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.

In the last few weeks the Boston Bruins have been ravaged by in recent weeks. Kevan Miller went down. Then Zdeno Chara went down. David Krejci has been in and out of the lineup, Torey Krug went down, Brad Marchand was dinged, and now David Warsofsky is out of action. Zdeno Chara is the biggest factor, and on the surface we know their record is solid since his 4:13 of ice time in the game where he was lost.

October 23rd is the game where Chara went down the tunnel and didn’t come back. It was early in the game, and the rest of the game was chaotic. Matt Bartkowski played 21 minutes and was a minus one. The defensive pairs were shuffled, blended and then shaken for good measure. Even allowing for the Chara injury, the game wasn’t a good one for the men in black and gold. Patrice Bergeron was a -2, Krejci registered just one shot on net and the team never recovered from Chara going down. They dropped the game to a team that’s giving up as many goals as they score.

October 25th they take on a team who just don’t have what it takes to keep the Bruins out of their head. They managed a convincing win against a team that failed to make the playoffs last season, and are at best a bubble team this year.

Next up is the Minnesota Wild on October 28th. Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and company. The Bruins got down early giving up the opener to former New York Islander Nino Niedderreiter. By the end of the second the Bruins were up 3-1 in what was likely Krejci’s most healthy game of the season. In the third period the team failed to show up. No one took control, no one dominated their space, and the boys from the state of hockey popped three by Tuukka Rask to walk out with two points.

The night before Halloween the Boston Bruins played division ‘rivals’ the Buffalo Sabres. The Buffalo Sabres who are averaging one goal per game. One. Goal. Per. Game. The Boston Bruins gave up two goals to this team, yes, twice the average the team has achieved all season. Then they took overtime to beat the team most likely to be drafting first overall. Yes they gave a pity point to a team that’s so bad no one even pretends the team has a shot at the playoffs.

Next up were the Ottawa Senators. A team who’s best player is Kyle Turris but who lack a legitimate superstar. Again, a team that isn’t considered a threat to division or conference and who no one except maybe Eugene Melnyk thinks they have a shot at Lord Stanley’s silver. The Bruins win against a goalie who put up a .867sv%  on the night. A mediocre team, and they beat the backup.

Next was a visit against a team they should expect the Providence Bruins to beat in a seven game series; The Florida Panthers. Aside Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell there’s no one worth knowing on the team. Gudbranson, Huberdeau, and maybe Barkov will be name players in two or three years, but right now, nope, nada, talent not found. This team is currently averaging 1.67 goals per game, yes that’s 29th in the NHL with only Buffalo scoring less. The Bruins again gave up a pity point. Yes, they went to overtime with a team that can’t manage even two goals per night for the second time in three games.

Finally in this run without Chara, and others they faced the Edmonton Oilers. There was no Taylor Hall in the lineup. That’s arguably their best player. Andrew Ference was out. That’s their captain, their best defensive defensemen, and two two of them are both physical, good skaters, and guys who don’t take shifts off. What’s left of the team lacks firmness and the team is impressively bad at getting the puck out of their own end. They are 27th in the league for goals allowed with 3.50 goals against per game. Ben Scrivens turned in a .871sv% in the loss.

Against the two teams most likely to be in the playoffs the Bruins lost. They went to overtime against two teams likely to be in the lottery. In short we know they can beat, just barely, wretched teams. We know they aren’t any good against anyone who is any good.

As for the suggestion that Chara might be traded now (possibly for Jordan Eberle who is becoming the new Vincent Lecavalier), with what we’ve seen there is zero reason to think that if the Boston Bruins made it to the playoffs they would make it out of the first round. It’s arguable they wouldn’t even make it to a fifth game if they replaced him with Eberle or any player on the Dallas Stars.

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

 

Players;

  • Among all defensemen with more than five games played there are still six with a perfect on ice save percentage; Ian Cole, Kevan Miller, and Erik Gudbranson, and three teammates Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter, and Jared Spurgeon.
  • That Jay Harrison of the Carolina Hurricanes would lead the entire NHL in PIMS with 27, higher than the top three PIMs pilers from last season put together, all from a guy who’s never topped 72 PIMS, in just 6 games this year.
  • That six games into the season Carl Alzner would be finishing up in the offensive zone at a rate 24.4% less than his starts there, while still maintaining a positive plus minus.
  • That Daniel Carcillo, would lead all forwards in penalties drawn per sixty minutes and only have two himself.
  • Two plus weeks into the season there would be two defensemen playing over 28 minutes a night, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
  • That Chris Stewart would have the most shots on net without a goal standing at 26 shots and eight games with no goals.
  • At nearly the end of the first month of the season Evgani Malkin, Sami Vatanen, Trevor Daley, Claude Giroux, Johnny Boychuk, David Backes, Linden Vey, Brad Boyes, Scott Hartnell, Mark Giordano, Tyler Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Keith Yandle, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, Teddy Purcell, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larson (among others) would all have something important in common, they have all only scored a goal(s) on the powerplay.

