Thrashers 2001 draft evaluation

By Holly Gunning

Conventional wisdom says if an NHL team gets two players out of a draft, it’s doing well. In 2001, the Atlanta Thrashers yielded a solid NHL goaltender in Pasi Nurminen, and a superstar in Ilya Kovalchuk. One other, Michael Garnett, has seen time in the league.

Signing five of their nine picks from this draft class, four of the picks are still with the organization.
Three remain prospects: Garnett, Colin Stuart, and Brian Sipotz.

The nine picks have played a total of 454 games, for an average of 50 games per pick, one of the highest averages amongst the 30 teams.

Interestingly, the Thrashers now hold the rights to two players that Anaheim drafted in 2001, Mark Popovic (35th overall) and Joel Stepp (69th overall). They briefly acquired the 92nd player drafted in 2001 as well, Anthony Aquino, taken by Dallas, as well as Ivan Majesky, taken 267th overall by Florida.

Ilya Kovalchuk, LW
1st overall (Spartak Moscow, Russia-2)
NHL games played: 305
Status: NHL player

The Thrashers finished third from the bottom in the standings in 2000-01, but thanks to sending their luckiest staff to the draft lottery, came away with the coveted top pick.

Kovalchuk and Jason Spezza were considered the top two players in the draft, with Kovalchuk pulling ahead over time. Five years later, Kovalchuk’s list of accomplishments are impressive. He stepped directly into the NHL and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy in 2002, narrowly missing out to teammate Dany Heatley, who was two years older.

The 23-year-old superstar has averaged a point a game in his four years in the league. He’s lightning quick with a wicked slap shot and an underrated physical game. Coach Bob Hartley calls him a “force of nature”.

After playing the lockout year in Russia, Kovalchuk missed training camp in 2005 as the two sides were negotiating a new contract. He got off to a slow start on the season, but still managed to score 52 goals and 98 points, both of which were team records and career highs. In the league he was third in goals and eighth in points in 2005-06.

It’s Kovalchuk’s defense that haunts him. Quick enough to get back and recover if he loses the puck at the point on the power play, he doesn’t as often use his speed or focus at the point in his own end. If he could only improve his defensive play, he’d be the total package. Still, he was the best player of the 2001 draft and rightfully selected No. 1 overall.

Michael Garnett, G
80th overall (Red Deer Rebels and Saskatoon Blades, WHL)
NHL games played: 24
Status: NHL prospect

With no second round pick in 2001, the Thrashers waited 79 picks between selections. With the 80th overall pick, they chose a fairly highly rated goaltender out of the Western League, Michael Garnett.

Garnett has followed a typical development pattern, putting in time in the ECHL and AHL over the past few years. This season he was scheduled to be the starting goaltender for the AHL Chicago Wolves, but injuries kept him up with the big club for much of the season.

He made his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 12, stopping 29 of 30 shots. Though he had some very good games for the Thrashers, he was very inconsistent, and in fact played better when he didn’t start, but came in in relief. He ended up playing in 24 games, posting an .885 save percentage.

In Chicago, Garnett played in 35 games, the most of any of the nine goaltenders to don a Wolves jersey. Garnett was 15-12-4 with the Wolves, with a 3.36 goals against average and just a .881 save percentage. His play there was inconsistent as well, a very bad stretch when he returned from Atlanta, and a good run late in the year.

Reading Garnett’s confidence level is fairly easy as he has trouble staying in good position when he’s not confident – he sinks back in his crease.

Wolves Assistant Coach Marty Howe said of Garnett, “When he’s on his game, [he] makes things look easy. … He’s fast enough to do those reactions when he has to, but if he comes out for that first save, then he doesn’t have to. That’s what we’re trying to get him to do.”

All in all, Garnett still has some work to do in the minors. He has another year remaining on his contract, and will likely spend most of the season in Chicago. He’s a viable, though not a top prospect.

Brian Sipotz, D
100th overall (Miami Redhawks, CCHA)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL prospect

At No. 100 overall, Sipotz was picked high for a guy who wasn’t on many radar screens going into the draft. The outstanding quality that attracted the organization was his size at 6’6, 225 (now 250).

