Next step for '03 draft class

Forging tradition from Nashville to Grand Forks to Vancouver

By LANCE HORNBY, QMI AGENCY


Flyers captain Mike Richards was one of several Olympians to be drafted in 2003. (REUTERS/Tim Shaffer)

If you want to look up the curriculum vitae of Team Canada's Olympic squad, it's an open book.

Born at the NHL entry draft in Nashville in 2003, passed exams at the 2005 world junior championship in Grand Forks, N.D., schooled in various cities in North America and now ready for graduation in Vancouver 2010.

"You want to say every draft class looks good," NHL central scouting director E.J. McGuire says. "That's the scout's common mantra, after all. But 2003 was a wonderful draft and, boy, is that ever reflected here."

Of the first 49 players drafted in Nashville 6 1/2 years ago, eight eventually would be tagged by Steve Yzerman's 2010 Olympic selection committee: Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall to Pittsburgh), centre Eric Staal (second to Carolina), defenceman Brent Seabrook (14th to Chicago), winger Ryan Getzlaf (19th to Anaheim), centre Mike Richards (24th to Philadelphia), winger Corey Perry (28th to Anaheim), centre Patrice Bergeron (45th to Boston) and defenceman Shea Weber (49th to the hometown Predators). Three other first-rounders from '03 -- Dion Phaneuf, Brent Burns and Jeff Carter -- were among the finalists for Canada's coveted 23 spots.

Not to be outdone, the Americans would sow the seeds for six of their future Olympians in Nashville in the first round -- Ryan Suter, Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, David Backes and Joe Pavelski.

But they were no match when the young Canadians first pooled resources at the 2005 world junior championship. Scouts still sigh when they talk about the year the stars aligned for a perfect IIHF showcase, thanks to the NHL lockout that freed up every big name in the under-20 realm to gather on the U.S. plains.

Canada stormed to a 4-0 preliminary-round record, outscoring the opposition 32-5. In the medal round, it beat the Czechs 3-1 and then crushed Alexander Ovechkin and the Russians 6-1. Bergeron was tournament MVP. Getzlaf scored 51 seconds into the gold-medal game and he and Bergeron combined for 25 points. Carter had 10, just ahead of an underage phenom named Sidney Crosby who would be picked first overall later that year.

"Some drafts bode well, but you never know," McGuire said. "We're huddling right now to deliver our midterm reports so all the teams can be informed for this June. Everyone likes the big (6-foot-4) defenceman from the Kingston Frontenacs, Erik Gudbranson. But would some teams look at him differently now than a few years ago when big guys like Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher were adjusting to the new (obstruction) rules?

"There are some 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-11 guys that we would have judged differently a few years ago, before things opened up. That's the benefit of 20-20 hindsight."

Yzerman, his management team and coach Mike Babcock have had four years to correct the mistakes, or at least fine-tune the selections, that came up far too short in Turin, Italy.

"We didn't look at youth at the start (of the selection process), but they put the pressure on us," Yzerman said jokingly. "Obviously, we're aware of Bergeron. He can play any of the three forward positions and he's good on faceoffs."

The biggest change is the composition of the defence, which was too plodding in '06 and not versatile enough to compensate in certain situations.

"We wanted to try to get a little quicker. We wanted to have a little more grit in the lineup and certainly puck movement at the back end was a big emphasis," Team Canada associate director Kevin Lowe said. "We're playing on a different (smaller) ice surface now, so it will be interesting to see how the games play out. But you have to have puck movement at the back end and we've achieved that balance of moving the puck and trying to defend."

Dan Boyle won't be on the blue-line taxi squad this time, he'll be front line, while the Chicago Blackhawks tandem of Duncan Keith and Seabrook were kept together in hopes that the chemistry they have built will carry over.

"We didn't build around them, but our decision was partly based on that (Chicago familiarity)," Yzerman said. "(Rookie Drew) Doughty played well in the 2009 world junior and was one of our best at the last world championship. He has tremendous instincts."

The San Jose Sharks have one full line on Team Canada as well as Boyle, while Chicago and Anaheim have three players each. But is there any doubt on which NHL team model Canada will follow, with a management team run by Yzerman, a Red Wings legend, assisted by Detroit general manager Ken Holland and coached by the Wings' Babcock?

"I think we're good in all positions and I like the ability of all four lines to come at you," Babcock said.

We'll soon know if this team passes with honours.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA

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