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.

Last night the Boston Bruins lost their captain Zdeno Chara to reported knee injury. The list of accolades and accolades for the man passed over fifty five times in the 1996 draft doesn’t need to be repeated. But they do impact what happens in his absence. Chara vacating the lineup for two to three weeks is probably good for development of the other defenseman, namely Hamilton, Krug and whoever gets called up.

There are three questions:

  1. Is it a short term injury or a long term injury?
  2. If its long term, will he return at all?
  3. What type of replacement should the team go for in the medium to long term?

Currently the Boston Bruins say he’ll be out four to six weeks with no surgery needed. That means December, early in the month if things go well. But given all the complications possible in joints that endure much less stress than a 24 minute a night nearly seven foot tall bruising NHL defenseman, the probability it will take Chara more than six weeks to return is very real.

But, given that the man has played through broken fingers to the point where he no longer has feeling in two of them, he might not even have felt the injury given all the other damage to his body over the years. That monstrous hit he laid on John Tavares could just be the last time he’s seen on the ice until his jersey is hoisted into the rafters. Let’s not forget that while he’s a physical fitness freak, two weeks after the trade deadline he’ll be 38 years old. While the evidence shows Father Time does play favorites, being a top player in a physically demanding collision sport means everyone leaves the sport younger than they want to.

A laundry list of the Boston Bruins prospects in college or in the minors won’t turn up anyone who can contribute even 75% of what Chara does. Rob O’Gara is tantalizing, Linus Arnesson has more than a few admirers, and Joe Morrow was actually taken just a few picks after Dougie Hamilton. One or more of those young men may have to be part of a package to bring back a viable top three defenseman to fill in for any period longer than seven or eight weeks.

The list of who might be both useful and available isn’t that long. Marc Staal has been supplanted by Ryan McDonagh on the New York Rangers depth chart, but he’s still a pretty damned effective defenseman. He’s also a UFA on July 1, and the Rangers will likely not have room to sign him. As a pure defensive defenseman, Mark Stuart might just be the answer. Like Chara he plays over three minutes a night of short handed time on ice, he is familiar with Claude Julien’s system, the Boston fans and media, and he’s a leader, he’s not a top three defenseman but given the market for defensemen, he might be a good fit.

Luke Schenn is another intriguing possibility. The Flyers season isn’t going any better than Boston’s and while the Fyers have less in the way of young building blocks they also have a new general manager who has yet o really put his stamp on the team. With another year on his contract, and then a raise due after that he’s more than a rental. He’s only slightly older than Hamilton and Krug but has more NHL experience than both put together. The Arizona Coyotes might be convinced to part with Zbynek Michalek. He’s a solid 21 or so minute a night guy who plays hard and reliably.

Whatever the Boston Bruins do, short, medium or long term the post-Chara era must be planned for, and planned or now.

Dennis Seidenberg has been an invaluable bastion of calm, professional competence on the Boston Bruins blueline is done for the year. With any defenseman other than Seidenberg or Chara you’d shrug, examine the depth charts and medical reports and go forward. In this case however, especially with only one other veteran defender, Johnny Boychuk, that might not be an option for a team that in the words of its own leadership should compete for a Stanley Cup every year.

Option 1

Do nothing. Not precisely nothing, just don’t bring in any external talent. With Hamilton mending, and Joe Morrow doing well in the AHL you have high end draft picks waiting in the wings to fill minutes. Both are high end skaters, both have shown their pick wasn’t a waste. On the ice now are Boychuck, McQuaid, Krug, Bartkowski and Miller. The first four of them have seen playoff action under Julien and earned at least that much trust. Boychuck and McQuaid were part of the Stanley Cup win and know the game at the NHL level.

Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski are a little less familiar to fans. Krug is a small, undrafted highly mobile defenseman signed out of college as a free agent who burst onto the scene in the playoffs last year and is now the only defenseman to play in every game for the Bruins. Bartkowski’s journey is equally blue collar if of a slightly different path. Often overlooked is that the Pittsburgh native was a part of the trade that brought Seidenberg to Boston. After a false start or two Bartkowski stake a claim to to a roster spot and has been a solid contributor to the team. An interesting trivia note is that Bartkowski was supposed to be part of the aborted trade that would have brought Jarome Iginla to Boston last year.

