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.

Breaking into the NHL is tough enough. Some players have false starts, some never make it at all. But once you’re in the big show getting to center stage can be even harder. Media outlets have a tendency to run to the same well over and over, sometimes even after it has gone dry. Securing the limelight for yourself may require a guy to break the mold, land on a new team or in some cases just stay healthy. Here are some of the guys who have earned center stage through the first half of the season.

At left wing you can’t find a bigger swing from the end of last season through the beginning of this season than James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season he was brought in as the hired gun to push Pittsburgh over the top riding shotgun on Crosby’s wing. In the score of games after the trade deadline, scoring is something that was quite the rarity.

While there’s  a certain guy (currently injured) on the Edmonton Oilers who has certainly gotten lots of attention this season, and deservedly so, another young center gets the nod. Having been called up from the minors after the season started, the season in the AHL, his call up has proved to be the best thing to happen to the New Jersey Devils this season bar none. Adam Henrique is Mr Everything for the Devils. It’s tough to argue that the Devils would be within striking distance of home ice in the opening round without Henrique who plays in all situations. A fair comparison of the two is to put Henrique in the same category of player as Toews, and Nugent-Hopkins in a similar mold to Henrik Sedin.

The elephant in the room of emerging stars at right wing does reside in Edmonton. His name is Jordan Eberle. He’s the only member of the Oilers on a point per game pace. He’s done it while lines have been shuffled and other players have gone in and out of the lineup he’s already tied last years 69 game point total, and is just one goal short of his goal total for last year as well. He’s on pace for over thirty goals.

The first defenseman is a no-brainer. If you haven’t heard his name, haven’t read anything on him, let me welcome you to the 2011-2012 season and wish you a speedy recovery from the coma you’ve clearly been in. Erik Karlsson is leading all defensemen in scoring, has a relative Corsi number that places him next to the only defensemen I’ve ever heard of Ray Bourque saying is better than he was (Chara), and he leads all defensemen in takeaways.

The other defenseman worth naming is a little better known but has had a couple down years having been injured and over shadowed in his last stop. Now on his fourth team it looks like the son of Strathroy Ontario has found his spiritual home. Having been part of a Cup win in Chicago, Brian Campbell has taken that experience and helped mold a fiercely competitive Florida Panthers team into a powerful force this season. His career average points per game is .516 PPG, this season he’s screaming along at .767 PPG.

In goal there’s just once choice. Brian Elliot. He’s had solid stretches of games along the way in his career, but this season he’s treading upon hallowed ground and no one is complaining. his .940 sv% is staggering, and his 1.62 GAA is nothing to sneeze at either. While it’s just a hunch at this point, the suspicion that the UFA to be will get a more generous contract next year is pretty tough to ignore.

Coaching them all is Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen. He came into the season with a mishmash of rookies, discards, veterans in their prime, guys with injury histories, veterans edging into the twilight of their careers and not one but two question marks in goal. His team has led the Southeast division for most of the season. Not bad for a first year head coach.

One thing the NHL has proven is that its not possible to predict where it will be year over year, and sometimes week to week. There have however been a few constants in the NHL over the past few years. Number one goaltenders do shift over time, with one or two losing their grip on the starting job each season, sometimes never to regain it, in other cases pulling themselves back into the saddle in time for the playoffs. I don’t think I can recall a year where crease chaos has been so prominent and so high profile.

For more than a generation Martin Brodeur has been the standard by which other goaltenders were measured. He’s arguably the greatest goaltender of all time. Vezinas, Stanley Cups, he’s got those. More minutes played than any other goaltender, he’s got that too. No full season under a .900 sv% in a career stretching back to the early 90’s. Until that  is this season. The savior of this years season is likely to be Brodeur’s even older nominal backup Johan Hedberg. The career backup is not just having a career year, he’s out performing Brodeur by a large enough margin that it’s unlikely that anyone other than Brodeur would see a start until he was injured or to worn down by the schedule to keep it up. Brodeur (.879)is currently ranked 38th for save percentage leaders, Hedberg (.920) is 19th with each having played in 13 games.

The Minnesota Wild are working their way towards a genuine goal-tending controversy of their own. Not because their starter Niklas Backstrom has performed poorly but because he’s suffered his second injury of the year. In his absence, and on rest days for the 33 year old Finnish goaltender the backup has upstaged him. Stealing the spotlight from a goaltender with a .929 sv% and 2.15 GAA isn’t precisely easy. Harding has done so. With a .938 sv% and 1.96 GAA against some of the best of the NHL, including three games against Detroit, and two against the St Louis Blues who are currently tied for the Central Division lead. Both are above average keepers, but with more than five million dollars in difference in their salaries one wonders when the uproar will begin in the Twin Cities.

