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Inside the NHL: Music City's iconic draft still striking right notes 15 years later

NASHVILLE -- Folks in the Music City hope history can be made here this June with the Nashville Predators winning their first Stanley Cup. But it's another June in Nashville, now nearly 15 years ago, that continues to have major impact on the NHL.

It was here in 2003 that the most iconic entry draft in league history took place. It's incredible to go down the list of selections -- and not just from the first round -- to see the impact they're having on their teams with the 2018 playoffs looming.

Just start with the top five picks. No. 1 was 18-year-old Quebec League goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has won three Cups with the Penguins and is now backstopping the Vegas Golden Knights to the best first-year expansion season in the history of North American professional sports.

No. 2 was center Eric Staal, whose career has been reborn this year with a 40-goal season for Minnesota that has pushed his career goal total to 393. Staal got No. 40 on Tuesday, nine years after last hitting the 40 mark for the 2008-09 Carolina Hurricanes. Only Gordie Howe has gone longer in between 40-goal seasons, tallying 44 in 1956-57 and 44 more in 1968-69 at age 40.

No. 5 was old friend Thomas Vanek, who is reborn in Columbus after his trade from Vancouver and looking to get another chance in the playoffs. He had a hat trick in the Blue Jackets' 7-3 win Tuesday in Edmonton, giving him at least one with four teams (Buffalo, Montreal, Vancouver, Columbus). That's two shy of the NHL record of hat tricks with six teams set by Bill Guerin.

Vanek's first hat trick was Dec. 19 for the Canucks against Montreal and he's the first player have two for different teams in the same season since Olli Jokinen connected in 2008-09 for the Coyotes and Flames.

Nos. 3-4 in the 2003 draft are out of the league now but Nathan Horton and Nikolai Zherdev combined to score 318 goals while playing nearly 1,100 career games. The rest of the first round is a star-studded group that could all be major players this spring.

There's Minnesota's Ryan Suter at No. 7, Tampa Bay's Braydon Coburn at No. 8, the Los Angeles trio of Dion Phaneuf (9), Jeff Carter (11) and Dustin Brown (13), Minnesota's  Zach Parise at 17, San Jose's Eric Fehr (18) and Brent Burns (20), Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf (19), Ryan Kesler (23) and Corey Perry (28), New Jersey's Brian Boyle at 26. And don't forget Chicago's Brent Seabrook, who was taken at No. 14 in that draft and played his 1,000th game Thursday night. Three Cups later, Seabrook's team will miss the playoffs this season for the first time since 2008.

That was all just the first round. The active names from 2003 continue as you roll through the selections. Boston's Patrice Bergeron was taken at No. 45, Montreal's Shea Weber (by Nashville) at No. 49, Chicago's Corey Crawford at 52, Boston's David Backes (by St.Louis) at No. 62, Detroit's Jimmy Howard at No. 64, West Seneca's Lee Stempniak went at No. 148 and just passed the 900-game mark of his travelin' man NHL career with Carolina.

San Jose captain Joe Pavelski went in the seventh round, at No. 205 overall. Winnipeg's Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien went in the eight round, at Nos. 239 and 245, respectively. The second-last pick, current Philadelphia goalie Brian Elliott, was taken that year by Ottawa at No. 291. Those rounds don't even exist anymore.

So with all that top talent, who did the Sabres take after Vanek in 2003? The second round pick at No. 65 was Slovakian winger Branislav Fabry, who never played an NHL game. Clarke MacArthur was the choice in the third round while Jan Hejda was the Sabres' first of two picks in the fourth round and he played 627 NHL games -- just none with Buffalo. After that? Denis Yezhov, Tom Morrow, Pavel Voroshinin, Jeff Weber and Louis Philippe-Martin go down in infamy as choices that never played an NHL game.

The only one the Sabres got a small bite on was seventh-rounder Nathan Paetsch, who is still in pro hockey with the Rochester Amerks.

Mittelstadt minutiae

One thing the Casey Mittelstadt story tells us is to closely watch college hockey's conference tournaments and the end of the season. If a player's team goes deep into the NCAAs and makes the Frozen Four, the NHL season will run out before he can move up.