Kevan Miller and to a lesser extent David Warsofsky and Zach Trotman are the internal candidates to help fill the roster spot while Hamilton is still recovering. While Hamilton is recovering, it is unlikely any moves will be made unless there is a major setback for the towering second year defender.  Elsewhere on the list are Tommy Cross and Chris Casto who have yet to even earn a recall.

Option 2:

The modest trade. The minutes you most want to fill are the defensive shutdown minutes which are a vast gulf that is just about impossible to fill based purely on talent or similar attributes because of the need for chemistry, and some might say synergy among those defending than pure objective skill. A trade for anyone under four million a year who could play some or all of the 2:36 a night of shorthanded time on ice Seidenberg has left unclaimed.

  • Mark Stuart, as a retread he would be familiar with all of the teams core players from Bergeron, Lucic and Krejci to Chara, Boychuk and Rask. He even played as part of an effective pairing with Boychuk. He’s tough as nails, the Jet’s aren’t going anywhere and would love a talent infusion. A couple middling draft picks for the pending (and inexpensive) UFA would do the trick.
  • Matt Greene, like Stuart is a pending UFA. With the pipeline from the Manchester Monarchs wide open the 30 year old blueliner has found his ice time reduced overall, but is still contributing a good 3:18 a night of shorthanded time on ice. At under 3 million a year, he wouldn’t break the bank and is unlikely to strip the farm bare.
  • Victor Bartley is a name that’s probably a bit under the radar anywhere outside Nashville Tennsessee and Ottawa, but Bruins brass is familiar with the 25 year old who had a ten game tour of duty with the Providence Bruins in the 2008-09 season. His on ice sv% is one of the higher ones on the Predators, and he plays solid shorthanded minutes for perhaps the most conservative minded coach in the NHL.
  • Jared Spurgeon, with 200 NHL games to his name the 25 year old is the 2nd highest paid defender for the Wild, and plays in all situations. I can’t imagine him being traded for picks alone, but for as a team that should be looking to tweak their offense, Spurgeon might find himself in a new zip code if Chuck Fletcher can find the right pieces to turn his collection of forwards into a contending team.

Next up, option 3.

With the diverse origins of the teams former divisions, the central division might as well be the called “the melting pot”. Two former Northwest teams, a former pacific team, three of the former central division’s teams and an alumni of the southeast division just for good measure. While some teams know each other pretty darn well, the intensity of long time rivalries might just be lacking.

Chicago: We know the Blackhawks didn’t have a fire-sale this time. Who knows, they might escape a cup hangover too. Not likely, not as late as the season ran and as many people as they retained. On the plus side, there were no injuries to key players that will shorten the returning roster going into training camp. We know that with cross conference play, the BlackHawks will have to play more good teams next season than last season.

Colorado: We know Patrick Roy has a new job with the Avalanche. We know this is the longest predicted hiring in the history of the NHL. We know they still have nothing that resembles an NHL defense. We know the franchise has yet to put into evidence a viable plan for a return to relevance. We know Cory Sarich and Alex Tanguay are the biggest additions to this team. We know its gonna be another ugly season.

Dallas Stars: We know the team believes they’ve addressed their needs at center. We know the team dumped a first round pick defenseman, an All Star quality forward and some b prospects to get a guy who was playing third line wing, and a guy with epic scoring droughts. We know Jamie Benn is still the best player on the team, and that Alex Goligoski is still the most underrated player on the team. We know that Rich Peverley is likely to improve the penalty kill 2-3% all by himself. We know that Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley are a remarkable uptick in foot speed over Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder.

Minnesota: We know that after a run to the playoffs last year with a very, very young and inexperienced crew the team should be better this year. We know that with little in the way of real losses in players team chemistry should be good. We know the team needs to hit the playoffs and win a round to be financially viable. We know they really, really need to find a goalie who can be healthy for a whole season. We know the team is just about a shoe in for a playoff spot in a bottom heavy conference.

