By Jim Diamond
In the lead up to the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, held at what is now known at Bridgestone Arena, that year’s crop of potential draftees had pundits proclaiming that draft as potentially the best ever. In the 12-plus years since, those prognostications have proven to be correct. All 30 players drafted in the first round have appeared in the league, as have a large number of the 292 whose names were called that weekend in Nashville.
Six members of that draft class are back in Nashville this weekend for the league’s annual All-Star festivities. And the players who will compete at Bridgestone Arena in both the All-Star Game and the Skills Competition were not all high picks way back in 2003.
Depending on their date of birth, players are draft eligible starting as young as 17-years-old, so picking players that young is always a bit of an educated guessing game. Projecting how players will mature is at best an inexact science, but teams need to be correct more times than not when picking these players if those scouts and executives wish to keep their jobs for very long.
The Minnesota Wild selected defenseman Brent Burns with the 20th overall pick in 2003. Now plying his trade for the San Jose Sharks, Burns said that Nashville has a special place in his heart.
“It’s kind of full circle for us,” Burns said at Friday’s player media availability. “For my family, the first time we were here for the Draft, my dad talks about it being a pretty big blur. I don’t know if it was the beers or just the shock, but it’s really cool to be back here and get to enjoy it for a week. We came in a day early. My wife has never been here. It’s fun for the kids. Yeah, it’s definitely special to be back in Nashville.”
Corey Perry is the other 2003 first rounder named to the 2016 All-Star Game. He was taken with the 28th pick by the Anaheim Ducks, who traded up to get a second, first round selection. They took Ryan Getzlaf 19th overall.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Perry said. “You look back at how many years it’s been now since that has happened. It did start here. It was a crazy day. Anaheim trading up for the pick and all that the way it happened. It’s exciting to come back here, that’s for sure.”
Regarded as one of, if not the league’s best two-way forward, Boston’s Patrice Bergeron was a second round pick, going 45th. Back then, he couldn’t envision being an All-Star so many years later.
“It brought back some memories coming back here 13 years later now,” Bergeron said. “It’s definitely special. Looking back, I never thought I’d be here that many years later at an All-Star Game, so it’s definitely a lot of fun.”
Taken four picks after Bergeron, Shea Weber turned out to be a decent value pick for the Predators. Weber was the third defenseman taken by the Predators that draft, following the picks of Ryan Suter and Kevin Klein.
For a couple of players who weren’t even sure they would be drafted in 2003, their late selections seem like a distant memory as they both have developed into two of the NHL’s elite. Neither Joe Pavelski nor Dustin Byfuglien made the trip to Nashville that draft weekend.
“I was not here for that Draft,” Pavelski said. “I wasn’t really exactly planning on getting drafted. I knew if I did go, it was going to be late. It was the seventh round, so I was home doing whatever I was doing that day and having fun. Obviously it was nice to see.”
San Jose took Pavelski 205th overall, and the forward is now approaching 700 NHL games played.
Byfuglien was taken in a round that does not exist any longer. Chicago took the hulking defenseman in the eighth round, 245th overall.
“I got a phone call,” he said. “I was in the (eighth) round, they had nine rounds back then. I was at home and got the phone call. I had no idea. I knew my name was out there, but if I did, I was happy. If not, I guess I would still have been happy.”
Keeping it all in perspective, Byfuglien, now with the Winnipeg Jets, reflected back on the long road he took to becoming an NHL All-Star.
“It’s been a long journey and I’m sitting here now,” he said with a smile. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what round you go, it’s what you do when you put on the gear and go on the ice. “