In past years, the biggest news of the Atlanta Thrashers offseason was always the entry draft, and the high pick gained in light of the former expansion team’s low placement in the standings. The biggest news of the 2005 offseason, however, was instead the signing of a free agent, a sign of putting finishing touches on a team poised for a breakout.
Due to the new rules in the CBA regarding the signing of European league players, as well as the unratified NHL-IIHF transfer agreement, the general trend in the 2005 draft was towards college, and college-bound players, and away from Europeans. The Thrashers, however, went the opposite way, choosing just one college-bound player and three Europeans, but did so with a lesson in mind from previous drafts. Ilja Nikulin, taken 31st overall in 2000, did turn out to be a quality player, but not one that the Thrashers could convince to leave his native Russia.
“[Two of three] European players we took were already committed to come to the CHL, that’s why they stood out to us,” General Manager Don Waddell explained this week looking back on the selections made. “With the new European rules, you draft a player at 18, if you don’t sign him, he goes back into the draft at 20. By them coming over to North America, that’s a commitment from them. Unlike a guy like Nikulin, who would play on our team, but does not want to come over.
“So we talked about it going in, and our strategy was that we want to take the best players, but if we have a choice, we want to take North American players just because nobody knows how this whole transfer agreement thing is going to work out yet with the Russians and all that. But the way it worked out, we ended up with a couple of those Europeans because of their commitments. That’s where [Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development] Dan Marr does a tremendous job. He knew where all of these players were already committed. I can’t tell you that all the teams knew that. That’s why we weren’t afraid of taking those guys.”
The Thrashers did take one European who will remain in his home country for now, Andrei Zubarev of Russia, showing that moving to North America is not an absolute prerequisite for the organization.
“It doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, but it’s a positive,” Waddell said. “Not a negative if they stay in Europe, but it’s a positive if they come over.”
New rules also mean that college players are the only group a team can maintain the rights to for three to four years without signing them, making these players more attractive. Of the 230 players taken (with one ineligible claim at pick No. 209) in this year’s draft, 65, or 28.3 percent are either current or incoming NCAA players.
“It puts a premium on them,” Waddell agreed. “But what’s going to happen though is that because of the way the rules are, you’re going to be forced to take players out early. I’m not sure I’m a big fan of that. I’ve always believed you should let players develop not just as players, but as people. But with the way the rules are now, and [Jim] Slater is a good example, if we didn’t sign him by August 15th, he was going to become an unrestricted free agent. Leaving players in college for all four years, if he’s a top player, we can’t pay him any more money and he’s got a choice of 29 other teams to go to, you might not want to risk that.
“So you may be forced, if he’s a top player, or a player you want, you have to make sure you can bring them out early, which I’m not sure is always the best thing. But the one thing about drafting college players that still hasn’t changed – you draft them, it doesn’t cost you anything to put them in the bank, and then three or four years later, if they are players it’s a bonus. You’re not going to hit on every guy, that’s for sure.”
Other rule changes in the CBA dealing with on-ice matters could have an effect on the types of players preferred in the draft. But contrary to some pundits, the Thrashers don’t believe that size barriers to the NHL have been wiped away. They have always separated small players onto a special draft list, and continued to do so this year.
“We think the rule changes are obviously going to help the skill players, but you’re still going to need size in parts of your game,” Waddell argued. “You can’t have your top six forwards being small, 5’10, 5’11 guys. As to whether more small players are going to play, the key is that they’ve got to be able to skate. Players who can skate are going to benefit regardless of their size.”
Armed with just five picks going into the draft, the organization picked up three more and ended up with four picks in the first two rounds. The ability to gain picks was thanks to good luck in the draft lottery, in which they were awarded the No. 8 pick. The Thrashers took advantage of other teams’ eagerness to move up for their players, while still obtaining the one they wanted.
Waddell traded down twice, from the No. 8 to the No. 12 slot, then from No. 12 to No. 16, picking up the No. 41, 49 and 207 picks from the San Jose Sharks and New York Rangers in the process.