Nashville: We know the teams defensive top four is set well into the next collective bargaining agreement. We know Pekka Rinne will play close to seventy games. We know they still need a backup goalie. We know they haven’t done a thing to improve their forward core group in years. We know they will make the playoffs in Rinne, Weber, and Ellis are healthy and productive. We know that without upgrades to complete a viable top six they will eventually be beaten by a playoff team that can score consistently.  We know most people would be shocked to know the Predators were the prey on the penalty kill last year ending up 29th with a 75.5% effectiveness.

St Louis: We know the Blues traded out odd duck David Perron for Magnus Paajarvi who they still haven’t signed. We know they have 14 forwards signed. We know that despite it being as close to the end of their last season as it is to the beginning of the new one, their franchise corner stone Alex Pietrangelo is still not signed. We know they will return two goaltenders to the crease whose inconsistency is the one thing you can count on.

Winnipeg: We know that with their first season playing as a western conference team many of the teams players will have to get used to a different traveling and playing schedule. We know that with eight defenseman signed, UFA’s Mark Stuart and Paul Potsma may not want to renew their magazine subscriptions too soon. We know that Devin Setogouchi isn’t a big enough offensive upgrade, but that Michael Frolik might be the perfect solution to their penalty kill woes. We know Olli Jokinen will continue to baffle and befuddle people across the hockey world.

The Winnipeg Jets are in a tough position when it comes to their restricted free agents. On one hand they just were not a playoff team in the Eastern Conference even with everyone of them in uniform. On the other hand some of them were pretty productive last season, one even having a career year. On the third hand with the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets promoted to the Eastern Conference the west is likely to be a lot easier sailing than they had it last season. And on the gripping hand, with the cap coming down and uncertainty about how well the market will support the team in this its third season in town with the team finishing out side the playoffs each of the previous two years spending a lot might not be wise. Of the 21 players to elect salary arbitration this summer, a quarter of them were Jets, and two have now reached a deal prior to their hearing.

Of the remaining three, we have Blake Wheeler who has been second and then first on the team in scoring over the last two seasons. Bryan Little an average center, Zach Bogosian a solid defenseman. All three were first round picks. Bogosian and Little are home grown products for the transplanted Atlanta Thrashers. Blake Wheeler declined to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes and upon completing his college career at the University of Minnesota was signed as a free agent and sent to the then Thrashers with Mark Stuart as part of the deal that sent Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik to Boston. Last year after a brief stop in Europe during the lockout Wheeler turned in his best career numbers with a .854 ppg. His career number is notably at .623 which includes his time with the much more defensive minded Bruins where he received less ice time. In the two years he and the team have been in Winnipeg his ppg is .820, over the same period of time Matt Duchene was a .676 per game, barely higher than Wheeler’s career number and far lower than the comparative time. Duchene’s new deal was five years at six million.

For Bogosian, the numbers that matter are pretty plain to see. He’s averaged over 23 minutes a night for the last three seasons. On any team in the league that’s a top two or three defenseman slot. Over the last three seasons he’s been able to finish in the offensive zone at least as often as he finished there. Essentially he both gets the puck out of his zone, and keeps it move forward. Better still, there’s been a solid progression. In the 2010-11 season he started and finished in the offensive zone the same percentage of the time, during the 2011-12 campaign he was a best among all regulars with the second highest increase in offensive zone finishes over starts.  The 2012-13 adventure saw him double the previous years gains, and again finish behind only Ron Hainsey.

A quick look at his On Ice Save Percentage might lead you to believe he’s a defensive liability, but keep in mind he plays as much as three minutes of shorthanded ice time a night, and the teams goaltending isn’t spectacular. Some of the players who play a similar amount of time shorthanded are Bryan Allen formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes and now of the Anahiem Ducks, Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers, Johnny Boychuk of the Boston Bruins, the Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber, and Vancouver Canuck Kevin Bieksa. When look at last season’s points totals, Bogosion kept company with Matt Niskanen Lubomir Vishnovski, and Dan Girardi while playing less games than any of them.