Sipotz played his college hockey at Miami, but didn’t stand out. The Thrashers signed him anyway, still seeing something in the raw defenseman.

He had a good rookie season with Chicago and was hoping to build on it, but didn’t accomplish that this year. In fact, if anything he may have regressed, with a better first half than second. Sipotz had a +17 rating through his first 40 contests, before going –5 over the final 17. He received less ice time as the year went on.

Sipotz doesn’t score much, but makes it count when he does. Both of his goals this season were game-winners. He had 14 points in 57 games, an improved rate over his eight points in 75 games in 2004-05.

“He needs more composure,” Howe said of his play. “He’s not a very fast guy, because he’s huge. He’s got the big reach. You know, he’s sat for his share of the games this year because of that. He’s got a ways to go. He’s a big guy, and big guys like that take a while to develop, but actually, for a big guy, he has some pretty decent hands. He needs the composure part where he doesn’t panic and just throw things away.

“He’s a really good guy in the locker and he keeps in phenomenal shape. I think he’s more of a long-term project and somebody’s that going to help the Thrashers or somebody else.”

One of Sipotz’s biggest problems is not taking advantage of his outstanding quality, his size.

“Get a little meaner, he hasn’t been near mean enough,” Howe said. “He’s tried a little more of that this year, because he is a big guy and he should be somebody that people are afraid to come down on. When that happens, that’s when he’ll be a player.”

At the end of his rookie contract, he’s up against what will be a fairly crowded blue line in Chicago.

Milan Gajic, RW
112th overall (Burnaby Bulldogs, BCHL)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Drafted out of the BCHL Burnaby Bulldogs after a 98-point season, Gajic went on to attend the University of Michigan. He went unsigned by the Thrashers, however, deemed not good enough to make it. Gajic needs space to score, but would have trouble creating that for himself at the highest level with his lack of speed.

Gajic was 20 years old when drafted and still in junior A as he prepared to move to Michigan. His selection is a cautionary tale of how inflated offensive prowess can be in junior A leagues for 19 and 20-year-old players.

This season, Gajic ended up, ironically enough, with the ECHL affiliate of the Thrashers. Gajic was signed to an AHL contract by the Providence Bruins out of Michigan, but sent down to the Gwinnett Gladiators just after Christmas when he was under-performing (one point in 17 games), exchanging places with Pascal Pelletier. His assignment lead the Gladiators to sign an affiliation contract with the Boston Bruins, since in a somewhat unusual arrangement, Boston provides the entire line-up for Providence and actually pays Gajic’s salary, according to the player.

Gajic was very good in Gwinnett, leading the Gladiators in scoring in the playoffs with 19 points in 17 games and was he second in plus/minus with +10.

Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle speculated that one reason Gajic didn’t seem able to put up the points in Providence was that if a player didn’t think the team had confidence in him, he’d have trouble having confidence in himself while playing for them. He thought Gajic would probably thrive with a change in AHL scenery. Since his contract was only for one year, he’ll be able to do just that.

Colin Stuart, W/C
135th overall (Colorado College, WCHA)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL prospect

In a rare draft-day mishap, the Thrashers picked Stuart on the official computer, but announced on the microphone that they had picked Andy Chiodo. Chiodo was later taken 166th overall by the New York Islanders.

The good news is that Chiodo has not become “the fish that got away.” He has had some moments in the spotlight with the Penguins organization, but like Garnett, has struggled to become a consistent professional goaltender.

Stuart, on the other hand, has been a slow but steady developer. He turned pro in 2004-05 after four years at Colorado College. He really came along in 2005-06, playing stronger towards the end of the season. He had 27 points in 78 games, up considerably from his rookie year when he had just five points in 39 games. He registered seven points over an 11-game span from March 11 to April 1. He finished with a +5 rating over the final 16 games after going –3 through the first 62 contests. Playing on the third line and on the penalty kill, he tied for second on the Wolves with four short-handed tallies.

“He’s turning into a pretty good penalty killer because he’s learned his angles, he’s learned position on blocking shots, taking away lanes better with his stick,” Howe said. “He’s gotten way better. And he’s fast too. He’s big, I think he has some upside to him too.”

Stuart remains a viable prospect for the Thrashers, particularly in more a skating-intensive game.

