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.

This may be the best first round matchup for hockey. The Kings have won a cup recently, as have have the Ducks. The Sharks spent half a decade as the favorites to win it and still haven’t. A first round meeting of two California teams where the winner will quite likely play the third California team is likely to catapult the youth hockey enrollment numbers. And yes, seeing guys like Carter and Richards go toe to toe with Thornton and Pavelski will be more than a bit fun to watch too.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks a very interesting mix of household names and guys no ones ever heard of. They have arguably the deepest six defensemen in the NHL, without having a guy currently at an elite level back there. Thornton and Marleau will get most of the media attention, but Vlasic, Pavelski, and Couture have worn out some boots this season getting them here.

Best Players

While Joe Thornton is still the best pure passer in the NHL, he’s not getting any younger, Joe Pavelski is a different case. They younger Joe is clearly at, or possibly just reaching the height of his powers, and Marleau just keeps trucking along.

X-Factor

Do they want it? This team has not ever reached its potential. Some years they went into the playoffs very damaged, others they got hurt early, and some years they just showed up and expected to win. This year they need to go attack the ice like it is their last chance at glory and their only hope at salvation, because it just well may be.

Los Angeles Kings

Same story, different year. The Kings enter the playoffs this year with bottom tier scoring and top end defense. The backup goalie could be a starter on many teams, and the late season trade piece (in this case Gaborik) are expected to scare up offense for the whole team. If you’re looking at recent history, that was what happened their Cup year. Can it happen now? Who knows?

Best players:

Jonathan Quick is having a solid, if not spectacular year, Drew Doughty is still improving in his own zone, and Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are the only two players who managed to break 20 goals this season. For the team to make a deep run, they are going to need help from all over the roster.

X-Factor

Goaltending. If Quick can regain his cup winning form, or Martin Jones goes in and makes people look as foolish as he did in the regular season, the Kings will likely be playing in May. They will still need to score goals however and that has been a problem in LA for at least half a decade.

Just about four years ago the US and Canada put on two of the best hockey games of the last quarter century. But, like all teams that team USA is not the one we’ll see in a few years. If I’m playing general manager, there are some players I do bring back, and others I just say no to, at least as of now.

The No’s:

  • Ryan Malone would not be on the short list today. His production has trailed off, he’s not been especially healthy the last few seasons, and he’ll be thirty four before this year is over. Great guy, if he hangs up the skates before the Olympics, he might get tapped for an assistant coaches spot.
  • Chris Drury, nice guy, already retired.
  • Tim Thomas, while its nice to think he’d be back to world beating shape after a year off, it is unlikely.
  • Ryan Whitney, hasn’t played even when healthy for a woeful Oilers club this season.
  • Jamie Langenbrunner, has experienced a notable decline in the past few years, will turn 38 this summer, and has had injury issues,
  • Brian Rafalski, retired.

The Maybe’s:

  • Erik Johnson, is admittedly playing on a poor team, but not especially productive offensively which isn’t how offensive defenseman earn their pay.
  • Phil Kessel enormously hot and cold, not a great two way player and has struggled to score goals this season which is what he’s paid to do.
  • Ryan Kesler, good faceoff man, good passer, physical, good skater, can’t stay healthy to save his soul.
  • Ryan Callahan, well above average for two way play, but prone to long slumps offensively, and injuries as well.
  • Joe Pavelski, seems to have declining returns in the playoffs. That could be the team, that could be his doing, but I lean towards team.
  • Paul Stastny, did not impress me during the last Olympic’s, has had declining production since them, but did have solid World Championship numbers in 2011-12.