Once upon a time there was a goaltender who represented his country in his home arena on the largest of international stages for the pride of his homeland. This hero brought home the goods. He went on to lead his team to the Stanley Cup finals. Along the way his numbers were better in both the regular season and playoffs than the two goaltenders who last hoisted the Stanley Cup. He ran into a better goaltender and was saddled with a less determined team. The next season Roberto Luongo (among many others) got off to a slower than usual start, and was slid aside while still dubbed the number one guy in favor of his backup. Cory Schnieder’s .930 and 2.12 would demand a higher than usual percentage of starts even if Luongo were performing closer to his career average of .919 sv% and 2.54 GAA, and not reporting in with .892 and 3.05. The fact that Luongo’s contract stretches over the event horizon and into the next decade makes this a drama almost distracting enough to ignore the rest of the rest of the teams play.

In any other season a sentence that started with “Brian Elliot is leading the league in…” would almost certainly end with something possibly deserved and not especially flattering. In the Bizzaro World that belongs to the bullies of the bluepaint this year, it would have to end with “both save percentage and goals against average, by a wide margin.” This has led to Elliot to displace Halak under the now Hitchcock led St Louis Blues to be tied for the division lead. His 10 wins in 11 starts are made even more stunning by not having given up more than two goals in any game. Even when he eventually reports back to the Milky Way galaxy, if not the solar system it’s unlikely the pending UFA will have trouble collecting a much larger paycheck next season.

Perhaps the most surprising fall from grace of any number one goaltender belongs to the man most responsible for the Buffalo Sabres being in any way competitive the last half dozen seasons. Ryan Miller won the Vezina two seasons ago. This year he’s suffered a couple injuries, one of disputed cause, and certainly some severely abraded pride. While a .909 sv% isn’t exactly shameful, his 2.86 GAA has caused some to look askance at the former silver medalist. Jhonas Enroth had to be considered even less unlikely than Elliot to end up with a large percentage of the workload coming into the season. At this point he’s fueled calls for Ryan Miller to be moved elsewhere. In an age where (not quite justifiably) hulking goaltenders are all the rage, even more so than the slight Miller the downright tiny, rookie Enroth is defying the trend towards linebackers as net minders. The 5 foot 10 inch 166lb Stockholm native has held opponents hostage with a  sv% of .925 and a GAA of 2.32.

It’s still early in the season, and goaltending is difficult to predict in any given year, this years waffleboard warriors are making it the most entertaining position to watch this season.

The Bruins have just two games this week. With luck the last of the “flu-like symptoms” will work their way out of the locker room and the Bruins can keep the new win streak alive.  This weeks two games are against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wendesday’s is a return trip where the Bruins can hope for a second round of cheers for hometown boy Tyler Seguin and maybe an end to his mini-slump. Saturday night they are back in Boston.

Don’t forget the viewing party this Wednesday night.

There’s another one, with a different host on December 6.

Boston Bruins prospects Ryan Spooner and Dougie Hamilton were named to the Canadian World Junior’s Camp roster.

Dougie Hamilton

Hamilton signing autographs during training camp at the Boston Garden 2011

No word on USA selections.

Not officially. Last year's camp roster came out Dec. 7, for reference. RT @ Any world on when the USA will announce it's WJ roster?
@chrismpeters
Chris Peters

Jared Knight and Brian Ferlin lead the list of USA born Bruins prospects that might make the list.

The NHL snubbed the Bruins announcing Sidney Crosby, Cory Scheider, and Brian Elliot as it’s three stars of the week. I’m personally impressed that Crosby only got one slot.

Every NHL season has its shocks. No matter how well you research, no matter what history says each season is its own mind searing, jumbled, chaotic, riveting orchestra of excitement. The biggest surprises are sometimes whole teams, other times single player and in other cases its a whole division.

5: Goalie madness. Not a single person predicted that the three hottest net minders of the first quarter would be the well traveled Mike Smith, seasoned number two man Brian Elliot and elder statesman Nikolia Khabibulin. None of the three has a save % under .936, with Elliot leading the NHL with a .947% on the equilibrium challenged, already made a coaching change St Louis Blues.