But in the case of Mittelstadt, the collapse of Minnesota's NCAA hopes played right into the Sabres hands and got him into the NHL when that wasn't even in his thought process. Incredibly, the Gophers needed just one of six games to go their way on the last day of the season and none did. It was the capper to a run over the final two weeks of the season that conspired against them.

"We were watching the games. Some of them weren't on TV and we were following them on Twitter, college hockey app," Mittelstadt said. "Literally everything was going wrong pretty much. It was a tough day. We were a really close group. We all grew up in Minnesota minus four, five guys. Having to say good-bye to the seniors was pretty tough.

"The season ends and you're all pretty sad. For me it was so early I didn't even think that I was going to have to start thinking about what I was going to do. I think it was 63 ways we made the tournament and one way we don't and the one way happened."

The Sabres left Mittelstadt alone for a couple days after the NCAA miss. And they were understanding and didn't pounce on Will Borgen when St. Cloud State was upset in the first round of the NCAAs. Both players appreciated that.

"Honestly, I wasn't thinking about it," Mittelstadt said. "I was preparing to travel next and go play in the NCAA Tournament. That didn't happen and it's tough and [the NHL] started crossing my mind over the next few days."

Mittelstadt got the maximum deal from the Sabres at $925,00 per season. According to Capfriendly.com, his performance bonus opportunities are $850,000 a season over the final two years of the deal (Jack Eichel, by comparison, got the full $2,850,000 when he signed in 2015). Mittelstadt became the 11th player out of the 2017 draft to make his NHL debut, eighth out of first round.

After eating with Eichel, Sabres' Mittelstadt eager to feast on life in NHL

Corsi Calamities

This corner has never been a huge Corsi booster because an under-discussed point is how shots on goal and shot attempts are determined at the discretion of arena stat crews, many of whom simply aren't very good or clearly tip numbers in favor of the home team. And as a predictor of events, Corsi often fails too.

Case in point: The Sabres were plus-59 in their four straight losses that saw them get outscored, 16-2. Then they go to Toronto on Monday night and win despite being minus-45 -- as the Leafs outattempted them, 86-41.

The Leafs had two goals on 41 shots on goal and 86 attempts vs. the Sabres, then had three goals on nine and 16 attempts in the first 14 minutes against Florida two nights later. Sometimes the puck just bounces in wacky ways.

Sens owner will take the heat

The Senators are planning town hall-style meetings for their season ticket-holders on April 10-11, giving their top customers the chance to meet -- and probably grill -- embattled owner Eugene Melnyk and General Manager Pierre Dorion about what went wrong this season and where the franchise is going, both in terms of players and the potential of a new downtown arena.

Melnyk will undoubtedly take a lot of medicine from the fans for his idle threat of possibly moving the franchise that came out during the day before the outdoor game against Montreal in December. But this is the kind of transparency that folks have to appreciate too.

Can you imagine Terry and Kim Pegula having this kind of meeting? Sabres fans sure have a few things to get off their chests, both on the ice and with the deteriorating state of KeyBank Center. The Pegulas are well aware the arena needs work, and that day is coming. But you're stuck with the gnawing feeling they just care far more about football these days than they do about their hockey team.

Around the boards

*Hockey-reference.com points out that Eichel is the sixth player since 1995 to have three or more seasons with 24-plus goals prior to age 22. Eichel joined that group with his goal Thursday against Detroit. It also includes Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Ilya Kovalchuk. Pretty elite company.

*For all the deserved carping sent the way of deposed Sabres general manager Tim Murray, you've got to be one kind of special screwup to waste Connor McDavid and his 103 points over 78 games heading into the weekend. Good job, Peter Chiarelli. McDavid is going to join rookie year Alex Ovechkin of the '05-06 Capitals as the only players to score 40 goals and 100 points and not make the postseason. Ovechkin had 52 goals and 106 points as a rookie for the Caps.

*CBS/TNT basketball maven Charles Barkley, speaking last week to Richard Deitsch of The Athletic about how friend and Arizona neighbor Jeremy Roenick convinced him to make a surprise appearance at last year's Stanley Cup final: "I have been a hockey fan for a long time and he was trying to get me to come to Nashville. ... He said, 'You have to come to Nashville' and let me tell you something, that is one of the coolest sports cities I have ever been to. They had 30,000 people watching the game on the big screen outside the arena and then inside the crowd is going nuts. It was one of the coolest things I had seen in person."

 

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