last year, if the coach can keep from jostling the elbow of the goaltenders, they might just finish with even more points this year.

San Jose Sharks

California’s only team not to win a Stanley Cup enters the season in a unique position among contenders; they have cap space. The only other major differences from this time last year are the departure of Boyle, the ‘lack’ of a captain, and Burns going back to defense full time. If the Sharks were to help themselves out in the early season by swindling one of the cap strapped teams like say Chicago out of Kris Versteeeg, they could be more than a handful in the regular season and still have cap space to work with when the trade deadline rolls over the horizon. At first look Boyle’s departure would appear to be a big loss to the Sharks powerplay, as it is, they were 20th in the NHL last year with the man advantage.

Wild Cards

Los Angeles Kings

The defending champs are returning a very high percentage of their Cup winning roster. Which is good in the sense that there’s a high level of ability to work together successfully and feed off each other emotionally. It is bad in the sense that you have to have something to feed off of. Most of this roster has now won two Stanley Cups. Many of them have played in the Olympics as well. That’s a lot of hockey, a lot of travel, and not a lot of rest. More good news is that this year they enter with Martin Jones ably backing up Quick. The two are a great one-two punch in net.

Arizona Coyotes

They were so close to making it into the playoffs last year. This despite a rather poor overall season by Mike Smith, and the distractions surrounding Mike Ribiero at the end of the year. If the team as a whole can turn three of the overtime losses from last year into wins (preferably in regulation) they make it in. If its five they are in comfortably. A full season of Sam Gagner and Tippet willing, Domi could add a lot more finesse than the roster has seen years.

The Rest

Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have a new General Manager, a new goalie, and are almost certainly worse off than last season. No Kesler, and a cut rare replacement. The Sedins are past their prime. To put it in perspective, last year despite less games played Mikko Koivu finished with more points than either twin. While Ryan Miller is probably a better goalie than Roberto Luongo, it remains to be seen if he can catapult the team into the playoffs given how patchy the roster is. The good news I suppose, is that when the trade deadline rolls around they have some depth players who can be dealt for picks and young prospects.

Calgary Flames

This team has an inside lane to the draft lottery. They lost Mike Cammalleri to free agency. Even with the young, and talented players who may be added to the roster for the season this is not a good team. Between Giordano and Hiller they’ll likely stay in a lot of games. but beyond that there’s not a lot in the way of difference making talent on this team. There are some solid players like Hudler and Glencross who will be a help to younger players like Sean Monahan,  Johnny Gaudreau, and Lance Bouma.

Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers on paper are better than they were last year. Hockey is played on ice. I happen to consider Nikita Nikitin a bit under rated league wide. He’s a solid second pairing defenseman who finally got a tastes of the playoffs last year. I’m not quite as high on Aulie or Fayne, but they are at least serviceable. Benoit Pouliot joined them for the opportunity to become a highly paid third line winger who has never scored twenty goals. Not a great decision, especially he length of the contract. Even if you consider all the additions worth twelve points and the maturation of the core talent worth another five, come April they’ll still be looking up at more teams than they are looking down at.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

 

Teams:

  • The Philadelphia Flyers would be the first team to fire their head coach promoting Peter Laviolette to customer and banishing him from the land of misfit toys.
  • The Colorado Avalanche would not only have the first head coach (Patrick Roy) fined in the regular season, but lead the Central division with almost three weeks gone and less game than three of their rivals.
  • Despite the addition of not one, but two former 30 (or more) goal scorers the Boston Bruins would be 18th in scoring.
  • Almost three weeks into the season four teams would have a goals against average under 2.0 per game; the San Jose Sharks, The Colorado Avalanche, The Boston Bruins, and Montreal Canadiens and yet only two would lead their divisions.
  • The Ken Hitchcock led Saint Louis Blues would have outscored everyone in their division and be third in the league in scoring ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
  • While nestled at the bottom of the standings with the Philadelphia Flyers the Buffalo Sabres would have a top 5 penalty kill?
  • The most penalized team in the NHL would be the Saint Louis Blues, and they’d be the only team over 20 PIMs per game, and lead the Montreal Canadiens who were second by over four minutes.
  • To date, the Montreal Canadiens would have the most major penalties at 9, followed by Toronto, Buffalo, and Tampa Bay.

Players:

  • Alexander Steen would lead not just the St Louis Blues in scoring, with 11 points in 7 games, but be in second place in the NHL race.
  • Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes would have identical stat lines of 8gp 2 goals 6assists, while their team were each second in their division’s.
  • Of the seven rookies from the 2013 entry draft, two would be on point per game paces Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames and Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche
  • Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators would lead all rookies in time on ice per game with 23:46 a night through seven games and 2:37 a night short handed.
  • Radko Gudas would lead the NHL’s rookies in hits and blocked shots as a member of the Tamp Bay Lightning.
  • Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, and four other San Jose Sharks would be on a point per game pace or higher.
  • that a goalie with a .935 s% through 6 games, Ryan Miller and only have one win.
  • that Martin Biron, Braydon Hotlby, and Martin Brodeur would all have worse sv%’s than Ondrej Pavelec
  • Tyler Seguin would win just 25 of 78 faceoffs in six games, and no one would be talking about it.

I looked at the standings this morning. I’m willing to be the depression rate among Bruins fans will climb exponentially as more and more crack open their internet browser and do the same Given where things stand right now, the Bruins would be looking at the serious possibility of drafting first. Thanks to an hour of gong show hockey by the Flyers and Jets, coupled with their own continued sloppy play and what is almost certainly the best game of the year for Carey Price, the team finds itself in 29th place this morning.

Among the four teams that went to the conference finals last year, the Bruins made the least and least dramatic moves since. The Sharks booted Heatley and Setoguchi  and turned them into Burns and Havlat. The Lightning brought in a better performing back up goalie, allowed several free agents to find new homes, and are giving a hungry rookie his time to shine. The Canucks let some of their underperformers in the playoffs go, and brought in a legitimate (if slumping) power forward to help provide secondary scoring.

You can call it confidence or complacency but the Bruins most dramatic move of the off season was flipping a fourth round pick to a conference rival for defenseman who’s greatest claim to fame is having been arrested for punching a woman in a Boston bar. One of their top power play producers retired, the other, just as he was edging back into productivity was allowed to walk. They were replaced by a #4 draft pick who is the least skilled forward to play for the Bruins in the last half decade.

The powerplay is ranked 24th in the NHL. The team that finished the season with the best goals for to against numbers has given up more goals than they’ve scored. In the second period this season they have given up twice the number of goals they’ve scored. The only two players who appear to be trying their best for sixty minutes both wear masks.

Peter Chiarelli’s plan for creating competition for jobs in training camp was to bring in a 35 year old who’s best days are long, behind him, and to pick up a the twice discarded Pouliot. No signings during free agency of what might be legitimately considered a top six or even top nine forward, no trades to improve team speed or size or goal scoring. Not even a trade to pick up a draft pick or two. Not a single draft pick was kept in town to infuse hangover central with a little more enthusiasm. Khokhlachev, Spooner, Knight or one of the other skilled forwards could have been spark enough that even if eventually sent back to their junior teams the Bruins would have to have more points than the Winnipeg Jets, or the Ottawa Senators.

For that matter, picking up Wayne Simmonds as they Flyers struggled to get under the cap on the cheap would have added a very Bruins-like player to the roster and one who had a lot to prove. The Senators picked up Filatov for not a great deal, even with the questions that surround him and his former team, no one who has seen him and Pouliot play can doubt which of the two is more skilled.  Bergenheim had five goals in seven games against the Bruins in the conference finals, and Joel Ward was the Canucks own personal nightmare, both were available this off season if a complimentary piece is all that was wanted.

