There's little doubt the 2003 Entry Draft, held at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, will go down as the deepest collection of future NHL stars ever selected.
An entire All-Star team can be put together from the first round alone, which featured Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton, Nikolay Zherdev, Thomas Vanek, Milan Michalek, Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn, Dion Phaneuf and Andrei Kostitsyn as the top 10 choices.
The Philadelphia Flyers grabbed Jeff Carter (No. 11) and Michael Richards (No. 24), while Anaheim tabbed Ryan Getzlaf (No. 19) and Corey Perry (No. 28). New Jersey drafted Zach Parise with the No. 17 pick; Vancouver took Ryan Kesler at No. 23.
Five of the players taken in that first round captain their teams -- Staal (Carolina), Phaneuf (Toronto), Dustin Brown (No. 13, Los Angeles), Getzlaf and Richards.
"We knew from our team (Canada) alone at World Juniors, building up to that draft, that it was going to be good," Richards told NHL.com. "We played with each other growing up, on the Under-17 and Under-18 teams."
"Our scouting staff made no bones about it that it was a very deep draft and, as it turned out, it's proven to be correct," Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford told NHL.com. "There were great, great players taken near the end of the first round. I mean, Corey Perry at No. 28? What a great pick. That was a pretty darn good draft."
Ten players chosen in the first round played in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 26 players are current NHL regulars. Second-round draftees in '03 included Loui Eriksson (Dallas, No. 33), Patrice Bergeron (Boston, No. 45), Matt Carle (San Jose, No. 47), Shea Weber (Nashville, No. 49) and David Backes (St. Louis, No. 62).
"I remember I had the option because I was a late birth year and could have opted out of the draft," Carle told NHL.com. "I was going into college and my advisor warned that this was a deep draft, but I kind of took the approach that it didn't really matter where you got drafted. I opted into the draft and the more you heard about it, the deeper it got."
In the fourth round Buffalo found Jan Hejda (No. 106) and Detroit drafted Kyle Quincey (No. 132), while St. Louis drafted Lee Stempniak in the fifth round (No. 148). The seventh round saw San Jose nab Joe Pavelski with the 205th choice while the eighth round saw Atlanta find Tobias Enstrom with the 239th pick and Chicago draft Dustin Byfuglien with the 245th pick and Anaheim take Shane O'Brien at No. 250. In the ninth round, Pittsburgh chose Matt Moulson at No. 263, Vancouver selected Tanner Glass at No. 265 and Montreal chose Jaroslav Halak at No. 271.
"I remember the depth and I just remember there being a lot of good players," Staal told NHL.com. "I remember playing in junior against guys like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Brent Burns (Minnesota, No. 20). I mean, these were guys you played against in the OHL that were very good players and we all just happen to be in the same draft class.
"Looking back, having as many guys from that draft in the League today, and I'm not just talking players but important pieces to their teams, it's pretty cool to be a part of that class."
Now, there are some who claim the 2011 Draft could produce similar results. Of course, it's still way too early to predict, but there are some who feel it is possible.
"Depth-wise, I think it's comparable to the '03 draft," Detroit Red Wings Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell told NHL.com. "I think maybe the skill level might have been a little bit more on the high end in '03, but depth wise, for sure -- it's right along the same path."
"It's comparable, yes," Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke said. "But there was star power in that 2003 Draft. There's not really a big-name draw here. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, I think, is the clear consensus No. 1, but that's not what I would call a marquee name. He's going to be a good player. In terms of depth after the first four or five picks (this year), we really like this group a lot."
Tony MacDonald, the Carolina Hurricanes' Director of Amateur Scouting, also is excited about the depth of this year's draft pool.
"I don't know if this year's draft will be quite like the one in 2003 because there were so many good players in that draft, but I think the charm of this year's draft is its depth," MacDonald said. "Just speaking from our own perspective here, there are guys that we think we like that are going to be there in the third or fourth rounds and we'll still be really happy to get.
"I know even through the seventh round, you're thinking that your guys are all going to play. But the truth of the matter is that's the longshot. There's some depth right through the middle rounds this year and that's what makes this draft a good one. But I wouldn't compare it to '03 … yet."
NHL Network analyst Craig Button said that in 3-4 years, the 2011 Draft will be regarded as one of the best ever.
"I think there are as many quality players to this draft as any other," he said. "I mean, I can rattle off 10 names and still make no mention of guys like Zack Phillips (Saint John Sea Dogs), Mark Scheifele (Barrie Colts) or Tomas Jurco (Saint John), who are all terrific young players. If you're in the market for a goalie, there's John Gibson (U.S. National Team Development Program), Christopher Gibson (Chicoutimi Sagueneens) and even Jordan Binnington (Owen Sound Attack). This draft is as deep with more quality players that can play so many different positions than we've seen in some time.
"When you look at the type of players and the depth of that quality right through the 40th- and 50th-best players, I think it will compare to 2003."
Tampa Bay Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray certainly hopes so.
"We're hoping at least (58) players deep," he said with a smile. The Lightning holds the 27th and 58th picks. "We think there are good players right through the second round and we're anxious to see how that all unfolds. Later in the draft there are players we also like. Every scout probably has, among their top 10, about eight that are similar. After that, everybody might get their ninth guy because there are a lot of players who are very close. There are a lot of good players that have different attributes and different strengths. Really, I think everybody might be getting a guy they have very high on their list, and then we'll just find out who evaluated properly and who was able to nail those players."
According to NHL Central Scouting, the top 10 North American skaters are Nugent-Hopkins, a center with the Red Deer Rebels; Kitchener Rangers left wing Gabriel Landeskog; Saint John Sea Dogs center Jonathan Huberdeau; Niagara IceDogs defenseman Dougie Hamilton; Saint John defenseman Nathan Beaulieu; Drummondville Voltigeurs center Sean Couturier; Portland Winterhawks left wing Sven Baertschi of Portland; Niagara center Ryan Strome; Kitchener defenseman Ryan Murphy; and Saskatoon Blades defenseman Duncan Siemens. Topping the list of European skaters are a pair of Swedes -- Skelleftea defenseman Adam Larsson and Djurgarden center Mika Zibanejad.
Before this year's draft can be fully judged, some scouts believe many of the players considered to be top picks will need more seasoning.
"It's always hard to tell, so I'll have a better answer as to how good this draft class is in four or five years," said Tampa Bay Lightning Head Amateur Scout Darryl Plandowski said. "It's solid and the top end is really good … there could be really good middle-round players. The one thing I see is that it's an underdeveloped draft class, which could be good or bad. Once these kids get stronger, they could really develop into fine hockey players."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale