General Manager Don Waddell met with the Atlanta media on Monday as the team ramps up for the draft taking place six hours north in Raleigh, North Carolina. He provided a bit more of a glimpse into the structure of the team’s draft list and dropped a hint or two about who is on it.
“We really feel strongly about the first nine guys (on our list),” Waddell said. “We went through it and came up with nine guys that we really like, and I truly believe we’ll get one of those nine guys because I don’t think our list will be the same as everyone else’s.”
He broke the nine favorites down further, once again rebutting the general consensus that the team is set in goal and would not move over to their goaltender list until much later in the draft.
”We have I think three defensemen, a couple goalies, and then four forwards. If we had our choice, it’s probably pretty obvious we’d take a defenseman, but the two goalies that I put at the top four or five picks, if one of them is sitting there at 10, and we’re talking about a goalie that’s probably two to three years away, it would be foolish not to look at that position if that guy is sitting there. Again, we feel real good about where our goaltending is right now, but goaltending is something that if you have it, a lot of people need it. We know that here. It could become a good asset down the road.”
While character has always been and remains very important to the organization, there was no one in this year’s top choices who set off alarm bells for the Thrashers. They interviewed extensively at the NHL Combine, and that process will continue up until draft day.
“My belief is that every player that we potentially could draft we want to at least have a little bit of a history with them. It doesn’t mean we’re going to draft all angels, that’s for sure. It depends on what the off-ice (issue) is. Go back to Kovalchuk — it was a little different because he was a top pick — but a lot of people were concerned about him not being a team player, about him being out for himself, but after seeing him here, he’s certainly a great individual player who is playing for his team. So we would look at every situation, they all have different issues, but there’s nobody in this draft that we ruled out — and we have in the past. Our draft list consists of 125 players and there’s nobody that we ruled out because of their character.”
While the first round is pretty deep in Waddell’s opinion, there aren’t many players who are going to jump right into the NHL next season.
“Three for sure, maybe four,” he said. “It’s no secret that the two Russians, (Alexander) Ovechkin and (Evgeni) Malkin, are probably ready to play today. Malkin is a big centerman who might need some time, but is pretty close. Ovechkin has been compared to our player Kovalchuk. He’s going to be a top player. Then there’s a couple other guys – we all look at players differently and that’s the good thing about the draft. There’s a couple guys, in particular Cam Barker out west, an offensive defenseman, very skilled guy, 6’3” 220 pounds, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t ready to play right now.”
Right now the Thrashers hold the No. 10 slot overall, but that’s subject to change at any time, given the right deal.
“We’ve talked about moving up in the draft, which is becoming a little more difficult because everyone is starting to prize these picks because of the current CBA situation. We talked about moving in another direction, if we could get a player or players who could help our hockey club today. But again, saying that, with our current situation, I don’t think you want to trade for 31-year-old player, a 30-year-old player. You want someone who is going to be with your franchise for at least a number of years.”
With five days to go, the trade wires haven’t quite lit up yet. When the 30 NHL General Managers get together for meetings before the draft, talks will heat up.
“We’ve had numerous conversations, but I’d say there’s nothing even close right now that we’d even consider doing. I think as the week goes, as we all know, nothing seems to happen until we’re faced with deadlines. As the week goes I think things will pick up as we all gather in Raleigh.”
In a trade for a current asset, there’s no secret that the team would be looking for a top 4 defenseman.
“We’d like to add a top 4 defenseman and a centerman someplace down the road, but right now our priorities are definitely a defenseman. Some guys made some great strides last year, and we’ve got a good nucleus back there, but we need that one guy who can play 25-plus minutes a night to really solidify our defense.”
Contract negotiations with 2003 top pick Braydon Coburn continue, though they are on hold for now until after the draft.
“We have had many discussions,” Waddell said. “I’m pretty confident where we are that we’ll get something done. I told (his agent) last week that we’re going to put it on hold for a while. There’s no deadline for him to be signed and this week is important for us with the draft and our focus will be on the draft.”
One factor is likely driving the discussions is the likely change in the structure of rookie contracts, away from large incentive clauses. Currently the bonuses for rookie defensemen are quite high to attain. That might not be the case in the future. But it’s not even clear yet what rules would apply to Coburn if he signed after September 15th, the old or the new.
“I wish I could answer that. We don’t know. That’s a whole part of the negotiations. That’s why we’re continuing. People look at the rookie system and suggest that it might not work for teams, but yet in the Coburn situation, we feel that he’s a player we want to get signed, so we’re not letting that be a deflector for us. We’re going to continue to try to get him signed.”
On Friday the team announced the signings of two graduating college players, forward Colin Stuart and defenseman Jeff Dwyer. Stuart played four years at Colorado College, where he was captain last season. Waddell assessed where he would fit in.
“Colin Stuart, if he plays this year in Chicago, I’d look for his development in a couple years and then he’s going to be a third line NHL player. Great speed, great hockey sense. But his upside is a third line player, that’s what he’s going to be.”
Dwyer spent four years playing for Yale University and joined the Chicago Wolves briefly at the end of last season to get his professional feet wet a bit.
“Jeff Dwyer could be the big sleeper because for a defenseman his individual skill is as good as it could be at his level,” Waddell said of him. “Unfortunately, not to take a shot at the ECAC or Yale hockey, he only got to play 20-some games a year and he really needs to get into a system where he plays a lot more games. But his skill level for a defenseman is really really high. I look for him to get the opportunity to continue to grow and he’ll be a real good player.”
Both are expected to play for the Chicago Wolves in 2004-05.
Center Tommi Santala is headed back to his native Finland to play in 2004-05, like many other players, but he’s doing so without time left on a contract with the Thrashers as he signed only a one-year deal last season. The team must only file a qualifying offer to retain his rights. At 25 years of age this week, if there is an extended work stoppage in the NHL, the window of opportunity for him to make the transition to North America may be over.
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