Teams

  • Seven games into the season the Detroit Red Wings would be the final team not to have allowed a powerplay goal.
  • The Chicago BlackHawks would lead the NHL in shorthanded goals with two in just six games played.
  • the last two teams not to have scored a powerplay goal would be the Minnesota Wild and Buffalo Sabres.
  • the Carolina Hurricanes would be winless, a minus 29, and still have scored more goals per game than the Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, and Buffalo Sabres.
  • The Boston Bruins would be 13th in the NHL in goals against.
  • Three teams, the Arizona Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes would all be winless when scoring first.
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets would have the best differential between powerplay and penalty kill time after finishing 17th in the NHL last season.

Each year we as 30 teams go careening through the grueling season hell bent on playing at least sixteen more when it is over, we have the chance to see the most difficult and most subtle position played by the good, the bad, the forgettable and the elite. Getting the Norris trophy (normally) means you are an elite defenseman. Here’s the guys to watch this year.

  • Shea Weber, he’s long overdue, his team has a shot at the playoffs with the improvements up front, and the return to health of Pekka Rinne.
  • Ryan McDonagh, a new name to watch, he’s got two solid tenders to play in front of, a decent squad even without Stepan or a few weeks, and his team is fresh off a deep playoff run.
  • Drew Doughty, I’d have been much happier to see him win last year than the guy who did, and I don’t expect his performance to dip this season, top level defenseman with the most Ray Bourque like mix of skill and skating of any player in the NHL.
  • Zdeno Chara, the elder statesmen of the top end defensemen in the NHL, he’s go one Norris, and the defense crew he plays with now just got younger and less experienced.
  • Alex Pietrangelo, this is one of the players who doesn’t get recognized because he doesn’t have one outstanding area of strength that’s easy to pin down, however he also doesn’t have any areas where he’s average or below average.
  • Ryan Suter, top shelf defenseman who was suffered mutual penalization with Shea Weber for playing together, now playing with a rather young mostly nameless defense.
  • Victor Hedman, consistent producer of points, while his actually defensive numbers don’t fall into the same league as the rest of he watchlist, he’s still more worthy than certain recent winners.

The Central division is the toughest in the NHL. Last season five teams from the division made it into the playoffs something no other division in hockey matched. In the division you’ve got dynamic goal scorers Norris quality defensemen, top flight goalies and not a lot of mutual love.

Top Shelf

Chicago Blackhawks

They got edged for a trip to the Finals, and will likely be trading someone pretty soon. Two of their core forwards Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning, but they are probably the best balanced team in the conference. They’ve got got great forwards, strong defense and adequate goaltending.

St Louis Blues

This team is likely to take a half to a full step back this year. Elliot has never thrived as a number-one goalie, and Jake Allen is still an unknown quantity. That said, they may have the best top three for defense in Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, and Bouwmeester. They downgrade slightly going with Steve Ott over Vlad Sobotka, but did add Paul Stastny. Jaden Schwartz remains unsigned and doubtless need to do some catching up when he gets back into the fold.

Wild Cards

Minnesota Wild

Mikko Koivu led the team to the playoffs where he, Ryan Suter and the rest waged a fierce battle in the second round with the Blackhawks. Out are Clayton Stoner and Dany Heatley. Goaltending remains as unsteady as ever, but that doesn’t distract this team. Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and the rest will have to dig deep and pull in some more offense, but this team is capable of laying anyone out.

Colorado Avalanche

The advanced stats and the eyeball test said this team should not have been as dangerous as they proved to be in the regular season last year. It took until the playoffs to prove it. They did lose long time contributor Paul Stastny, and replaced him with the notably older Jarome Iginla. I don’t expect them to fall out of the playoffs, but 112 points again is not that likely. It will be interesting to see how older players like Briere and Iginla adjust to playing at altitude.

The Rest

The Dallas Stars

Finally a return to the playoffs last year. This year among other moves was punting the push and passion of Alex Chaisson for Jason Spezza’s finesse and offense. Anders Lindback will be this years backup in the crease. With a full season under his belt Valeri Nichushkin should be crossing the 20 goal mark this year. Given the changes in the roster, and the injury history of some players, this team a not a lock for the playoffs, but I don’t see them in the lottery.

