Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Back To the Future

This is a great year for the draft class of 2003. At 24 years old, most of them have played several seasons in the NHL and now they're really coming into their own. I know it's kind of silly to say a single draft can make or break an NHL franchise. But 2003 was special. There were so many studs in that draft, the testosterone in the Gaylord Entertainment Centre (no bad jokes, please...I already thought of them all) in Nashville could have been a visible cloud. It was the deepest draft in years, maybe the draft of a lifetime. When you look at it, it was remarkable in that many of the players chosen have become the faces of their respective franchises. It was the draft that made a lot of teams what they are today.

Look at the Flyers, for example. In the first round of the 2003 draft, they picked Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Both of them are big, strong centres who can put the puck in the net. Carter's right up there among league scoring leaders, which has turned out to be great for the Flyers. But Richards was the difference-maker for them in that draft. He's now the team captain and personifies the Flyer ideal of no-quit, tough, aggressive hockey. He has not only continued in the pattern of early Flyers like Bobby Clarke in renewing the franchise identity, but he's managed to lift the team out of the funk it had been in in recent years and make it competitive again.

The Ducks chose Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with their two first-round picks in 2003. They got two big, tough forwards who can put up points. Both players were excellent in their rookie-year playoffs in 2007, and played a big role in bringing the Cup to Anaheim. The Ducks really didn't have a team identity until they acquired those players. After that, they were seen as big, tough, skilled and dangerous, with Getzlaf as the prototypical Duck.

The Kings picked Dustin Brown, the massive Brian Boyle and Jeff Tambellini with their three first-rounders in 2003. Boyle's been a slow developer, but can handle the puck well for a guy his size, and still has promise. Tambellini went to the Islanders in a trade for Mark Parrish and Brent Sopel. But Brown: There's another guy who's now his team's captain and the example of skill and toughness team management hopes to see in the large crop of young players they're developing. Another franchise player.

Nathan Horton in Florida is yet another 2003 stud, and a guy who's playing a big role in getting his young team into the playoffs for the first time in years. He's tough, strong and talented and will be the face of the Panthers for years to come.

Zach Parise in New Jersey is the perfect embodiment of the New Devil. He plays both ends of the ice flawlessly, and can turn the game in an instant on transition. He's quick, skilled and defensively responsible: In short, everything Uncle Lou wants a Devil to be. He's fast becoming his team's best player.

Other teams picked their typical franchise player in 2003 as well. Carolina got Eric Staal who went better than a point-per-game in the Hurricanes' 2006 Cup run. Calgary, a big, tough, gritty team got big, tough, gritty Dion Phaneuf. Speedy, skilled Buffalo got speedy, skilled Thomas Vanek.

Of course, not every team did as well as those. In every draft, even a superdraft, there are bound to be busts. So, perhaps it's not surprising that the biggest bust was Hugh Jessiman, taken by the Rangers in the first round. The Rangers' identity is built around high-profile free agents, not good drafting. So, the very fact that Jessiman has never played an NHL game makes him the prototypical Ranger pick.

Now, when we consider the 2003 draft and the huge impact it's had on so many teams' fortunes and very identities, we turn to the Canadiens. They had the tenth overall pick in that superdraft and they used it to pick Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn was supposed to go in the top three based on talent alone, but his epileptic condition apparently frightened some teams away. I wonder now if that's what it really was. It seems that the Canadiens were among the teams who picked the player that typifies their identity. Kostitsyn is prodigiously talented, without a doubt. But he also has long periods of unproductivity, moodiness and the appearance of disappearing from the game. The passion to use his talent every night, and the strong desire to win every game seem to be missing from what he offers. But, isn't that the Canadiens' team identity? A fast, skilled, largely European team that shows up one game in four. A team you just know could be seriously impressive if they only played up to their full potential.

It's not that Kostitsyn is a bad player. Far from it. His 26 goals last season were a career high for him, and he'll likely match or better that total before this season ends. But, like his team, you can't help thinking he could be so much better if he had just a little more determination and drive to win. He just seems so...apathetic...at times. The prototypical Hab.

Yes, 2003 was definitely the draft of a lifetime; the one that helped define the identities of many NHL teams. The year of The Franchise. For better, and for worse.


Christopher Sama said...

Great piece.
Sore subject.

James said...

I keep clinging to this hope that AK46 will sort out his issues and open the flood gates of his talent. He's still very young and it could happen any time.

One thing to ponder considering #46 is, he's been mentored into the NHL by none other than Alex Kovalev.
Who's attitude does Andrei's on-ice performance mirror? AK27.
I don't know that Kovalev, with his personal issues/complexities, is the perfect mentor for a guy that already has a lazy side to him.
If AK looks at Kovalev, he sees a guy that's regarded as a god in Montreal, even though he only shows up once in three games... maybe he subconsciously tries to emulate that?

I think Kovalev is gone this summer, and I really hope that marks the 'start' of Andrei's real career - the one where he's a consistent offensive threat.