Over the past three seasons, Bryan Little has finished above fifty percent in faceoffs just once. That pleasant occurrence was this past season. Among NHL Centers he finished tied for the bottom of the top 30 with Vincent Lecavalier, and Mike Richards. Not elite company offensively, but not the bottom of the barrel by any stretch of the imagination. In terms of Time On Ice Little did play a huge number of minutes, finishing 10th among NHL centers playing well more than better known names like Sedin, Toews, Thornton, and Krejci. His powerplay time puts him in the top half of the NHL’s centers, but the teams powerplay finished an embarrassing 30th. For the “fancy stats” he does finish in the offensive zone more than he starts there by a very solid margin of almost 9%, he takes very few penalties and draws them better than most of his Winnipeg Jets forward teammates.

 Salary wise nailing down where any of these guys lands is difficult. Little plays top end minutes and can get the puck to where it is supposed to be, Bogosian’s stats are murky to interpret, and Wheeler has clearly found his game in Winnipeg. At 25 years old heading into the season Little has accumulated six seasons and 404 regular season games of experience. He’s about he same age David Krejci was when his current deal was signed, Duchene at 22 signed a deal that will kick in when he’s 23 for $6m per, Tyler Bozak who is two years older and a bit less productive inked for $4.2 a year under the current CBA. A fair range for Little is $4.5-5.6 average annual value depending on length of deal, signing bonuses, and things like no trade or no movement clauses.

Blake Wheeler is harder to nail down. Yes last year was a career year and he did indeed finish ninth overall in scoring for right wings on a team that was 16th in scoring for the year. A lot of the guys he finished ahead of are or should be household names, Jordan Eberle, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, and Bobby Ryan. Two seasons ago he finished 15th among right wings, meaning he might have the staying power to finish in the top 15-20 right wings in scoring for the next several years. Comparable contracts of players in that range are Jason Pominville, Bobby Ryan, Nathan Horton and Jakub Voracek. Again we’re looking at a range of $4.5-5.6 AAV.

Bogosion is probably the guy who will have the most brutal arbitration session if it comes to that. Hammering out the stats you can make a case in a certain light that he’s an elite defenseman, you can equally make the case he’s a liability, the truth per usual, likes somewhere between those two. Defensemen who bring a similar toolkit to the rink include Johhny Boychuk, Kevin Bieksa, and Brent Seabrook. When you weigh in all the stats and the eyeball test you come to a range of anything from $4.4m as a low ball figure to a $5.8 as a long term deal if you expect him to keep progressing.

The Winnipeg Jets can look forward to improved defense this season. If for no other reason than health. With the exception of Mark Stuart all the defensemen played a number of games in the middles sixties or lower.  With Evander Kane as yet unsigned things at the other end of the ice could get dicey if he isn’t signed soon, or traded for a similar talent.

Good News

  • No jail time or serious legal problems for Dustin Byfuflien. That and good health could lead to a huge year for the officially 265lb defenseman.
  • If Evander Kane is signed in time to start the season, he could outstrip last years performance, last year he only played 74 games, getting dinged up a couple times.
  • The division still isn’t very strong and two or three strong performances in their own end for the season can have them in the post season.

Bad News

  • The defense is still a question mark. Defense isn’t exactly what they excel at as a unit.
  • Pavelec shows no signs of playing consistently at a high enough level for the team to do anything in the playoffs.
  • The east isn’t really any weaker this year and they finished tied for 10th last year.

Forecast

High: If they can some how score about the same number of goals as last year and eliminate twenty goals against they have a solid shot at the Bubble. Getting down to 226 goals against would be less goals allowed than half of the eastern team who did make the post season last year,

Low: Afterthought. Almost as big as their injuries last year was inconsistency even when most of their best players were playing.

