2009 NHL All-Star Game: Class of 2003 rising

By Ken McKenna

In the years since the event was held, the 1979 NHL Draft has been regarded as the ultimate collection of talent to have been added to the league in one sitting. That class today remains as impressive as ever. But, as the 30th anniversary of that draft approaches, the hegemony of that Class of ’79 may face a serious challenge in the form of the Class of 2003.

The ascendancy of the talent from the 2003 NHL Draft is on display this weekend in Montreal at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game, with seven members of that class taking part in the mid-season extravaganza. Indeed, many of these players sit among the league leaders in NHL scoring, representing a shift from the old guard to the new that has been underway over the past couple of seasons.

Players selected in 2003 that are taking part in the All-Star Game include Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber; Los Angeles Kings left winger Dustin Brown; Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf; Philadelphia Flyers center Jeff Carter; Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal; Buffalo Sabres left winger Thomas Vanek; and New Jersey Devils left winger Zach Parise.

Staal, for one, has not been surprised by the quick rise of he and his classmates.

"I knew during that draft that there were a lot of great hockey players that were going to play in the NHL for a very long time", commented Staal. "Maybe not have the impact that quick. It’s not very surprising, really. There are a lot of players from that draft that aren’t here that are having great seasons who are very impactful on the league. So, it’s one of those years that doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s definitely pretty cool."

But, aside from those that are taking part in this event or have done so in the past couple of years, the sheer depth of the class has not been lost on Vanek.

"I think I remember at the draft in Nashville, there were so many good players drafted" acknowledged the Sabres’ sniper. "Guy after guy after guy, and even you look down in the 20’s and below, it was a deep draft. So, I guess it doesn’t surprise how many guys have made an impact."

Indeed, there does seem to be a changing of the guard in the NHL. Two years ago at this event, Vanek shared the ice with future Hall of Fame players such as Joe Sakic, Teemu Selanne, and Brendan Shanahan. Now, the 20-somethings have taken over this game and the league.

"Yeah, they’re very young, especially a lot of the Eastern guys are fairly young", acknowledged Vanek. "I think the way the NHL runs now, a lot of teams are putting their effort and their money into the young players, so that benefits those players, as well."

As Vanek had touched on in his comments, the post-lockout NHL has been a boon to the younger players. Vanek’s Western Conference counterpart, Dustin Brown, acknowledges how the ice has shifted towards youth following the return to play in 2005. 

"I think a lot of (this change) is due to the salary cap system", opined the Kings’ talented winger. "So the opportunity is there for the young guys to come into this league and succeed. You look at the YoungStars Game, and a lot of those guys are 20 and under. I think my first year there was maybe only a handful of guys who were 18 and played right away. Now, the opportunity for young players to come in and play well is there for the taking."

Of course, most of the members of the Class of 2003 that are taking part in this event have faced each other over the years, either in the NHL or prior to that when they were developing their game during their formative years. Friendships develop during that time, but so do rivalries.

"I think anyone in your age group, or who you were in juniors with, Under-17, Under-18, all those guys have a little extra competitiveness during games", said Staal. "But when you come to an event like this, you’re on the same team, and you just kind of relax and enjoy each other, and have some fun."

There are many reasons for the superior depth of this 2003 draft class, with natural talent being an obvious starting point in the discussion. But those taking part in this event look beyond their talent level for the reasons that they have been able to succeed at such a young age. Staal, for one, thinks his edge comes from within.

"I think it’s my competitiveness, and my will to win", said the Hurricanes’ star center. "I’m not one that I can accept to lose. Since I was younger, I tried to put in a little extra to try to get here. I think that’s kind of made the difference for me."

For others, such as Vanek, there is no substitute for effort and having a long-term view of your career.

"I think hard work got me here, the work ethic, obviously" stated Vanek. "I left (Austria) at a young age to chase my dream, to play in the NHL. I left when I was 14, so I just kept working towards that goal."

But Vanek was quick to point out the work of others that played a part in his rise to the NHL’s elite, stating that "good coaching at every level helped, too."

But whatever the reasons for the success of this burgeoning Class of 2003, it is a sure thing that they will continue to make their mark on the NHL for many years to come.