Pasi Nurminen, G
189th overall (Jokerit Helsinki, Finland)
NHL games played: 125
Status: Retired NHL player

Nurminen is one of the Thrashers’ most celebrated draft-day steals, having been taken in the sixth round. The pick could have come a year earlier. Bernd Freimueller, the team’s head European scout, was pushing for taking Nurminen in 2000.

Drafted at 25 years of age, Nurminen already had a successful pro career going with Jokerit in the Finnish league. He also already had an injury history. Nurminen spent his first Thrashers training camp rehabbing a surgically repaired knee.

Like most European prospects, regardless of age, he spent his first year in the minors, acclimating to the smaller North American rinks. He acclimated quickly, winning the 2001-02 Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the Calder Cup playoffs MVP.

The next year, he became the first Finn to hold an NHL starting netminder position in 2002-03, playing 52 games that year and posting a .906 save percentage.

Nurminen’s knee problems would come full circle as Thrashers camp rolled around again in 2005. He blew out his knee in Finland as he geared up for camp and was forced to retire at the age of just 29. Like another pathbreaking goaltender, Patrick Roy, Nurminen is the owner and general manager of a hockey club in his homeland.

As disappointing as his early retirement is, Nurminen is actually one of two goaltender from the 2001 draft class forced into early retirement by injury. Dan Blackburn, taken 10th overall by the New York Rangers, was forced out due to nerve damage in his shoulder.

Matt Suderman, D
199th overall (Saskatoon Blades, WHL)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Suderman’s size was attractive at 6’3, 225 pounds. He was taken out of the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL, where he had nine points and 116 penalty minutes in 70 games in his draft year. He had trouble holding onto a spot on the WHL roster his overage year, however, dropping down and playing 17 games for the BCHL South Surrey Eagles.

Suderman was not signed by the Thrashers and has gone on to playing in the CHL, SPHL, and UHL for the past two years as a marginal player. In 2005-06 with the UHL Missouri River Otters, he had four points and 151 penalty minutes in 56 games.

Colin FitzRandolph, F
201st overall (Phillips Exeter, USHSE)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

FitzRandolph was drafted out of Phillips Exeter High School and then spent four years at St. Lawrence University where he never had over eight points in a season.

Unsigned by the Thrashers, FitzRandolph retired from hockey following graduation from college. He majored in economics at St. Cloud and is now working in Institutional Derivative Sales at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York City.

The selection of Fitzrandolph demonstrates the difficulty of drafting out of high schools, where players are competing against very uneven competition. The uncertainty of judging will be outweighed more by the certainty of long retention under the new CBA, however, as rights to college-bound players can be retained the longest without a contract.

Mario Cartelli, D
262nd overall (Trinec Ocelari HC, Czech Elite League)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Peaked in his draft year as an offensive defenseman, but could not repeat later. In subsequent years, he did not come anywhere close to the numbers he put up in his draft year of 27 points in 46 games for Trinec Ocelari HC. He was not signed by the Thrashers.

Cartelli is still playing in the Czech Elite League. This season he once again suited up for Plzen HC, scoring 14 points in 39 games.

Notes

Jordan Lavallee’s Quebec Remparts recently won the 2006 Memorial Cup, awarded to the top major junior team in Canada. LaVallee said that “Game 7 of the semi-final series was the first time I felt like I was getting back to 100 percent” after an injury-marred season in which he played just 37 games. The 2005 fourth-round pick had three goals and one assist in four games in the tournament.

The new collective bargaining agreement stated that all European players drafted 2000 and earlier had to be signed by their clubs by June 1, 2006 to retain their rights. One such player for the Thrashers was Ilja Nikulin. Although a few Russians have been signed by clubs in the past weeks, the fact that the Russian Federation has not yet signed the IIHF transfer agreement regulating transfer fees means that the NHL will likely extend the deadline for NHL teams to comply with this CBA clause. The Thrashers have been in talks with Nikulin’s camp, but money remains an issue.

Thrashers 2006 Prospects Camp is expected to take place beginning on July 7 at the IceForum and should run through the latter part of the following week. The on-ice sessions are open to the public.

Glen Jackson contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.