Nashville Predators

In the off season the Predator made several moves that collectively add up to some big question marks. James Neal an elite sniper was added at the expense of Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Stalberg and Derek Roy were brought in to rearrange the forward group. I have no idea what these players will look like this season, and I don’t think anyone else does either. On the plus side, Pekka Rinne will have a full summer of health under his belt, Seth Jones and the other youngsters have played through the worst of things and the light is indeed brighter this year. Whatever else, the Predators have Shea Weber, and their opponents do not.

Winnipeg Jets

The weak sister of the division, the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in years. Ownership needs to decide if they are building or breaking down, because what they are doing isn’t going to get them a Stanley Cup. They have a lot of talent in Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien. When you look at the talent level at the top, and an average to above average middle of the roster, you have to wonder if it isn’t either the environment or the players themselves. Without reinforcement, and a strong on ice system, this team is not making the playoffs.

Last years playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke. Last years trip to the second round was also not a fluke. After more than a decade of aggressive mediocrity, the Minnesota Wild are set to be a contender or the next several years. Marion Gaborik couldn’t bring them to the this level.  Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson couldn’t sustain the altitude the Wild now call home. Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky and Alexandre Daigle have nothing to do with the teams success.

Gone is Jacques Lemaire. His stultifying system of play was a prime contributor to the lockout, and locking the Minnesota Wild out of success. Likewise, Doug Risebrough the teams inaugural general manager. Between Resebrough and Lemaire they took a hockey mad market granted a second lease NHL life, and lulled them to sleep and bored the rest of the league from day one on.

Fortunately, those days are over. Chuck Fletcher has ruthlessly, if cautiously extracted every counter-productive element from the roster or behind the bench. He’s built a team that is not only good now, but has the cap space and flexibility to be good for years to come. About a half dozen movement limiting clauses (beyond this season) are light on the roster. Koivu, Suter, and Parise probably weren’t going to be traded anyway. The others belong to guys who are now at or about their peak and want to be with a contender, not just in the NHL.

The core of the team is built around a top shelf center Mikko Koivu, an enormously talented elite defenseman Ryan Suter, and the hugely driven Zach Parise. A strong cadre of experienced, hungry, talented forwards is the next tier with Jason Pominville, Tomas Vanek and Matt Cooke each filling their roles. Their counterparts on defense are less well known but equally worth watch, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella along with Keith Ballard and Jonas Brodin make for a formidable defense.

The key to this teams next five years is how many of their young players are still on the upswing towards the top of their talent. Spurgeon, Coyle, Scandella, Haula, Grandland, Dumba, Neiderrieter, Brodin, and Kuempher are all twenty-four or younger. That’s half a roster who can’t even rent a car in most places. With that many RFA’s heading into their second contract, they still have an enormous amount of control over what they spend and who they retain. At the end of this year they have just three UFA’s to deal with, none of them critical.

Can the team stand to upgrade at goal? Yes, absolutely. They have talent and depth at the position, but a disturbing and consistent lack of health. Goal has been an troubling question for other teams who have made deep runs and even won the Stanley Cup. No one really thinks Chris Osgood was an elite netminder, and you can point at others to have own the Cup in the last two decades and wonder how they made it, which doesn’t make the Wild’s position either unique or insurmountable.

With each first round series begun, it is time to take our first serious look at who might be carrying around the extra hardware this summer.

Before we get to the men still playing there are some honorable mentions that had individually stellar first rounds. Out west that list is headed by pending UFA Paul Stastny who contributed not just a lot of points, but timely ones. In the east no one deserves more respect than Steve Mason who came into the second season behind a pretty porous defense and put up a more than respectable .939 Sv%.

West:

  • Ryan Suter, 29:14 a night is more minutes a night than any one else still playing. His 14 hits and 15 blocked shots blocked piled up in 8 games.
  • Anze Kopitar, the Selke finalist leads all players in post season points with 13 through 8 games, 51.6% on the faceoff dot, and is a +5 to go with it.
  • Ryan Getzlaf, seven games, 9 points, 3 power play points, a shorthanded point, and a +3 say he’s doing the job in all three zones and all situations over almost 22 minutes a night is quite the workout for a forward.
  • Jonathan Toews, three game winning goals in seven games, 23:16 a night in TOI, and 62.5% in the faceoff circle are a step or three above good.

