The 2003 NHL Entry Draft, perceived as one of the best in league history, churned out a bundle of cornerstone players in the first round–a few were also snagged in round two. And to think, such a coveted collection of players was forced to be put on hold for one year due to the lock-out. That distinction should have went to the class of 1999.

Going No.1 overall, Marc-Andre Fleury was chosen to fill the void in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net. Ask, and you shall receive. The 27-year-old has decently done what he’s supposed to–the Philadelphia Flyers beg to differ– after a rookie season that saw much trial-and-error experimenting within the club.

As the second player to have his name called, Eric Staal went straight to work with the Carolina Hurricanes by amassing 100 points as a sophomore and sparking the group towards a Stanley Cup. Florida picked up Nathan Horton and while he wasn’t exactly a leader, he wasn’t a bust either. Nikolai Zherdev, as talented as they come offensively, didn’t solidify his selection with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Five alive: The Buffalo Sabres got their man in the 2003 Entry Draft. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Samuels/ Flikr)

Coming off a season that featured a 26th place finish in the standings, ownership turmoil, the possibility of bankruptcy, relocation rumors and the trading of several core players, Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier wanted nothing more than to just focus on their team’s future.

With the fifth pick in their possession, the Buffalo Sabres welcomed Thomas Vanek into the organization. Hailed as the best pure goal-scorer in this draft, the Austrian played in the NHL rather quickly and was one of the building blocks for Buffalo’s re-structuring.

By electing to take the 28-year-old, the team let plenty of other talents go astray. Declaring that Vanek wasn’t worthy of his first round selection is a lie, but Buffalo could have addressed a different need in this draft that was packed with stand-out players. Top-flight centers, defensive leaders and power forwards were available for the taking–pieces that the Sabres are short on.

Keeping all of this mind, we’re going to highlight some of the major names that Buffalo missed out on and analyze whether or not Vanek was their best option. It’s the opening round that will be the subject of examination, as what occurs in Vegas the latter rounds, stays in the latter rounds.

Milan Michalek
Draft Number: 6
Age: 27
Position: Left/Right Wing
Games Played: 526
Total Points: 341

After two sub-par seasons in Ottawa, Michalek is starting to prove himself as the superior player in the trade that included Dany Heatley. The Czech native can score with the best of them when he heats up, but he’s often mired in slumps that are worrisome. Paired with Jason Spezza (who could complain about that?), the quick-footed Michalek surpassed 30 goals for the first time and was instrumental in Ottawa’s gaining of a shocking postseason berth.

Ryan Suter
Draft Number: 7
Age: 27
Position: Defense
Games Played: 542
Points: 238

How convenient that the Predators were able to construct their top defensive duo in an event that unfolded in Nashville. Grabbing Suter and then Shea Weber 49th overall, the club made out like thieves and anyone who says otherwise is a fool. Each man unloads a strong shot, runs the point on the powerplay, guards the other team’s best players and both stop at nothing to receive as much playing minutes as the coach will grant.

Braydon Coburn
Draft Number: 8
Age: 27
Position: Defense
Games Played: 460
Points: 135

Not exactly an elite defenseman, but he’s as solid as his 6′ 5″ frame–and there’s a certain enjoyment that arises when revealing that he was traded for an aging Alexei Zhitnik. His offensive numbers have dwindled slightly, but that’s due to his shut-down obligations that are now more valuable than ever with Chris Pronger missing. Don Waddell should have known better.

Dion Phaneuf
Draft Number: 9
Age: 27
Position: Defense
Games Played: 552
Points: 312

Subjected to much of the blame for Toronto’s plunge,–some if deserved and some if it rash–Phaneuf hasn’t had much breathing space from the media. While he might not be quite ready for captaincy, especially in an organization that is running out of patience from its general manager and fan base, this rearguard still offers numerous qualities.

Jeff Carter
Draft Number: 11
Age: 27
Position: Center
Games Played: 516
Points: 377

A shooter first and foremost like Vanek, he’s also got the exact same career-high in points as Buffalo’s sniper (84). His move to Los Angeles was a get-out-of-jail-free card that brought him to a playoff team and out of Columbus. Leave it to the Blue Jackets to waste one of his two hat-tricks, as they did in a 6-5 regulation defeat to Nashville back in December. On a low-scoring club like the Kings, Carter definitely adds an extra dimension to their attack.

