A couple days ago Eric Staal, the #2 overall pick in 2003 for the Carolina Hurricanes, made a comment about his immediate future that struck me, for some strange reason. Staal is an impending free agent, and though he's team captain and played 905 games (and counting) for the Hurricanes, he seems ready to move on.
"I’m not going to be crushed if a decision is made and I’m moving on for a different opportunity," is what Staal said regarding a potential trade to send him away from the only NHL team he's ever known.
Now, considering his circumstances that's only natural. Carolina hasn't been in the playoffs since 2009, when the brilliance of Evgeni Malkin almost single-handedly swept them out. They've had tough times since then, and E. Staal on a $8.25 million cap hit hasn't produced up to par and helped hamstrung a team on a budget. A change at this point looks welcome for both sides.
Staal's situation instantly draws comparison to the only man picked before him in the 2003 draft, Marc-Andre Fleury. And invoking that thought brings memories of just how good that of the 2003 draft was.
The 2003 draft is widely known as the strongest ever. That's a bold statement in a world full of hyperbole, but this time it's actually true.
So many team linchpins and all-stars have come out of that draft. In a rarity, all 30 first round picks have at least played in 1 NHL game. 21 out of 30 are at 500+ career NHL games (with Eric Fehr about to make it 22/30 when he plays 7 more games). The first round featured basically a "who's who" of key players in the sport over the past decade and many NHL captains, alternate captains and impact players; Fleury, Staal, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards and Corey Perry.
And that doesn't even include the absurd depth picked after the first round- Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Corey Crawford, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Matt Moulson and Brian Elliott- to name a few of the more impactful players.
All those studs aside, Staal is content and even ready to begin a new chapter in a new location, which goes to show the longevity that Marc-Andre Fleury has had with the Penguins.
Of course, Fleury's had his bumps in the road, which NHL fans know all about. He was really bad in the playoffs at the worst possible time a few years back, but he has rebounded in the past few seasons as a steady and more consistent goalie, leading to the longevity with a single franchise that's almost unparalleled for a goalie.
In that heralded first round draft class of 2003, just 6 of the 30 players (Fleury, Staal, Brown, Seabrook, Getzlaf and Perry) remain with the franchise that selected them. Which looks soon to be 5/30 when Staal moves on, as it appears he will soon.
And, since the day he was drafted, Fleury ranks #3 in games played for all goalies, behind only Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist.
Notice that Crawford, also a 2003 draftee who's spent his entire career with 1 team is more games behind Fleury (320) than games Crawford's even played (317). Just unreal staying power of a career that MAF's been able to carve out in Pittsburgh.
To further the point of longevity with a single franchise, of the graphic above only 10 of the 31 goalies have played the last 13 seasons with just 1 franchise, with the vast majority wearing different sweaters. But not Fleury.
Which boils down to that from a historic draft, the Penguins retain a franchise goalie who has out-lasted many of his peers and considering his position, it's quite miraculous he's had the run that he's had with one team over these past 13 years. MAF is signed for 3 seasons after this, and his save percentage this season is currently the best one he's ever had in his career (.922%), so it's likely that he's only going to add to this impressive reign as time goes on.
And just to drive the point home about how much Fleury's been playing, here's the Penguins goalie stats since the day Fleury was drafted. His 637 games are going on an amazing 10 times as many as 2nd place of the long forgotten (and totally forgettable) Sebastien Caron.
Stability in net like that over such a long stretch is almost unheard of. The 2003 draft featured tremendous talent across the board and it also featured for the Pittsburgh Penguins the most meaningful goalie in franchise history (sorry, Tommy B).
There's no one individual to thank for all this. Craig Patrick traded up from #3 to #1 to make sure he drafted the guy he wanted. Ray Shero stuck with Fleury through the highs of the 2008 and '09 Stanley Cup runs and the lows of the playoff seasons to follow. Jim Rutherford (himself a former Penguin goaltender) signed Fleury to a somewhat controversial 4-year contract extension just a month into JR's first regular season as Pens GM (which looks aces now). Innumerable other coaches, defensemen, forwards have helped Fleury along the way, as have the Pittsburgh fans quick to chant his name and try to boost his spirit.
Just some food for thought on your Saturday morning as you get ready to watch Fleury add another game to his impressive history. Eric Staal might be at peace with leaving the only NHL team he's ever known, but luckily for the Penguins, their 2003 first rounder will be contributing for years to come, and by the numbers is playing some of his best hockey.