The Bruins do have some legitimate cause for putting up less impressive numbers than fans could hope. The inconsistency and lack of continuity on the ice is not something that can be entirely blamed on the short summer. Leadership has claimed their are constantly looking for ways to improve the team, and that they wanted to create competition for jobs at camp,. One free agent signing, a tentative at best promotion of a prospect and the brandishing of an injury plagued forward with less points than last seasons rookie number six defenseman don’t lineup with those statements very well.  I’m not sure when the media and fan backlash will begin, and while no small part of it should be aimed at the players it is no secret that organizations can only be as good as their leadership.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

Not many teams can get eliminated before the Stanley Cup Finals and actually answer questions about themselves in a positive manner. Anyone who doubted the ability of Joe Thornton to produce or go all in when the regular season was over who could even see reality from their house has had to put those doubts to rest. In the same series Ryan Clowe proved you don’t need to be able to put your jersey on yourself to take the ice in the NHL post season. At the same time, the post season proved a catalyst to blast some parts off.

 

High Card:

Joe Thornton. There is no better passer in the NHL and likely no better passer in the world. Faceoffs are another high end skill, in the past few years Thornton has shifted from 100 point man to 100% man influencing 100%of the game from the ice or the bench and clearly leaving that same percentage of effort as a calling card when the chips are down.

 

Wild Card:

Can Brent Burns both elevate his game and integrate with a new team smoothly? The first round pick who arrived in a swap from the Wild has not been the player some expected. Last year he tossed up his best offensive numbers to date, but was also the worst regular on the blueline for +/-. If he can’t be more useful to the less talented goaltending in San Jose he might derail the train himself. If he can be even average in his own zone and put up similar numbers offensively, or even better them the Sharks stand in a much better place.

Since the dawn of sports “the best player” has been debated back and forth endlessly. In boxing the Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman vs Mike Tyson vs Evander Hayfield debate  will probably end shortly after the heat death of the universe. In baseball, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson,  Cy Young, Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken are names that will forever be bounced around clubhouses and little league fields. Will anyone ever learn anything about the NBA and not have their current idol compared to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain? The NHL has it’s own list of deified players and the debates are just as raucous, as any other sport.

One of the reasons the debate over Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky as the greatest player of all time will probably never end is that it is a question with multiple layers. Who is more entertaining? Who is more skilled? Those are just two of its parts, but if you compare the styles of say Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin you get divided on this question from the word go. Both are dominant at their position, but is either truly the top of the charts in both categories? Neither holds a major single season record. Then if you compare them by to other active players you’re getting a different mix. Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins and Henrik Lundquist of the New York Rangers all play the same position. It’s hard to argue they all play it in the same style. Of the three, Lundquist is the youngest (by days) but has played the most NHL games. Hiller has phenomenal numbers in one Stanley Cup Playoff run, and Tim Thomas set a NHL record this past season and owns a Vezina trophy.

For my money I’d rather watch Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames play for three minutes than watch Denis Wideman of the Washington Capitals play for ten. While the talent divide there is higher than in the other comparisons, there are people who adore each player. Comparing defensemen with different styles is probably even more futile than debating centers vs wingers. Dustin Byfugelien of the Atlanta Thrashers score more goals than any other defenseman, Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers had more blocked shots than anyone,  Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins had more shootout goals than any other defenseman, and Brent Burns of the Minnesota Wild averaged more shifts per game than any other blueliner. None of them were nominated for the Norris Trophy. Instead the nominations when to Zdeno Chara of Boston, perennial nominee Nik Lidstrom, and the often overlooked Nashville Predators Captain Shea Weber.

On the ice, even the rawest pinkhat couldn’t mistake Chara and Lidstrom, and getting Byfuelien confused with either Weber or Letang would probably require more alcohol than any establishment is going to sell you. Yet all across the nation Burns to Weber each of these guys makes a case to be, and is the favorite of fans all over the map. I’ve seen both Byfugelien (Thrashers) and Lidstrom jerseys on the streets of Boston, not with the regularity of the local captains, but there. Watching hockey in any given major market means you will see the jerseys from all over the NHL in the stands, and that’s the way it should be.