Don Waddell has been at the helm of the Atlanta Thrashers for four years, the first and only GM in the team’s history. He came to the organization from the Red Wings, where he served as Assistant GM. Waddell was kind enough to indulge Hockey’s Future in a series of questions regarding the 2002 Entry Draft.
HF: It seems that each of the top three teams in this year’s NHL draft had a different player rated number one in their rankings. What did you see in Kari Lehtonen that set him apart from Nash and Bouwmeester?
DW: Nash and Bouwmeester are both excellent prospects but it was a unanimous decision by our entire staff that Lehtonen was the most gifted player available. He was number one on our list all along. We feel he has all the tools to be a very special player at a highly important position.
HF: With their second pick, the Thrashers selected freshman center Jim Slater of Michigan State University. The team traded up from the 31st pick to the 30th pick to select him, were you concerned that another team was about to take him?
DW: We actually traded the 31st pick to Buffalo as part of the Kozlov trade and wound up with the 41st pick, which we packaged with the 96th pick (third round) to move up to number 30 when we saw Slater was still available. We were pleasantly surprised to see him still around at that point and we wanted him so we did what we had to do in order to move up and get him. We had Jim rated much higher in the first round.
HF:Do you project Slater as a 2nd line scoring center or more of a 3rd line checking center? You had mentioned Slater as a player the organization was interested in this winter, what qualities did Slater have that Thrashers scouts found attractive?
DW: He is a very well rounded player who is gifted enough to fit either role. He is a skilled player who plays with a lot of intensity. His development over the next few seasons will determine how he is used when he reaches the NHL level.
HF:A number of media sources suggested that this was a weak draft year. In particular, that there was little difference between the players ranked between #10 and #40. How did the Thrashers sort through this bloc of players? If two players are relatively even what are the tie-breakers in ranking players? Speed, character, size, hockey IQ, skill, skating?
DW: It is impossible to judge a draft year until several years down the road, but it is safe to say that every draft produces players of value. Leading up to the draft, our staff does its due diligence when researching and evaluating players. When the time comes for us to make a selection, we try to pick the best player available, but in closes situations, those intangibles are an important factor in what might push us in one direction or another.
HF:With their middle and late round picks the Thrashers drafted three very large defensemen (Lane Mason 6’8″, Paul Flache 6’6″, Pauli Levokari 6’7″). Were you targeting size or was this simply a case of taking the best player available?
DW: You always want to take the best player on the board, but in the mid to late rounds, you can certainly identify certain needs and address them by selecting a bigger player with a comparable skill level.
HF: These three draftees combined with other defensemen in the system (Nikulin 6’3″, Ustrnul 6’5″, DiPenta 6’3″, Foster 6’5″, Sipotz 6’5″) give the team quite a stable of young blueliners with great size. The Thrashers have taken big defensemen both early and late in recent drafts. Since many draftees never play a single NHL game, do you take the approach of drafting size in quantity will hopefully result in at least some of these towering defensemen making it to the NHL?
DW: We don’t necessarily target size, but when choosing between two players of comparable skill and potential, most teams will try to go with the larger player. We feel that we have one of the deepest groups of prospects in the NHL and we have been fortunate to add several big defensemen with legitimate NHL potential.
HF:The Thrashers also used two mid-round picks on players from Tier II junior clubs: Nathan Oystrick (D South Surrey) and Colton Fretter (RW Chatham). Given that the level of competition is weaker in Tier II leagues, does it make it more difficult to evaluate players in these leagues?
DW: The players in Tier II leagues are normally 19 or 20 years old (as compared to 18 year old junior players) and usually are impact players in their respective leagues. The extra development year(s) is beneficial when projecting the player’s potential. It’s not a matter so much of which league a player plays in since scouting involves evaluating and projecting the player’s pro potential — that is the nature of the business.
HF:Patrick Dwyer was the team’s 3rd selection 116th overall. Does the team expect him to be contribute in the NHL with such a small frame (5’10” 170)? Is he related to the Thrasher Jeff Dwyer by any chance?
DW: Patrick is a talented young man who we hope can add a little muscle to his frame to make him a little more effective as he continues to progress in his career against bigger players. Patrick is not related to Jeff.
HF: Brad Schell fell a bit from some of the pre-draft rankings. Were you surprised to see him still there at 167th overall? What type of player does the organization expect him to become?
DW: It was a surprise that Brad was still available in the 6th round based on his talent level but what most likely held him back was his physical strength and playing weight of 170 lbs. With normal strength development and physical maturity the Thrashers project Brad to be a solid two way, playmaking center. In junior, he is a very good set up man and plays the point on the powerplay.
HF: Can you tell us something about Tyler Boldt (D Kamloops)?
DW: Boldt was a member of Canada’s Under-18 team last summer after playing well for Kamloops as a 16 year old rookie. This past season his progress was stalled by a bout of mono but he finished the season strongly and measured up to his potential in the second half as a stay at home defensemen who plays with grit and determination.
HF:Some media publications have suggested that the ranks of over age Europeans were pretty thin after the last few NHL draft. Nevertheless, the Thrashers used to their final pick on Pauli Levokari (D IFK) who was an over age selection. In light of his age, does the organization hope that he can come over to North America and contribute right away? [question posed prior to signing]
DW: We have signed Pauli and he will most likely begin the year with Chicago. Most European players have an adjustment to make when coming to North America. With an overage player, they are usually more physically mature because they have had the opportunity to develop. This extra time should help make that learning curve a little bit shorter and the adjustment a little bit smoother. You are seeing more teams take advantage of selecting older players from the European leagues who may have developed a little later. Pasi Nurminen is a good example of an older player coming over and contributing right away.