The Shortlist:

  • Ryan Miller, while his heroics a the last Olympics seem ot be the last time he played at an elite level, you have to take into consideration the quality of the team in front of him. A quality that has gotten the longest tenured coach in the NHL booted this season.
  • Jonathan Quick, anyone who needs to know why should simply look at last seasons record, both his individual stats, Cup win and the number of games he only gave up one goal in.
  • Tim Gleason, anyone who can be a plus player with all the years he’s spent on the defensively woeful Carolina Hurricanes.
  • Jack Johnson has a boatload of international experience, will probably have been named Captain of the Blue Jackets by then, offensively talented.
  • Brooks Orpik solid two way defenseman with a double handful of physicality, some international experience and would be among the teams elder statesmen.
  • Ryan Suter a top ten defenseman in the NHL, no-brainer.
  • David Backes, certainly one of the best American forwards in the league.
  • Dustin Brown, great mix of skill and physicality.
  • Patrick Kane almost certainly the best pure goal score from the USA, and has a maturing game away from the puck. Knows how to win.
  • Zach Parise versatile, talented and lots and lots of international experience.
  • Bobby Ryan perennial thirty goal scores do not grow on trees, willing to play physical, willing to shoot.

That would be my starting point based on the 2010 Olympic roster. The next post will focus on filling the roster out. I’ve counted out as many as twelve players I expect to put together a pool of about twenty players including at least two or three goalies.

There are some teams that just aren’t going anywhere this season no matter how well they do in the regular season. For some, just getting run out of town in the first round of the playoffs will be a moral victory. But let’s be honest; moral victory is just another way of saying we aren’t good enough for the real kind, and we aren’t going to try. Not all of the teams with players on this list fall into the category of non-contenders, some have to make room under the falling cap.

Victor Fasth: What an amazing start to an NHL career. The Ducks new netminder has won his first 8 (and counting?) starts in the NHL. This would be far less amazing if he were playing behind a team that showed it was a playoff contender. The other two guys to get off to a start like this are Ray Emery who is worthy of every accolade for endurance and determination to stay in the NHL, neither he nor Bob Froese are going to make it into the top 50 list of goaltenders one would build a franchise around.

Joe Pavelski: Fourteen games into the season “Little Joe” has 14 points. Unfortunately he’s is only got two of those in his last six games. If he were Russian the terms from up north would be stronger than the “inconsistent” I’ll use. With 1/3rd of his goals on the powerplay this season, and for his career, maybe a change of scenery could get this player to the next level. With two more years on a reasonable contract he could help a team that will really contend over the top. His career high 31 goal season last year, and his fast start this year might just get a team to bite.

Martin St. Louis: While I don’t see his quality of play crashing anytime soon, he is the best trade piece the team has for a long term improvement. The team is 24th in goals against, familiar territory for the Lightning. With two years left on his deal, if he can be persuaded to waive his NMC, the return could be gigantic. Lecavalier is untradeable at his current production, trading Stamkos is absolutely a laughable idea, but St Louis could return the right picks or players to shore up an awful defense in front of their solid goaltender. For the undrafted Catamount Alumni he might just get to hoist Lord Stanley if he lands in the right place.

David Krejci: As we all know most forwards peak between 26-28 years of age, then begin to decline and often first liners at 24 are 3rd liners not to long after they peak, assuming they are still in the NHL at all. David Krejci turns 27 on the day after the season ends. He’s off to a point per game pace, he’s shooting well with a career high 17.4%, he’s completely healthy, and he’s the highest paid forward on the Boston Bruins this year. As Stanley Cup champion, a decent faceoff man, and a top 10-15% passer, he’s got value. There are teams up and down the league that can use an offensive center. With cost certainty built in for two more years he’s not much of a risk for teams who need to juice their offense.

Andrei Markov: With a quarter of the season gone, Markov has proved, finally, that for the first time since 2008-9 season that he is indeed healthy. Sell, sell now! He played 13 games last season, he played seven the year before. Those are Rick Dipietro numbers. On top of the questions of health he is somehow the teams highest paid skater. Yes he’s produced, he’s gotten hit and delivered hits, he’s blocked shots too. But be smart, make him someone else’s problem the next time he ends up on the shelf for an extended stretch.

Thomas Vanek: As constituted the Buffalo Sabres are about as likely to win the Stanley Cup this season as are the Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg Jets or Calgary Flames. While Vanek has never even approached the 12g 13a 25p in 15gp pace. Despite being on a team that has had no playoff success in his tenure, Vanek has produced a point per game pace in the playoffs over a 10 game appearance in the 2006-07 year. People, possibly including Terry Pegula, are coming to the conclusion that the current Sabres mix is not configured to win. Vanek, could net even more than Nash. Vanek has, despite scant little more success and being surrounded by middle draft picks to Nash’s high end picks, it is Vanek and not Nash who has the better (slightly) points per game percentage: 0.83778 to 0.81222. Best of all, Vanek is $600,000 cheaper per year.  For the Sabres moving him before the deadline with just one year left on his contract lets them maximize their return and take a long look at more of their prospects and or whoever they get in return.

