Thrashers 2000 draft evaluation

By Holly Gunning

The 2000 NHL Entry Draft was the second for the Atlanta Thrashers and they had the most picks they’ve ever possessed with 14. The expansion franchise only needed its first pick, however, to make it a successful year.

After an inaugural season of just 14 wins, the Thrashers looked forward to the high pick that comes with a losing season. They lost the draft lottery to the Islanders, but thanks to Mike Milbury grabbing goaltender Rick DiPietro first overall, the organization got the player they wanted in Dany Heatley at No. 2.

Of the Atlanta Thrashers 14 selections in the 2000 Entry Draft, three have played NHL games: Dany Heatley, Darcy Hordichuk and Simon Gamache. Their combined 331 NHL games make for an average of 24 NHL games played per player in the draft class. Two picks, Ilja Nikulin and Jeff Dwyer, remain viable prospects for the team. Four of the 14 picks have already retired from hockey and another will likely be forced to retire due to injury.

Dany Heatley, RW (1st round, 2nd overall, University of Wisconsin, NCAA)
NHL games: 190
Status: NHL player

Heatley returned to the University of Wisconsin for one more year after being drafted before turning pro in 2001-02 and winning the Calder Trophy for best rookie. In 2002-03, Heatley had 89 points in 77 games and was MVP of the NHL All-Star game. In 2003-04, he played only 31 games after returning from a knee injury suffered in a car accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder.

Fully recovered from that injury, he suffered another this season to the eye playing in Bern, Switzerland in the SwissA league. At the end of the season he moved to Kazan Ak-Bars in Russia, where he had three goals and one assist in 11 games. Though he denies any lingering effects of the eye injury, questions remain.

Thought by many to be the best player available in the draft at the time, Heatley has certainly proven this to be the case. It will be health, not skill, that potentially holds him back.

Ilja Nikulin, D (2nd round, 31st overall, Moscow Dynamo, Russia)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL prospect

Nikulin was a fine pick at 31st overall, and continues to progress in Russia according to European scout Bernd Freimueller, but lacks the desire to move to North America. If hindsight were 20/20, a player who was obtainable might have been a better pick.

“You never know though,” GM Don Waddell told Hockey’s Future on this question last summer. “You could have said that with Kovalchuk — doesn’t speak English, maybe they offer him millions to play in Russia. You have nine or ten picks every year, how many of those are you really going get out of it? So taking a chance like that, to me that wasn’t even a chance at all. He’s a good player that we liked and think can be an NHL player.”

Perhaps once the NHL situation is resolved, Nikulin will change his mind and come to North America. The 6’3 defensive defenseman had 10 points in 50 games for Moscow Dynamo this season.

Libor Ustrnul, D (2nd round, 42nd overall, Plymouth Whalers, OHL)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

Ustrnul made very different decisions than Nikulin, coming to North America from the Czech Republic at age 16 to play. He had a successful OHL career and was signed to a contract by the Thrashers in 2002-03. A promising defensive defenseman, Ustrnul’s problem has that he has not been able to stay healthy for any period of time. The 6’5, 230 pounder has been fragile, suffering multiple concussions and other ailments. The last time he played a full season was his first year in juniors back in 1999-00, which just happened to be his draft year.

After yet another concussion this season, Ustrnul was sent to the ECHL when he returned to the ice. He played 19 games before tearing his meniscus, again prematurely ending his season.

At the end of his contract, it would be surprising for the Thrashers to renew given the question marks surrounding him. Ustrnul might not even accept a contract if it was offered, opting to return home to play, at least for a while.

“I know he was disappointed because if this was his last season in the states, he wanted to finish on a high note,” Jeff Pyle, coach of the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators said of Ustrnul. “I think he’ll go home for a year, be healthy, maybe have a good season and be able to come back the next year. He’s still only 23.”

Carl Mallette, C (4th round, 107th overall, Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

Mallette was drafted by the Thrashers after a huge offensive year in the QMJHL with 125 points in 69 games. Though he had another year similar to that in 2001-02, he was not signed by the Thrashers because they felt he had not developed the footspeed necessary to compete in the NHL.

Mallette has been a big scorer at the ECHL level as well, with 80 points in 64 points with Greenville and Toledo in 2004-05. Last season he did get a chance in the AHL with two different teams as well, the Hershey Bears and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. He had two points in those 10 games.

Blake Robson, LW (4th round, 108th overall, Portland Winter Hawks, WHL)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

Robson was another pick who was not signed by the 2002 deadline. After four years in the WHL, the 6’0 200-pound winger went on to St. Francis Xavier University of CIS (Canadian Inter-University Sport). He had 15 points in 21 games in 2004-05, his sophomore year.