East:

  • P.K. Subban, 6 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, leads the Canadiens in scoring.
  • Torey Krug over the regular season his ice time has increased 2:30, his on ice save percentage has climbed, he’s a point per game in the most defensive minded system left in the playoffs.
  • Henrik Lundqvist, through eight games he’s allowed 2 or less goals in six games. His sv% is up over the regular season, and of all the goalies left, he’s the only one not playing behind someone in the top 15 in post season scoring.
  • Paul Martin 7 games, 8 points, three powerplay points, 2 shorthanded points, +7, 27:29 of TOI, 20 blocked shots, arguably.

Honorable mentions still playing, Evgani Malkin, Tuukka Rask, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Lars Eller, Corey Crawford, Drew Doughty, Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik, Matt Niskanen, Marc Staal.

 

The departure of Ryan Suter hit the Predators hard. Their defense went from 9th in the NHL to 20th, their offense was 30th in the NHL as well. Despite the star power and impressive talents of Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, the team finished 27th in the league. Injuries were a problem and only Shea Weber, David Legwand, and Roman Josi played the full 48 games. No one on the team broke 30 points, and only three players even managed double digits in goals; David Legwand with a dozen, Gabriel Bourque with eleven, and Mike Fisher with ten. Even promising sophomore center Craig Smith regressed in the abbreviated season.

For the Nashville Predator’s retooling includes bringing Matt Hendricks to music city. The left shooting center is an alumni of St. Cloud State, the Colorado Avalanche and most recently the Washington Capitals. Another college boy graces the roster in the form of University of Michigan left winger Eric Nystrom who has since played for the Calgary Flames, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. Filip Forsberg was added to the organization April 3rd via the Washington Capitals, the 2012 1st round  played in Sweden’s 1st division last year. It is likely Austin Watson, Joonas Rask and Taylor Beck will push for full time roster spots with the departure of Martin Erat. A backup goaltender will need to emerge to spell Pekka Rinne as well.

The season opens to a mixed schedule. The Blues are tough defensively and will open the season with a visit from the Predators, the Avalanche will be next on the opening two game road set the next night. Then they are home for five straight games at home. The home stand opens with Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, and the Minnesota Wild. Next to visit will be Jake Gardiner, Tyler Bozak, and the Maple Leafs. Next up are John Tavares and his New York Islanders. Their opening five have four team who were in last years playoffs, but all four were eliminated in the first round.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Minnesota Wild

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 3

Projected points: 5

If Barry Trotz can get all his meat eaters hungry and hunting together when camp ends the Predators opening sortie will tell us a lot about this years edition of the team. No one is particularly worried about Shea Weber or Pekka Rinne and their ability to bring their “A game” in the new season.  The questions revolve around Mike Fisher who’s frequently inform, Colin Wilson and the status of his recovery, as well as the integration of new players.

I was not among those surprised the Wild made their return to the playoffs last season. Mikko Koivu has long been one of the most underrated players in the NHL, and adding Suter, Parise as well as several young and talented players to the team was only going to do good things for the team. Jonas Brodin was lauded right and left, but no less of a success was Jared Spurgeon. The late season addition of Jason Pominville wasn’t quite enough to get them a division title, or keep them from being bounced in the first round, but the playoff experience will do them good this year, and for years to come.

In the off season they added Keith Ballard. At best he can contribute as a top four defenseman, at worst he’ll be a voice of experience on an inexperienced blueline. The most controversial signing of the off-season was former Pittsburgh Penguin and Washington Capitals forward Matt Cooke. Cooke is well know for the numerous injuries he’s caused, and the disdain which his claims of reform draw in many quarters. Also looking for a new start is former New York Islanders first round pick Nino Niederreiter. Unfortunately for Wild faithful, none of these players will be the biggest question mark of the year. That distinction will as it has for years reside in the crease as Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and others fight for good health and crease time.

As soon as they cross the starting line this season their ability to score on good goaltenders will be put to the test. The Kings and Ducks both pay visits to the Twin Cities before the Wild play their one road game in the opening set in Nashville against Shea Weber, Seth Jones and the Nashville Predators. The Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars will complete the Wild’s first set of the season. No back to back games, and playing four of five at home is a good sign for the opening stretch.

Number of days 1-5:

Number of cities: 2

Best opponent: Los Angeles Kings

Weakest opponent: Dallas Stars

Home games: 4

Projected points: 6

The Minnesota Wild enter the season as one of the top three teams in their division. Staying healthy and avoiding running into a buzzsaw in the first round of the playoffs have to be their priorities. With a little confidence and a dash of machismo the Wild have the tools and talent to play in the second round. Fans looking for a more exciting brand of hockey than this franchise was once known for should keep their eyes on Pominville, Coyle, and Niederreiter.