The San Jose Sharks are an interesting team. By almost any logic this or last off season were the time to blow the team up. And yet they remain. In fact they grow. Last seasons sixth place finish was hardly what people have come to expect of the team.

Good News

  • The acquisitions were clearly targeted to address their god awful penalty kill.
  • Two seasons ago, before injuries ended their second-season the team looked like it knew how to win in the playoffs.

Bad News

  • The key players on this team are not young. Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Stuart will all be at least 33 before the season closes.
  • Depth?
  • Character of second tier guys, specifically Pavelski who wasted twenty minutes of ice time a night in last years playoffs need to be answered in the affirmative.

Forecast

High: 6-9  Arguably the division has gotten easier with so much talent leaving Phoenix Some  of it landed in Dallas, but the Kings also had a long, long run and could be weaker this year at least in the regular season.

Low: If they don’t fix their penalty kill, or Niemi and Greiss are not average to above average all season, It is likely Todd McLellan and several names off their roster will be going to a different rink before seasons end.

X-Factor

The big one with the San Jose Sharks is can they take the regular season seriously enough to get home ice and then stay healthy in the post season. The trend in the NHL the last three years has been to end long cup droughts, there’s qualifies.

We’ll go into the success of my first round picks in a bit, but here goes.

 

Nashville vs Vancouver. Should be an intense series, but after after the seven game slug fest with the Blackhawks I’m not sure the Canucks can pull it off over the long haul. Predators for three reasons; 1: Weber 2: Rinne 3: Suter.

Washington vs Tampa Bay. The two southeast division rivals had a couple nice throwdowns during the season, even though the Lightning shut out the Capitals more than once during the season, I think think the Capitals still standing at the end. Why: Ovechkin is scoring, and better defense in Washington.

San Jose vs Detroit. What a boring series. There is so little that excites me about this matchup that I’m glad I’m not a beat writer for either team. The Sharks got scoring, finally, from Joe Thornton in overtime, Couture, Pavelski and others contributed as well. I still don’t see that being enough to overcome the veteran and healthy Red Wings. Pick Wings. Why: Better playoff machine.

Philadelphia vs Boston. Rematch. With a pair of underwhelming powerplays in the mix five on five play is going to be where this series is decided. A look at the season series says this one goes Boston’s way. Pronger is injured, Chara, Thomas, Bergeron are not.  Bruins win.  Better goaltending, and more heart.

Can anyone sound more out of touch than Wilson? Clearly this one was an empty net tap in from a foot inside the bluepaint. The answer is no. Wilson has the most hysterical (in all senses of the word) meltdown of a coach in this yet young season.

Can one goalie solidify their position? Well, Thomas allowed just one goal, again. This time to the Washington Capitals who are on pace to be held to two or less goals far more times than last year. The Capitals goal-tending duo was affected by “the flu” (The Black & Gold Flu?) and so it’s probably inconclusive so far.

Well, Bergeron not only failed to gain the score sheet, he had one of the worst faceoff nights of his career with just a 22% win percentage. Blake Wheeler snagged and assist and Matt Hunwick stuck the dagger deep into the chest of the Capitals for his first goal of the season.  Pialle is leading all returning Bruins forwards in time on pine, Stuart and Ference have continued to perform at their normal offensive rate.

Caps defense? Um… not really.  Horton may not have gotten a shot on goal, but he was still +2 with an assist. Sorry GM GM, you still have work to do. So sorry.

Egg would be a gift… the Canucks got tripled up by the Wild with no less than six of the boys from The State of Hockey lighting the lamp. Midway through the game the Sharks are halfway to a loss to a probable lottery team on the tail end of a long, grueling road trip that started about 11 time zones away. The Sharks might pull it out but there’s no reason a roster with Thornton, Heatley, Marleau, Pavelski should ever trail a roster with Eric Staal, and 19 other guys.