Thrashers 2008 draft preview

By Holly Gunning

Top 10 prospects

1. Ondrej Pavelec, G
2. Bryan Little, C
3. Riley Holzapfel, C
4. Angelo Esposito, C
5. Brett Sterling, LW
6. Andrei Zubarev, D
7. Spencer Machacek, RW
8. Grant Lewis, D
9. Boris Valabik, D
10. Jonas Enlund, C

The Atlanta Thrashers went into the 2007 NHL Entry Draft with no first-round pick, but this year they are back near the top with the third overall.  It will be the highest they have picked since choosing either first or second in the 1999 through 2002 drafts. 

The Thrashers did remarkably well at the draft table last year.  With only four picks, the first of which was 67th overall, they selected four players who are all very viable prospects at this point: Spencer Machacek, Niklas Lucenius, John Albert and Paul Postma

The Thrashers currently have seven picks heading into the weekend. The team’s second rounder was traded in March 2007 along with a first and third rounder in 2007 to St. Louis in the Keith Tkachuk deal.  They gained a late first rounder, the 29th overall in the Marian Hossa trade to Pittsburgh.

While there’s always room for a trade with GM Don Waddell at the helm, the team is fairly firmly entrenched at the No. 3 spot.  It seems that the only way they would trade the pick would be for immediate help on the roster, not in order to move up or down in the order.  They were so sure they wouldn’t end up with the top pick that they only asked presumptive No. 1 Steven Stamkos four questions at the recent NHL Combine. 

Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr said that the 2008 draft is “remarkably deep.” There are usually 35-40 players before a dropoff, but this year there are up to 60 before that line. 

While there are not many top-end Europeans this year, there could be quite a few taken overall due to some rules issues.  The failure of the IIHF agreement across the continent will counter-intuitively make Europeans more attractive because there will be a much longer time limit on signing them.  Under the 2005 CBA, Europeans had to be signed within two years of drafting, a concession to the powerful Canadian junior leagues who wanted them on the same footing. But without an IIHF agreement, the NHL is likely going to give these European prospects "defected status," in short meaning the teams will hold onto their rights indefinitely.  The details of this are still to be hammered out with the NHLPA.

Marr said the fact that all Russian Super League contracts are now null and void (due to the move to the Continental League) will mean a new wave of players coming to North America, including lots of 18-year-olds into the CHL.  Prospects who come to the CHL are seen as more likely to sign NHL contracts later on, therefore they will be more likely to be drafted. 

Team needs

Only a handful of draftees step immediately into the NHL each year, but there are several of them who could be had with the No. 3 pick.  The Thrashers biggest need is on defense, and as luck would have it, the top of the draft is full of elite defensemen. Zach Bogosian of the Peterborough Petes is said to be NHL-ready, by some accounts the most ready of the bunch.

The need on defense may also be addressed via trade.  Last year there was a very tight market for defensemen, but it seems to have opened up some this year. Talented defensive forwards would also not be a bad addition to a team that gave up far too many shots.

Organizational strengths

The Thrashers prospect pool’s greatest strength is quality goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec is starter-caliber and is the team’s top prospect.

Beyond that, the pool is fairly well-rounded between offense and defense.  At center, Bryan Little, Riley Holzapfel and Angelo Esposito are all in the team’s top five prospects. 

Organizational weaknesses

The forward corps lacks size, particularly up the middle, as all three of Little, Holzapfel and Esposito are under the league average in height.

Goaltending has quality, but lacks depth.  Alex Kangas has three years of eligibility at the Univ. of Minnesota ahead of him, so there’s a need to keep the system stocked in the meantime.  A late-round pick could be used on a goaltender.  A free-agent could be signed this summer for depth purposes as well.

Offense off the wings would be another area that could use some bolstering. 

Draft Tendencies

Character has always been a very important criterion for the Thrashers in player acquisition.  And there’s no substitute for meeting the player face to face and getting a sense of what they’re made of.

A big part of Marr’s job is getting to know the players via interviews.  In performing these duties, he has learned over time what works best.  One, try to talk to players who are in their second year in a league before Christmas, before they get tons of questions from other teams and are rehearsed by their agents.  By the time the Combine rolls around, they are very rehearsed, so that’s a time for follow-up questions, or guys who came on late. Two, avoid post-game as a time to talk.  Go to practice.  On the road after a morning skate is good, or even before a morning skate if the player’s coach is OK with it.  Three, get away from the rink – go to a Tim Horton’s or Starbucks to have a conversation. 

The biggest thing he’s learned, Marr said, is to be sensitive to the personal side.  What’s the player’s family situation?  Have they just lost a loved one or friend?  Marr said he asks the coach or GM ahead of time about these things.  He added that during this conversation he also asks the coach if there is anything he’s been trying to get through to the player and offers to reinforce the coach’s message to the player when they speak.  “[The coach] is normally right,” Marr said. When talking to scouts, players always ask “what can I do better?” and this is the opportunity to reinforce the coach’s message and add whatever else the Thrashers scouts are seeing.

As far as other past tendencies go, the team likes college-bound players, and is not afraid to take Europeans, though normally they do so late in the draft.  They do not often draft out of the QMJHL, nor with much success. The USHL has been fruitful only for a goaltender.  The Thrashers took their first US National Team Development Program player last year in John Albert.  If they went this way again, there’s a Georgia native by the name of Vinny Saponari who can be had in the late rounds.  He would become the first drafted player in NHL history from Georgia. 

The strengths and weaknesses of this year’s draft class will certainly make an impact on who they walk away with as well. It’s a not a strong year in Europe, but the OHL has a lot of quality players.  The OHL happens to also be Marr’s home base.

The Thrashers tend towards high-risk, high-reward picks. Having held a marathon eight days of scouting meetings in Atlanta in May, they’ve surely got the arguments worked out for whoever they want.

The picks

The Thrashers currently possess seven picks. Waddell trades for additional picks during draft weekend virtually every year, but this time the team seems likely to do some roster shopping, so picks may be used as currency.

Round 1, No. 3 overall
Round 1, No. 29 overall (from PIT)
Round 3, No. 64 overall
Round 4, No. 94 overall
Round 5, No. 124 overall
Round 6, No. 154 overall
Round 7, No. 184 overall

The additional first rounder (No. 29) was part of the Marian Hossa trade, and the missing second rounder went to St. Louis as part of the Keith Tkachuk deal.

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Zach Bogosian, D and Zac Dalpe, C

Current Thrashers prospect Arturs Kulda played alongside Bogosian this year with Peterborough.

"He’s a very skilled guy," Kulda said in April of his former defensive partner.  "I think he will be a high pick."  Asked if Atlanta should select Bogosian with its third overall pick, Kulda said, "I don’t know, I’m not a scout or a manager.  But I can see he’s a good, intelligent, talented player.  I talked to him a few days ago, he’s excited.  Maybe he’ll come to Atlanta."

There’s another highly-rated defenseman in the OHL, Drew Doughty.  Kulda pointed out regarding Doughty that he won the best defenseman award at the WJC, but he wouldn’t discredit his teammate Bogosian in favor of Doughty.  "Both are very good," he said diplomatically.