4: QUACK! QUACK! QUACK! The once mighty Ducks of Anaheim are looking more fit for orange sauce than great deeds. They are led in scoring by a guy who was drafted before most of his teammates were allowed to cross the street by themselves. The man drafted by Brian Burke who quipped that this guy was still there at #2 has points in just six games, maybe just maybe if he were less busy reviewing movies he’d stop playing like #2.

3: Unfamiliar Faces. Who would have predicted Erik Karlsson the skinny, smooth skating blue liner from Canada’s capital city team would be tied for the NHL lead in assists? Not Joe Thornton, no Steven Stamkos in sight, just a guy who showed up at the All Star draft last year and no one outside the few that haunted the Senators barn last season had a clue about him. I suspect when he goes this year, he’ll be a bit better known. James Neal, Phil Kessel and Milan Michalek atop the goal scoring chart? Not one or two but fifteen players ahead of Alex Ovechkin in shots taken? Insanity.

2: Black gold in blue and orange. There are some really, high skilled forwards on he Edmonton Oilers. Some of those talented forwards can not only drink (legally) in the US of A, but can even get decent car insurance rates. But anyone one outside the Oilers pay structure who said that on November 20th they’d have scored more than the Detroit Red Wings, and be fifth in the entire NHL in goals against with a 2.26 would have been laughed out of hockey.

1: Occupy Youth failure. With the NHL, and its adjacent medias general love fest for young players it’s more than a bit shocking that some of the newest lights in the constellation aren’t getting more attention. Sure Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and some of the other picks in this years draft got a bunch of attention in the first two weeks of the season. But where’s the love for Craig Smith, Jared Cohen, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Luke Adam, Roman Horak, Adam Henrique and the rest?

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

Players:

  • that Blake Wheeler would get his first goal on November 17th, and still have as many points as Eric Staal
  • Teemu Selanne would still lead his team in points, and have his lead over the big three start at five points and grow from there
  • forty-four NHL defensemen would enter play on November 19th with as many points or more than former two time 40+ goal man Eric Staal
  • There would be a rash of goalie injuries for the New York Islanders that left Rick Dipietro as the last man standing
  • Fabian Brunnstrom would have played more NHL games on the season than Marc Staal or Sidney Crosby
  • Kris Versteeg would lead Stamkos, Toews, and Spezza in the scoring race and be outside the top 10
  • Michael Del Zotto would be third in TOI/G, 2nd in +/-, and 2nd in PPTOI/G for the New York Rangers after spending much of last season a healthy scratch or in the AHL
  • that serious Vezina Trophy discussions would have to include Elliot, Khabibulin, and Enroth

Teams:

  • the Ottawa Senators could have negative seven goals differential, not have any of their top five scorers be a plus player, a goals against average of 3.37 (27th) and still be in a playoff position
  • only two teams the Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings would have not appeared in a shootout as of 11/19 and neither would be in playoff position
  • the Chicago Blackhawks would lead the NHL in points, and be 18th in goals against
  • the NHL’s worst penalty kill would belong to the San Jose Sharks
  • the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes would all have losing records when scoring first.
  • the NHL’s black-hats the Boston Bruins would not be among the five most penalized teams

…would you have believe a word of it?

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

If i told you in September:

  • James Neal would be the Penguins leading scorer
  • Teemu Selanne would be leading the Anaheim Ducks is goals, assists, points and penalty minutes
  • The Edmonton Oilers would not just lead the Northwest Division, but have the stingiest defense in the NHL
  • rookie Senators defenseman Jared Cowen would lead the NHL in hits while averaging just 16:26 in TOI/G
  • The only team in the western conference to allow more goals than the Vancouver Canucks would be the Columbus Blue Jackets
  • that Dan Ellis, Brian Elliot, Al Montoya, and Devan Dubnyk would be well above Ryan Miller in save percentage
  • that Matt Cooke would have more goals through the Penguins first 15 games than suspensions and more points than penalty minutes
  • on 11/6 Tuukka Rask would have less appearances, less wins, and a worse goals against average than Rick Dipietro
  • of the four conference finalists the only one in a playoff spot on the first weekend of November would be the San Jose Sharks
  • the marquee-less Dallas Stars would be the first team to ten wins, own the conference lead, and that star studded New York Rangers would have less goals, a worse differential and
  • Vladamir Sobotka would enter play on Sunday with more assists than Ryan Kesler

would you have believed any of it?