Matt McRae, F (5th round, 147th overall, Cornell University, NCAA)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

Matt McRae had 24 points in 31 games his freshman year at Cornell, and never attained close to those numbers again. His senior year in 2002-03, he had 14 points in 33 games and was not signed by the Thrashers. Matt, along with his twin brother Mark who was taken in the ninth round, is now out of hockey and attending medical school.

Zdenek Smid, G (6th round, 168th overall, Karlovy Vary HC, Czech)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

The only goaltender selected by the Thrashers in 2000, Smid has played for seven teams in three countries since being drafted, but has never established himself as a number one goaltender on any team in any league. This past season he played 17 games for Karlovy Vary HC in the Czech Republic, with a .914 save percentage and a 2.85 goals against average. The Thrashers retain Smid’s NHL rights, but he’s no longer a viable prospect.

Jeff Dwyer, D (6th round, 178th overall, Choate-Rosemary, USHS)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL prospect

It’s been a long waiting game for the Thrashers on Jeff Dwyer. One of very few players drafted out of US high school in 2000, Dwyer went on to attend Yale University for four seasons.

Anxious to get the then 23-year-old into some pro games, the Thrashers arranged for him to join the Chicago Wolves at the end of the 2003-04 season four 11 games. 2003-05 was supposed to be the year that Dwyer was finally tested at the pro level, but instead it was his patience and mental focus that was tested as he battled a nagging groin injury. He played only 11 games the entire year in 2004-05, two of those in the ECHL as he tried to ramp back up.

Last summer, Waddell said Dwyer could be a big sleeper for the organization because of his high skill level.

“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.”

Next season will be critical for the defenseman, who turns 25 in November. He will almost certainly spend it again with the Chicago Wolves.

Darcy Hordichuk, LW (6th round, 180th overall, Saskatoon Blades, WHL)
NHL games: 130
Status: NHL player

The Thrashers found an NHL player in the late rounds in Hordichuk. A fourth line energy player, he’s played for three NHL teams, including the Thrashers, Phoenix Coyotes, and Florida Panthers for a total of 130 games. Hordichuk played 57 games in 2003-04 for Florida, his first season spent entirely at the NHL level.

While the Thrashers made a good selection late in the draft, they did even better years later trading Hordichuk for what eventually would become Marc Savard. Hordichuk and a conditional draft pick went to the Phoenix Coyotes for defenseman Kirill Safronov and right wing Ruslan Zainullin. Later the Thrasher flipped Zainullin for Marc Savard in a deal with the Calgary Flames.

For a sixth round pick, Hordichuk turned out well, and returned some value to the organization via trade.

Samu Isosalo, F (8th round, 230th overall, North Bay Centennials OHL)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

After two years of junior in the OHL, Isosalo returned home to play in the Finnish Elite League.
A knee injury has kept him on the shelf for the last two seasons. There doesn’t seem to be much hope of resuming his hockey career at this point.

Evan Nielsen, D (8th round, 242nd overall, Notre Dame NCAA)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

After graduation from Notre Dame, Nielsen was signed by AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves for a year, playing most of it with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators. He signed with the ECHL Trenton Titans in 2004-05. Refusing a trade at the ECHL deadline from Trenton to Augusta, Nielsen has now retired from professional hockey at the age of 23. The defenseman did not develop the speed to play at a higher level.

Eric Bowen, RW (8th round, 244th overall, Portland Winter Hawks WHL)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

Bowen was selected from the same junior team as Blake Robson, and like him, was unsigned at the deadline. He played for four teams in the WCHL, ACHL, UHL and ECHL before retiring from hockey at the end of 2002-03.

Mark McRae, D (9th round, 288th overall, Cornell University, NCAA)
NHL games: 0
Status: NHL bust

Another unsigned player, Mark McRae played one year of professional hockey for the ECHL Pee Dee Pride in 2003-04 before leaving hockey to attend medical school along with his brother Matt. Mark likely could have continued to play pro hockey for several years, but his priorities were in other places.

Simon Gamache, C (9th round, 290th overall, Val D’Or Foreurs, QMJHL)
NHL games: 11
Status: NHL prospect

As ninth round picks go, Gamache was a good one. He was signed by the organization to a rookie contract and played 31 ECHL games, 118 AHL games and four NHL games in the system. The Thrashers were able to trade him along with Kirill Safronov in a deal that brought in Tomas Kloucek and returned Ben Simon from Nashville. He has played an addtional seven NHL games for that organization. Lacking in both size and speed, Gamache still has an uphill battle to make the NHL on a regular basis, despite the fact that he was the AHL’s fifth leading scorer in 2004-05 with 86 points in 80 games for the Milwaukee Admirals.

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