King of the sting: Dustin Brown's hits are hard to shake off. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Samuels/ Flikr)

Dustin Brown
Draft Number: 13
Age: 27
Position: Right Wing
Games Played: 595
Points: 359

Picture Brown wearing a Buffalo Sabres jersey. Quite the visualization isn’t it? As captain of the Los Angeles Kings, it’s up to him to set the tone and inspire his teammates. He’s able to do this in any number of ways, but it’s his heavy and clean hitting that really sticks out like a sore thumb. For a free sample of Brown’s value, have a look at his play versus Vancouver in Games One, Two and Three of this postseason. What a leader.

Brent Seabrook
Draft Number: 14
Age: 26
Position: Defense
Games Played: 552
Points: 226

The crowning year of Seabrook’s career was in 2010, when he hung an Olympic gold medal around his neck as a member of Team Canada and a few months later, got his hands on the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks. Defense was a shaky subject there this season, as only Edmonton and Columbus scooped a puck out of their net more often. However, through thick and thin, Seabrook’s all-around work is the glue that keeps the back line intact.

Zach Parise
Draft Number: 17
Age: 27
Position: Left Wing/Center
Games Played: 502
Points: 410

Rebounding from knee surgery that cost him and the New Jersey Devils dearly last season, Parise showed why he will be targeted this summer as an unrestricted free agent. As a smaller forward, he shows marvelous courage by fighting for a spot near the crease and carries a fast release on his shot. Add the special teams intelligence with his workmanship, and it’s obvious why team owner Jeff Vanderbeek has assured everyone that re-signing Parise will be his main objective in July.

Ryan Getzlaf
Draft Number: 19
Age: 26
Position: Center
Games Played: 512
Points: 472

It was a frustrating year for Getzlaf, but you know what, he remains a premier middle man in this league. The triumvirate of Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan is a tough line to contain when its operating effectively, as each player has the power to cut defenses open. Given his imposing physique and the soft hands he has to thread the needle with a pass, expect him to generate better numbers when October rolls around.

Brent Burns
Draft Number: 20
Age: 27
Position: Defense
Games Played: 534
Points: 220

Initially a right winger who thought he’d be a power forward for the Minnesota Wild, Burns’ hopes were dashed but not because he couldn’t hack it. Jacques Lemaire, who’s middle name might as well be ‘defense’, converted the Barrie, Ontario native into a mobile defender. Some of his decisions acerbate teammates, but overall, the transition’s proven to be sensible and impressive.

Ryan Kesler
Draft Number: 23
Age: 27
Position: Center
Games Played: 561
Points: 337

On his good days, he is the complete player. On his off days, he’s preoccupied with trying to unethically sell a penalty call for Vancouver or just out of sync. Splitting two Nashville defensemen and wiring a quick shot through Pekka Rinne in the 2011 playoffs was a real Kodak moment. This year’s memorable image may be one of disbelief, as the Canucks are one game away from being eliminated by the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings. Daniel Sedin’s irreplaceable spot alongside his brother Henrik was a devastating setback until, but Kesler has fired blanks for 15 consecutive matches.

Mike Richards
Draft Number: 24
Age: 27
Position: Center
Games Played: 527
Points: 393

Speaking of the Canucks and their anxieties with Jonathan Quick Los Angeles, Richards was everywhere in Game One, making a statement that got the Kings off on the right foot. A goal and two assists were great, but it was the agitation and gargantuan hit on Alexandre Burrows in the final minute that demonstrated Richards’ big-game mentality. He’s not fazed by the big moments. Those occasions actually bring out the ‘star’ in him.