“We had our sights set on [Alex] Bourret,” he explained. “But we had three guys that we really liked and we thought we wouldn’t miss out if we had one of these three guys. Bourret was at the top of that list. When we got ready to trade the first time, all three guys were still there. So we traded down to 12, and then one of the players went between 12 and 16. At 16, I had another chance to go to 19, I had one more shot (laughing), one more team, Detroit wanted to move up. But at that time there were two guys left and three picks and I said, you know what, we’ve already hit the jackpot and sitting at 16 we’re still going to get the player we had ranked sixth on our list. Let’s not gamble any more.”
Below are the newest Atlanta Thrashers prospects.
Alex Bourret, RW – Lewiston (QMJHL)
1st round, 16th overall
Bourret’s third season in the QMJHL was his coming out party. The short and stocky power forward led his team in scoring with 86 points in 65 games, once again increasing his offensive statistics sizably. He is a strong skater and a tireless worker who helped lead Lewiston into the second round of the playoffs with his blend of skill and physicality.
The most dominant aspect of Bourret’s game is his physical play. Rare is the shift that he does not throw a heavy body check. Built like a tank, Bourret hits to hurt, but he also does so cleanly. He is willing to get his nose dirty and stick up for his teammates. He played regularly in all situations, notching seven power-play goals and five short-handed goals, and proved to be a clutch scorer, pick up five game-winning markers as well.
Bourret’s lead-by-example style, grit, desire, and excellent two-way awareness make him an attractive prospect. Waddell may have been more impressed by his personality, though.
“I watched him play quite a few times this year, probably seven or eight times, and he’s a very, very noticeable player on the ice. And then when you have a chance to meet him off the ice, he’s from a small town, very humble. He quit school a year ago, which I’m not saying is a good thing (laughing), but his thing was ‘I’m going to be a hockey player.’ He’s dedicated his life to it and you can tell he’s going to have success because he’s determined. I’ve met determined players before, and players who say those things, but of all the young guys I’ve met like that, this is the one guy who could do it.”
Bourret has been traded to Shawinigan, where he will play in 2005-06. Waddell sees him as a second line type of player in the future.
“He’s got enough skill that he’s going to play on the top two lines. But he’s also going to be one of those guys who will be a feisty player and create disturbances.”
Ondrej Pavelec, G – Kladno Jr (Czech Jr)
2nd round, 41st overall
Although the Thrashers current goaltending situation is strong, management had agreed on wanting to add a goalie down the road, possibly late in this draft, since goalies take four or five years to develop. With just two picks in the top three rounds going into the draft, they wouldn’t have used one of these on a goaltender, but with the addition of the two more second rounders, the option opened up to take Ondrej Pavelec, who fell out of the first round.
“We would have never taken him with our first pick, and we probably wouldn’t have taken him with our second pick if we didn’t have three picks,” Waddell revealed. “But we had him so high up on our list, top 12 players, that we felt now that we had the extra picks, he’s the guy that we better step up and take now.”
Pavelec moved from an average, not very well-known goalie, to one of the best among the world’s ‘87-born this season. The 2004 Junior World Cup in August was the first major tournament he was invited to. He was the starting goalie for the Czech team and played well, where the Czechs finished second after losing to Canada in the final. After a game against Russia, one of the Russian players crosschecked Pavelec and he hit the ice with his head, suffering a mild concussion.
During the 2004-05 season Pavelec played great for Kladno juniors and as well as the U-18 national team. At the U-18 WJC Pavelec was the best player of the Czech team, who finished fourth. With his junior team, he had seven shutouts, a .929 save percentage, and a 2.31 goals against average in 39 games.
“Of course our scouts watched him all year long, I watched him in the Under-18 tournament in the Czech Republic back in April,” Waddell recalled. “He reminds me of [Kari] Lehtonen in a lot of ways. He’s not sprawled all over the place trying to make a save. He makes saves look easy. He’s got great position, great fundamentals, and he’s only going to get better.”
Thrashers head European scout Bernd Freimueller said of Pavelec, “Excellent goalie, I really did not believe we could grab him with our second pick. Had a very good season, he was not so much known before. Excelled at the international level. Tall and stringy, quite an athlete. Very combative and vocal. Great glove and legs. Never gives up on a shot. Has found his style, just has to refine it a little bit and work on his stickhandling. Excellent personality.”
