Thrashers 2004 draft preview

By Holly Gunning

Thrashers Top 10 Prospects

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2. Braydon Coburn, D
3. Jim Slater, C
4. Karl Stewart, LW
5. Michael Garnett, G
6. Tommi Santala, C
7. Kurtis Foster, D
8. Zdenek Blatny, LW
9. Ilja Nikulin, D
10. Libor Ustrnul, D

The 2004 NHL Entry Draft marks the sixth one for the AtlantaThrashers, all under VP and General Manager Don Waddell. Barring trades, the team will be picking tenth overall, the latest it has ever picked.

Waddell is a very active GM when it comes to scouting and drafting. By his own count, he saw around 50 games for the amateur draft this year.

“I love to watch young players play. I love to see kids play,” he said last week in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “It’s certainly a nice break from the day to day of running your team, to go out and watch prospects play. I really enjoy that.”

His opinion of the players is most likely to manifest itself in changes at the top of the team’s draft list of around 150 players.

“I like the list, but I know I’ll be tweaking it at the top there.”

Team Needs

As a team who missed the playoffs last season, the Thrashers need to continue to build around the nucleus. Waddell is making no secrets about the team’s needs going into the draft.

“I think we’re in a position where we still have to take the best player. Now saying that, if all positions were equal, if we have a forward, defenseman and goalie, I have to think the goalie would be the third option of course. If all things were equal. If it was a winger versus a defenseman, I’d take a defenseman. If it was a centerman versus a defenseman, that would be the tough call.”

The defenseman he refers to would probably be a more offensive-minded defenseman and the center would be skilled center, one perhaps capable of centering Ilya Kovalchuk.

The Thrashers defense has improved under Coach Bob Hartley, but it remains a very workmanlike corps. There is no star on the blueline who can play 30 minutes a game, and even if 2003 top pick Braydon Coburn joins the team next season, he is more of a stay at home guy. The most offensive-minded defenseman currently is Yannick Tremblay, who has been with the team since the expansion draft.

Being the tenth team to walk to the podium isn’t necessarily the way the Thrashers fate will play out on Draft Saturday, however.

“We would be very interested in trading our pick if we’re going to be adding a player who is going to help us right now,” Waddell offered. “And I’m also going to be honest, I’m very interested in trying to move up in the draft because there’s a couple guys I really, really like in this draft. Forget about the top couple guys, but there’s a couple guys that if we could move up four or five spots, I think they could be very good, impact players for us down the road.”

Organizational Strengths

Quality goaltending prospects are obviously an area of strength for the organization. Although the team has only two young goaltenders in the fold, Kari Lehtonen and Michael Garnett, Lehtonen is a can’t-miss prospect, rated No. 1 in the Hockey’s Future Top 50. Garnett is doing well in his development as well, helping the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators to the final four in the Kelly Cup Finals.

Defensive depth is generally a strong area for Thrashers prospects, especially ones with size. Six of the 14 defensive prospects in the system are 6’4 or taller, including Braydon Coburn, Kurtis Foster, and Libor Ustrnul.
The other area of strength is two-way forwards with grit, for example Jim Slater, Karl Stewart, Derek MacKenzie and Colin Stuart.

Organizational Weaknesses

Offensive depth remains a weakness for the organization. Of course, the strength of the big club is top line scoring talent, but, should injuries strike, there are almost no players in the system who could step in. The top two ranked forward prospects are two-way guys at best. Expect the team to add some team offensive depth to the system, possibly with the first round pick, but if not, certainly as the draft moves on.

Offensive talent is always at a premium, so to acquire it teams might sometimes have to look past other deficiencies such as size. The Thrashers would do this via their specialty list, ‘small and skilled.’

“If we get to like our third or fourth pick and the guy who is on the list doesn’t excite us that much, then we’ll go and look at the other lists. If someone excites us, then we’ll jump over and take a guy,” Waddell explained.

The other specialty lists include ‘small and gritty’, ‘big and tough’, and goaltenders. It’s almost certain that the team will be making a pick or two off of the goaltender category list, and likely the ‘big and tough’ category as well.

While they possess quality in goal, they do not possess quantity. With only two goaltending prospects, the Thrashers will almost certainly select at least one goalie in this year’s draft, to keep the pipeline stocked. The deficiency in team toughness was improved a bit last year with the selection of Guillaume Desbiens in the fourth round, but it still remains.

Draft Tendencies

Character has always been very important to the Thrashers. Waddell has said in the past that he puts emphasis on character because he says high character players are self-motivated thus more likely to excel. One way to measure character is by interviewing players at the annual NHL Combine in Toronto.

“We interviewed 112 kids at the testing. The interview process and testing there counts about 10 percent of it,” Waddell said. “The testing and the interviews can either put a player ahead of someone equal, or behind. Because I’ve interviewed kids who are very good interviews, and I’ve also interviewed kids where I say ‘you know what, I really don’t want this kid as part of our organization.’”

One clear preference of the team is for college players. Waddell acknowledged his preference for players either in, or entering the NCAA last year at the draft, saying he liked the way you could “put them in the bank” for several years before you have to make a decision on them.

Many Thrashers draft picks come from the Western Hockey League as well, most recently Braydon Coburn, but notably also Michael Garnett, Zdenek Blatny, Brad Schell, and Lane Manson.

“It just seems that the type of players that we talk about, character players, that’s where they happen to be from,“ Waddell said. “We haven’t made a conscious effort to take WHL players. We don’t scout that league any heavier than we scout the other leagues. I’ve always said that you need to have a certain number of Western Hockey League players on your roster to be successful and I do believe that. But it’s never been an intent going into the draft that we’re going to take six Western players or anything like that.”

Some of the most well known Thrashers draft picks have been from Europe, but the team doesn’t take a large number overall. What they do prefer are players with one outstanding attribute, be it size, fighting ability, or offensive talent.

”I like someone who is top level at one thing,” Waddell agreed. “There are lots of normal players. And they could be rounded out, they could be average players, play a long time in the league. But when I talk about players, I like to have a player who is a top goal scorer in his league, this guy is the top tough guy in the league. I like ‘specialty players’, guys with something special.”

Some teams put a premium on skating ability, but the Thrashers are not one of those teams.

“Everyone talks about good skaters. I think it’s overblown sometimes,” Waddell commented. “Tell me how a player gets from point A to point B. A lot of bad skaters can get there and can be successful. As they get experience in the league they only get better at it.”

Read the full transcript of Hockey’s Future’s interview with Don Waddell here.

Player most likely to be taken with the team’s first pick (Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Wojtek Wolski, LW