There are few substitutes for confidence with regards to player development. Whether it is building confidence through team success, or individual output and accolades, at times during a young athletes career it is important they have the chance to form a belief in themselves in order to reach and hopefully thrive at the next level. Often times when a player has a successful season and begins hearing from coaches at the next level, the temptation to make the jump is far too great to consider returning for another year. But before making that decision, be sure you assess where you think you will fit if you make the jump to the next level and what you could accomplish by staying put. Take a look at what your strengths and weaknesses as an athlete are. Would you benefit more from playing against bigger, faster, stronger competition as a role player with limited minutes, or by being a leader on and off the ice, earning special teams time, and being among the team or league leaders where you are?
The 2003 NHL Draft class will go down as one of the greatest of all time. Some drafts are top heavy, others deep. This class had it all. If you were a team lucky enough to have a pick in the first round, chances are you didn't miss. Future NHL Captains, Stanley Cup Champions, Olympic Gold Medalists, and perennial All Stars filled the day's top 30 selections.
What does this have to do with taking your time, not rushing to the next level, and giving yourself a chance to gain confidence through being a top end player before making the jump? A year after that draft the National Hockey League announced a lockout, meaning the majority of these players would not step foot on NHL ice without at least two full seasons of collegiate, junior, minor pro (or a combination of these) experience after they were drafted. The lockout proved to be the avid hockey fans season long loss and the class of 2003's career long gain. By staying with, returning to, or moving up to league's that were competitive but a notch or two below the NHL, each member of the 2003 Draft class was given the opportunity to spend an extra year at a critical time in their development in most cases as an elite player and leader. Some won championships, others scoring titles. All returned two years after being drafted better prepared to handle the rigors if and when their names were called to get or return to the NHL.
For a select few, the lockout and signing in the AHL was a demotion. Every year, ready or not, a few 18 or 19 year old first round picks are invited to stick with the big club out of camp. After the '03 draft, Eric Staal and Dustin Brown were two of the young stars that got the early call for their respective clubs prior to the 03-04 season. Staal was blue chip prospect, destined for NHL stardom and a critical part of the Carolina Hurricanes plan for what they hoped would be long term success when they took him second overall. He scored a respectable 31 points in his rookie campaign with the Canes. The following year, with a full season of NHL play under his belt he became a dominant offensive player in the AHL finishing with a point a game and +37. When he and the rest of the NHL returned to action the following season, Staal had 100 points in the regular season and 28 more in the playoffs as he led the Canes to the organization's first Stanley Cup.
Brown made the Kings out of camp but struggled through an injury plagued rookie season posting a goal and four assists in 31 games. After nearly a point per game season himself in Manchester, he returned to the Kings a more confident and better prepared winger who has since been named team Captain and become one of the games most consistent performers.
For the draft's two highest collegiate picks, Thomas Vanek and Zach Parise, the lockout provided a chance a more gradual path to the NHL. Both opted to leave school after the draft and their Sophomore years, but neither was rushed in to duty at the games top level. Parise scored 58 points in his lone season with the Devils top affiliate and Vanek continued his winning ways as he notched 68 points for Rochester who finished with the AHL's best regular season record.
Before he became a 50 goal scorer and a Stanley Cup Champion, Corey Perry was an OHL scoring champion and Memorial Cup winner. Both of the latter achievements occurred during the NHL lockout when he returned to the London Knights. That season Perry learned more about what it took to lead, what it took to win, and he has been doing both ever since. By the way, the Ducks also grabbed Ryan Getzlaf in the first round. A nice little afternoon for GM Bryan Murray.
The Flyers, like the Ducks, were also blessed with two first round picks that summer. They chose two players who would be key components of a run to a Stanley Cup Final of their own before getting dealt this past summer, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. These two began the 03-04 season as stars for their respective OHL clubs. They finished the season as teammates leading the Philadelphia Phantoms to a Calder Cup title after joining the team just in time for their championship run.
Fleury, Suter, Seabrook, Bergeron, and Weber, a few more elite talents taken in the top 50 picks of the 2003 draft. There is no question this group is special. But how did they get there? It was probably a special combination of Nature and Nurture that we don't often give our athletes a chance to experience. The talent was always there with this group, but the lockout and experience gained during it helped solidify their run of collective, long term success.