A class for the ages

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Should the NHL continue its climb back from a multiple-lockout induced dark era, the arrival of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will receive much of the credit.

This is only partially correct though. Sure, the last two Hart Trophy winners are the linchpins, but the youth revolution taking control of the NHL and providing hope for a prosperous future didn’t start with the drafts that produced them.

While Ovechkin went No. 1 in 2004 and Crosby led off the draft a year later, it is the Class of 2003 that could be remembered as possibly the greatest of all time. It is this deep and talented bounty that will augment “the saviors” from the next two summers and give the league an abundant collection of star power for years to come.

“It certainly ranks right up there,” Nashville general manager David Poile said. “These players are certainly some of the best young players in the league today. A few years from now, it certainly might be the best draft of all time.”

The amount of talent in the league from the 2003 draft is staggering, from franchise cornerstones to key contributors and late bloomers with hefty future expectations - despite none of them yet reaching 24 years of age.

For proof of the 2003 draft’s impact, look no further than the game’s greatest stage. The Carolina Hurricanes were the first post-lockout champions of the NHL, and center Eric Staal, the No. 2 pick in 2003, led them in scoring during the postseason.

Anaheim snared the Stanley Cup in 2007, and center Ryan Getzlaf - 19th overall in 2003 - led the team in playoff scoring. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who this season starred for Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh, finally began to fulfill the expectations placed upon him when the Penguins selected him with the first pick in the 2003 draft.

The list of stars does not stop there. Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf is the best young defenseman in the league, but Philadelphia’s Braydon Coburn (picked by Atlanta), Chicago’s Brent Seabrook and Minnesota’s Brent Burns aren’t far behind.

Getzlaf and classmate Corey Perry could make Anaheim contenders for the next decade, and the same goes for Philadelphia’s trio of 2003 alums Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Coburn.

“Coming out of the predraft meeting, we felt it was going to be a very strong draft,” Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said. “Obviously since we were picking so high, we felt very comfortable we were going to get a great player.”

Shuffle at the top

The Panthers held the top pick heading into the draft, but for the second straight year they traded it. Pittsburgh, eager to add a franchise player to build around after shedding the final remnants of their great teams from the previous decade, dealt Florida the No. 3 pick, a second-rounder and Mikael Samuelsson for the top choice and a third-round selection.

For the second time in the team’s history, the Penguins pegged a French Canadian from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the first pick overall. The first one, Mario Lemieux, worked out pretty well, but Fleury was only the third goaltender to be the No. 1 pick.

After a tumultuous beginning to his professional career, Fleury made strides toward becoming a legit No. 1 goaltender last season and then cemented it with his play in the postseason this year.

By only moving back two spots, the Panthers grabbed the guy they coveted in Nathan Horton, a prototypical power forward from the Ontario Hockey League. In between were the Hurricanes, who had made a surprising run to the Cup finals in 2002 before crashing back to the fewest points in the league in 2003.

Despite losing out on the top pick in the draft lottery, Rutherford had an inkling he would get his man at No. 2.

“Just prior to the draft, it appeared that there were a few teams trying to trade up to the top pick to get the goalie,” Rutherford said. “We were comfortable with that because we already had our goalie in Cam Ward. … It worked out very well. Anytime you make a high pick like that and he helps you to win a Stanley Cup it is great. The fact is Eric is still very young and can lead us to future Cups.”

Going deep for gems

The first round of the 2003 draft was fantastic for both its star power and depth (25 of the 30 picks have played at least 78 games in the NHL, and all but Hugh Jessiman, the Rangers’ pick at No. 12, have made it there).

But there was plenty of talent in the draft’s later rounds. San Jose hit with first-round picks Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier (traded to Buffalo in the deal for Brian Campbell), but landing defenseman Matt Carle in the second round and forward Joe Pavelski in Round 7 with the 205th pick made the Sharks’ haul special.

“We have a good core group of young players that came out of that draft class,” Pavelski said. “It is funny because we were pieced together in different rounds, but I think we’ve all developed pretty quick and had some success at this level.”

A pair of eighth-round picks from 2003 - there are only seven rounds these days - needed four years before having a breakout season in the NHL. Chicago’s Dustin Byfuglien (No. 245) moved from defense to forward and finished the 2007-08 season on a line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

While the Thrashers traded a top-pairing defenseman in Coburn, they added another one at No. 239. At the time of the draft, Tobias Enstrom was a skilled Swedish defenseman deemed too small to have a future on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Then came the lockout and the rule changes, and suddenly size wasn’t all that mattered on the blue line. Enstrom joined the Thrashers this past season and became the league’s top rookie defenseman, logging tons of minutes and playing in all situations.

“If we had an inkling that Toby Enstrom was going to be that type of player and have that type of impact, we’d have taken him in the first round,” Atlanta GM Don Waddell said. “That is what makes the draft so exciting. There are no slam dunks. You are trying to project these guys to what they are going to be at 23 or 24 years old.”

A Fehr judgement?

When the time came for the Washington Capitals to select at No. 18, they were prepared to be patient. The Caps selected Eric Fehr, a budding power forward from Brandon of the Western Hockey League, and expected him to need time to develop.

Fehr made the Caps look astute by racking up back-to-back 50-goal seasons in the WHL the next two years. More success in the American Hockey League did nothing to dispel that notion, but his career hit a bump toward the end of the 2006-07 season.

A mysterious back/hip problem kept Fehr from playing for nearly a full year. He came back for the Caps this season, and the organization continues to have high hopes for the 6-foot-4, 212-pound right wing.

“We knew when we drafted him - I think we said it then - it was going to take a while with this guy,” Caps GM George McPhee said. “He was actually ahead of schedule until that hip or back or whatever it really set him back. But he is an NHL player now, and the issue is he going to get 20 goals a year or 30 goals a year or 40 goals a year? We don’t know yet.”

For Caps fans it not necessarily about what Fehr has yet to become that makes them cringe about the 2003 draft. It is the list of players taken shortly after him - Getzlaf at No. 19, Burns at No. 20, Richards at No. 24 and Perry at No. 28 - that conjures up thoughts of what might have been.

It should not all be on Fehr’s shoulders to carry the draft class, but the Caps had only six picks that year, and Andrew Joudrey, a sixth-rounder who still could fill a checking role at the NHL level, is the only other one still in the organization.

There is still time for Fehr, who has three goals in 48 NHL games, to make good on the Caps’ selection. For now, he has to deal with the expectations of being measured against some talented classmates.

“I try not to feel too much pressure about it,” Fehr said. “I have heard about it from a couple of guys, and I remember from that day who was taken after me. … Last year I kind of started right in the middle of the season, but I think with an offseason to prepare and work on my weaknesses I can get off to a better start next year.”

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