Nashville Predators Best Draft Class: 2003
With only 24 classes and 199 selections to sift through, the Predators don’t offer much in the way of competition with regards to their best performance in a draft. That being said, the 2003 class is a decent entry, even in the wider context of the rest of the league. Two potential Hall of Famers (one pretty much nailed-on, the other a little more speculative) came out of this class and laid the foundations for Barry Trotz hockey in the NHL.
Ultimately, it was a franchise-defining year, as Nashville prioritized defence and selected two future household names at the position. At the time when Ryan Suter and Shea Weber entered the league, the Predators had logged just one season above NHL .500 and had played in only one playoff series. Though by the time Suter had left Music City in 2012’s free agency, Nashville had produced seven consecutive NHL .500 seasons and earned six playoff berths and 17 playoff game victories.
Ryan Suter, 1st Round, 7th Overall
Since the turn of the century, the first round of the 2003 entry draft has produced far and away the most players to make it to 1,000 career NHL games; the next closest to 2003’s 12 is 2000’s five. Part of that extraordinary crop of successful skaters is former Norris Trophy finalist and one-time All-Star Ryan Suter. Selected ahead of other notable defencemen such as Braydon Coburn, Dion Phaneuf, and Brent Seabrook in the first, Suter played seven seasons in Nashville partnering Shea Weber on the Predators’ impregnable top-pair.
Suter’s superb puck-moving ability provided the perfect complement to Weber’s offensive instincts. As such, he was first in assists on the Predators during his final four seasons there. A strong two-way defenceman on a team that often required a decent helping of offensive contributions on the backend, Suter’s presence was vital to a Predators’ team that prioritized a defensively-focused, grind-it-out style. Overall, he was on the ice for a 328-287 positive goal differential while averaging 22 minutes a night.
However, the Wisconsin native instigated a rather painful divorce from the Predators’ organization in 2012. Chasing a big-ticket payday coupled with a chance to move closer to home and play with close-friend, Zach Parise, Suter signed a whopping $98 million-dollar contract to join the Minnesota Wild and forever complicate his relationship with the organization that developed him into an NHL star.
Kevin Klein, 2nd Round, 37th Overall
An ancillary piece to the Predators’ top pair, Kevin Klein forged a good NHL career as a reliable shutdown defenceman. A second-pair guy entrusted with a role on the penalty kill, Klein provided a yin to Suter and Weber’s yang. Often Barry Trotz leaned on Klein to take defensive zone starts which allowed Suter and Weber more offensive opportunities. Meanwhile, the Kitchener native logged the third-most penalty killing minutes behind only Jerred Smithson and Ryan Suter.
In 2014, Klein was traded to the New York Rangers in a swap deal for fellow defenceman Michael Del Zotto. The deal turned out to be pretty lopsided; Del Zotto managed a third of a season in Nashville while Klein went on a Stanley Cup run. Sadly his career would end as a result of back spasms which forced him to retire at 32. During his tenure as a Ranger, he bizarrely led the team’s defence in even-strength goals (22) and game-winning goals (8). He also made it to the Stanley Cup Final with the Rangers in the same year as his trade away from Nashville, ultimately losing to the Los Angeles Kings in five.
Shea Weber, 2nd Round, 49th Overall
A fearless warrior with a net-breaking, bone-shattering shot, Shea Weber is already a shoo-in for the Hockey Hall of Fame. During his career, the British Columbia native has captained in 614 of his 1,038 NHL games. He led the Nashville Predators to their first-ever playoff series victory and kept the small-market franchise (at the time) in league conversations with four All-Star team entries between 2010-2015.
Although, Weber is not only a Predators’ legend but a national hero. After all, he was part of the gold medal-winning Canadian team in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics which triumphed via Sidney Crosby‘s walk-off golden goal against the United States. More recently, he gained further admiration in 2021 as he gutted out a gruelling playoff campaign, leading the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup Final with both his legs practically hanging off.
All in all, Weber’s neanderthal-esque appearance coupled with his brute power and strength make him a loveable protagonist even for the casual fan. And of all the players never to win a Cup, Weber is up there on the list of players that fans want to see with one by the end. Unfortunately, the bell may have already tolled on that possibility.
Nashville only managed to find one more NHLer in the 2003 draft in defenceman Alexander Sulzer. After a promising three-year stint with the Milwaukee Admirals where he notched 96 points in 145 games, Sulzer couldn’t quite kick on in a Predators’ uniform. He was traded to the Florida Panthers for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2011, after making only 53 appearances in the big league. From there, Sulzer pinballed around the NHL before returning to Germany to finish his career. He appeared in two Olympics with the German national team and suited up for four NHL franchises across 131 games. He is one of just 15 German defencemen to play in the NHL.
Class of 2009
Once again, this Predators’ draft was characterized by the selection of two franchise defencemen. The additions of both Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm produced arguably the deepest defensive corps in the league. What’s more, David Poile also found a talented scorer in Craig Smith; he was third in goals on the team over his nine-season career with the Predators.
This trio of players certainly makes an interesting case for the Nashville Predators best draft class, particularly given the Stanley Cup Final run. But in totality, it’s hard to beat a combination that forged the Predators’ identity as a franchise. Yes, the 2009 draft was much deeper; for instance, we haven’t even discussed the fact that a further three NHLers including Gabriel Bourque were also selected. However, Shea Weber’s NHL legacy coupled with Ryan Suter’s longevity makes it difficult to pass on 2003.
It’s undeniable that the treasure trove of talent unearthed by the Predators in 2009 is probably unmatched. But with no Hall of Fame candidates just yet, it narrowly misses out on the best draft class award.
**AHL stats taken from Elite Prospects.