X-Factor

The whole team is an x-factor, Kane’s signing or trade, the health of the defense and Pavelec’s consistency. At times they looked like they could have won the Cup for two and three game stretches last year, and at other times they looked like they’d have trouble winning a series with the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

While their coach spent the late winter pining for offense, the teams biggest needs are at the backend. Their 12th place finish offensively means that they finished above about half the playoff teams in goals for. The only division rival to finish ahead of them in goals were the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Jets blueline situation was complicated by lots of missed games from Hainesy to Byfuglien on down, only Stuart played close to a full season. Goaltending was a mess. Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavlec combined for some notably bad numbers. Health will help the blueline, which will show lead tosome improvement in net. The organization has drafted at least one goalie in each of the last four drafts, but none all that high up.

Arguably any goaltender is a reach this high in the draft, but Malcom Subban could be taken anyways. Jacob Trouba might be gone already but if so Olli Matta, a defense first defenseman is a safe selection.

This time last year the Boston Bruins traded first round pick Mark Stuart and free agent refugee from the Phoenix Coyotes Blake Wheeler (@BiggieFunke) to the then Atlanta Thrashers and now Winnipeg Jets for Boris Valabik and Rich Peverley. What I thought of the trade at the time is pretty well known. But its a year later, the Boston Bruins have hoisted the Cup, Rich Peverley played a key role in that and has since been rewarded with a new contract.

Let’s take a look at the players one at a time:

Mark Stuart:

  • Had a multiseason ironman streak as a member of the Boston Bruins.
  • leads the Jets in shorthanded time
  • has well over 100 each hits and blocked shots (154,141) both higher than any Bruins player
  • got his first career shorthanded goal this season

Blake Wheeler:

  • his 96 hits are more than any Bruins forward except Lucic
  • leads his team in scoring
  • only Bergeron has more points among the Bruins
  • with 12 has more powerplay points than any Bruins player except Chara

Rich Peverley (currently injured):

  • 9 goals 29 assists 38 points in 49 games
  • gets almost 4 minutes of special teams time a night
  • 4th among Bruins forwards in time on ice per game
  • 8th in scoring on the Bruins

Boris Valabik:

  • Has not played in NHL since trade.

On paper, and in the stat sheets it is hard to argue the now-Jets won this trade. Both teams got what they wanted from the trade, but if you need to declare one a winner it’s not really that close. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that.

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…

Teams:

  • only twelve teams would have a positive goals differential on December 22nd
  • the Toronto Maple Leafs would be among the 12 and the Washington Capitals would be among the 18
  • six teams would change coaches before the new year
  • only the St Louis Blues among the teams with a change would be improved by it
  • the 3rd place Boston Bruins and 29th place Anahiem Ducks would have a powerplay of identical efficiency at 18.5%
  • the 30th place Columbus Blue Jackets would have scored more goals than the Anahiem Ducks, Los Angeles Kings or New York Islanders
  • of the six division leaders on December 22nd (Boston, Florida, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minnesota, San Jose) none would possess a top 6 powerplay.
  • Calgary and Anahiem would be the only teams without a shorthanded goal
  • the Phoenix Coyotes who lost Ilya “Humongous Big” Bryzgalov to free agency would have a better GAA than the Philadelphia Flyers (2.56 vs 2.59 through 34 games each)

Players

  • of all the players with 15 or more games played and on a point per game pace, the highest plus minus would belong to Marian Hossa +21
  • Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be on an identical 1.03ppg pace
  • James Neal, Scott Hartnell, and Johan Franzen would be among the top five in powerplay goals scored when all three finished outside the top 20 last season
  • Benoit Pouliot would have more game winning goals than; Phil Kessel, Jeff Skinner, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Daniel Sedin
  • Erik Karlsson would lead all defensemen in scoring, and be 1st about defensemen and tied for 11th overall in takeaways
  • in 31 games each Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers and Mark Stuart of the Winnipeg Jets would be the only players over 80 hits and 80 blocked shots
  • two of the top five players in short handed time on ice, Josh Gorges and Jay Bouwmeester would be on teams not among the five leaders in penalty kill time
  • that while having the lowest ice time since the 2005-06 Chris Kelly would be on pace for career numbers
  • through 28 games on the leagues blackhat Boston Bruins Daniel Paille would have zero penalties and through 35 games Andrew Brunette of the Chicago BlackHawks would have zero PIM’s as well