Pavelec was chosen in the Import Draft by Cape Breton of the QMJHL and will begin play there this fall.
Chad Denny, D – Lewiston (QMJHL)
2nd round, 49th overall
Denny had a strong early-season performance. A bit of an unknown coming into the season, he flourished under Lewiston’s run-and-gun, physical system, playing his brand of heavy-hitting hockey. Though hampered by injuries that cost him 17 games in the regular season, Denny finished third on the Maineiacs in hits, and posted very respectable offensive numbers.
Though he may appear to be thick, Denny is deceptively mobile and is fairly quick on his feet. He had a very solid performance in the CHL Prospects game, and was a force during the playoffs, upping his physical tempo even further.
Denny wasn’t high on many radar screens going into the draft, but he caught the Thrashers’ collective eye gradually over the course of the season playing for Lewiston alongside Bourret.
“Every game [the scouts] do notes on all the players. We probably wouldn’t have seen Denny as much if Bourret wasn’t on that team,” Waddell explained. “But Denny was a guy that every scout that went in there and saw him said ‘solid player, physical player, doesn’t put himself in a position to get beat.’ Is he a real flashy player? Absolutely not. But he’s a steady, strong, physical player. I went back and looked at reports and we probably had someplace in the neighborhood of 18-20 reports on him from the year. Every report said the same thing, that he’s a competitive, competitive player who plays hard every night. Again, we had the luxury of those three picks where we said, you know what, we might have him higher than some teams, but I’ve always been a believer that if you really like a guy, don’t try to guess if we can get him in the fourth round or whatever, just go and take him, so we took him.”
Waddell agreed that Denny was comparable to current Thrasher Garnet Exelby.
“That’s actually a very good comparison because his projection is going to take him a few extra years because of his size and that. But we do think he’s got that potential.”
Denny participated in the USA World Junior camp this month, but it not a favorite to make the team. He’ll return to Lewiston this season.
Andrew Kozek, F – South Surrey (BCHL)
2nd round, 53rd overall
Kozek played his junior hockey with South Surrey of the BCHL and put up huge numbers last year with 48 goals and 97 points in 60 games with the Eagles. He has great speed and agility and knows how to finish.
“Kozek is a proven, top scorer at his level,” Waddell described. “And the BCHL is not just a scorer’s league. You’ve got to go both ways there. He was heavily recruited by US colleges and will be with University of North Dakota — and they have a very good hockey program. I saw him at the [BCHL] All-Star game and was impressed.”
Kozek has the potential to be a goal scorer in the NHL, but will need some time to develop. He will join fellow Thrashers prospect forward Rylan Kaip at UND.
Jordan LaVallee, LW – Quebec (QMJHL)
4th round, 116th overall
The large power forward was a surprise snub at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, after putting together a solid first season in the QMJHL, with 11 goals and 16 assists, while leading his team in hits by a wide margin. LaVallee’s 2004-05 campaign left little doubt that he is worthy of a draft selection this year, as he led his Quebec Remparts with a very impressive 40 goals in 64 games, and once again leading his team in hits.
LaVallee was discussed by the Thrashers in 2004, but was not high enough on the list.
“We had time for him, let’s say, but obviously we didn’t like him enough to draft him (laughing),” Waddell said of their 2004 plans.
Now they feel very fortunate to have nabbed the American with the 116th pick.
“I’ve got to tell you, he’s really on my radar screen because he was just at the World Junior camp,” Waddell continued. “The coach there is Walt Kyle who I was teammates with. [LaVallee] was the least-known guy coming into camp because he plays in the Quebec League and came out very, very impressive. He’s got a legitimate chance, and he’s a guy who wasn’t on the radar screen two years ago, with a legitimate chance of making that World Junior tournament team. He’s a big kid who had 40 goals. It’s way early in the process, but to me, hearing how he was in the camp, and knowing what we know about him now, this could be the steal for us in this draft.”