Duck hunting: Corey Perry probably dominated the classic Nintendo game. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Samuels/ Flikr)

Corey Perry
Draft Number: 28
Age: 26
Position: Right Wing
Games Played: 530
Points: 429

Anaheim practically rode on Perry’s goal-scoring exploits in March and April of 2011, as he found the back of the net a dreamlike 19 times in 16 games. A Hart Memorial Trophy and the Rocket Richard honor were his reward, but Perry won’t be a Lady Byng candidate anytime soon. Often indulging in unnecessary acts during a scrum, Perry commonly ends up in the penalty box and that puts his team in a bad spot.

Conclusion

Goals were much more scarce in the years leading up to the lock-out and the Buffalo Sabres painfully understood this. They weren’t bad defensively, but they struggled to score on a consistent basis in 2003, with Miroslav Satan and Ales Kotalik as their only 20-goal men.

Because Vanek can capitalize on a chance from anywhere and in any way (shot, deflection, one-timer), the Sabres realized that he would be their best scoring source. The club was starving for more offense and the youngster from Vienna wet their appetite. Looking at Vanek and the 25 players who were taken after him, he’s been the most productive scorer of them all; however, Getzlaf has the advantage in points.

As enjoyable as it would be to have Ryan Suter manning the point or a supreme two-way center in Buffalo today, Vanek was a can’t-miss prospect and turned out to be a perfect solution to one of the organization’s major concerns.

Follow Rafal Ladysz on Twitter.

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Comments
  1. Seano says:

    at least they didn’t pick Hugh Jesimon

  2. jsbm says:

    “By electing to take the 28-year-old” Well there’s where they probably went wrong; if a guy isn’t drafted until he’s 28 years old he’s probably not going to pan out.

  3. ace says:

    the real regret should be signing him for 7 mil

  4. Rafal Ladysz says:

    He’s currently 28-years-old. I wasn’t stating that it was his age at the time of the draft. Ace: I’m not saying it was a mistake to draft Vanek, but rather that the Sabres had many options that year. He’s scored more goals than anyone who was drafted ahead of him and lived up to his position as the fifth overall pick. This post is mostly meant to share that first round with readers and ask of their opinion. Thanks for commenting.

  5. aaronrexroot says:

    Unless I completely missed it, Vaneks stats in the article would be nice so I don’t have to look it up next time. I’m no start wizard remembering person thing numbers.

    Think I’ve read something along these lines before, but regardless, it’s a nice refresher and shows a bright spot on a player who gets a lot of deserved and undeserved criticism.

    And remember, hindsight is 20/20, but the future is unknowable.

  6. jeff says:

    Career 547 230 217 447 +35

  7. jeff says:

    So in other words, Vanek is awesome and people only dog him because of a contract we got leveraged into by the Oilers. After Briere and Drury walk Darcy is supposed to let his best remaining player leave on an RFA offer sheet?

  8. EatIt says:

    Vanek was expected to be a 50 goal scorer, but he will never get there. Never. He looks like he won’t even touch 40 goals again. Probably the most frustratingly inconsistent player I have ever seen in a Sabres uniform. He goes through LOONNNNG bad stretches, but then comes back looking like an all-star, a leader… and everyone starts thinking “Finally, he’s coming around, he’s realizing his full potential”. And then, bang, he’s gone again for 20 games. Total headcase, pissed off and talking to himself after every missed shot. I’m not even going to blame Darcy “if he only had a brain” Regier for this one…. after a 43 goal season, Vanek looked like the real deal. If we had a time machine, 90% of us would have signed Briere instead. The other 10% are delusional.

    Speaking of delusional fans and draft picks, I hope all the rah-rah-go-team “there’s always next year” koolaid drinkers are happy with the Sabres blowing their shot at one of the top overall draft picks this year, thanks to the failed push for the playoffs. As the article above demonstrates, a high draft pick isn’t always going to turn into a star player, but guess what, taking a chance on a possible Seguin, Skinner, Hall, Tavares, Towes, or Kane sure beats WALKING AWAY WITH NOTHING, like the Sabres did this year. Take one of those players I just mentioned, and add them to the Sabres roster in 2 years……. oh wait, most of those flag waving fans would rather just say, “Oh well, they tried their best! Roy is da cutest! We’re gonna go 82-0 next year, you betcha!”

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