LaVallee plays a very physical game, but usually keeps it clean. He is a strong skater with good acceleration and agility, which makes him a force on the forecheck. He is also a very versatile player, not only a dominant force in the slot on the power play, but also serving as an aggressive penalty-killer.
If that isn’t enough, LaVallee also has a penchant for scoring clutch goals, leading his team with eight game-winners. An excellent all-around player, who blends size, speed, skill, and physical play nearly seamlessly, he’ll likely be a second-line banging power forward.
LaVallee will continue with the Remparts in 2005-06.
Tomas Pospisil, RW – Trinec Jr (Czech Jr)
5th round, 135th overall
Pospisil was the leading figure on Trinec juniors in 2004-05 with 37 points in 38 games and was given a chance in the Extraleague going scoreless in 14 games. He was one of the top talents among Czech 87-borns when he was in the midget category and was predicted to be a great player, but stopped improving as much as others did. He lost confidence and was not performing very well, however, his talent was still apparent. During 2004-05 season he made another major improvement, he was given trust by coaches on his junior team and also in the national team, he started to score points and became more confident. He played at the U-18 WJC this season.
Waddell said of Pospisil: “I saw him play one time, he’s an offensive, skilled player. The important thing was that he’s coming over to play in the Ontario League. He’s a high-level skill guy that our guys had a lot of time for.”
Freimueller said of him: “Gifted player, at the position we took him no risk at all. Very good skater and puckhandler with good vision. Should shoot more and could drive the net more. More of an assist guy. Good frame, just has to bulk up and work on his stamina. Played mostly with the juniors and was excellent there. Not a physical player but certainly does not turn the other cheek. Had a major bout with Boston pick Petr Kalus in the playoffs (they’re best friends off-ice), have hardly ever seen anything like that over here.”
Pospisil will play for Sarnia of the OHL in 2005-06. Last season he did work on his strength and became more physical, but he still needs be tougher and that should happen in the OHL next season.
Andrei Zubarev, D – UFA-2 (Russia-3)
6th round, 187th overall
Zubarev spent the 2004-05 season with Salavat Yulayev (Ufa), mostly with the junior team, with six points in 28 games. He also played five games with the big club, registering no points.
Freimueller said of Zubarev: “We had him much higher on our list. Solid D, was captain of the Russian U18 team. Physical without getting foolish penalties. Hard to beat one-on-one, good positional game. Good first pass, shot also ok. Was regular on the power play for Russia but I think his defense and dependability might bring him to the NHL.”
Zubarev has second defensive pairing potential in the NHL. He has left Ufa as a free agent this summer and has signed with Ak Bars Kazan, the same team as 2003 pick Denis Loginov. It will be tough to crack the senior line-up.
Myles Stoesz, D – Spokane (WHL)
7th round, 207th overall
Stoesz had 238 PIMs with Spokane in 2004-05, good for second in the league in minutes served. Able to throw the fists with the best that the Western League has to offer, Stoesz is your typical enforcer, strong on his skates, with little to no offensive potential. While the defenseman has improved his work in his own end, the native of Steinbach, Manitoba does need more work in this area if he’s to remain at the position.
“We had Myles at the top of our toughness category list,” Waddell said. “When you’re going through the draft, you get to these spots and you assess the draft. We didn’t have a pick in the sixth so we had some time. We said OK, we took a goalie, a couple defensemen, and some forwards, the one thing we’re missing here is maybe that heavyweight guy. It’s the same thing we did with Darcy Hordichuk, same type of player. It’s a flyer, but we know one thing –- when [Stoesz] comes to games, he brings one element, and that’s an element that you’re always going to need. He’s got a ways to go to work on his game, but we always ask ‘does a player have a special quality’ and that’s what he brings –- toughness. He was one of the toughest kids in the Western League this year, which is a tough league.”
A defenseman with solid size, Stoesz has also been used as a forward. He’ll continue with Spokane in 2005-06.
Ivana Paulova, Phil Laugher, Eric Forest, Matt MacInnis, Jesse Gill, Eugene Belashchenko, DJ Powers and Aaron Vickers contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.