Thrashers 2006 draft preview

By Holly Gunning

Thrashers top 10 prospects

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2. Braydon Coburn, D
3. Alex Bourret, RW
4. Ondrej Pavelec, G
5. Mark Popovic, D
6. Boris Valabik, D
7. Dan Turple, G
8. Grant Lewis, D
9. Tomas Pospisil, RW
10. Nathan Oystrick, D

The Atlanta Thrashers hold the No. 12 pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, having finished the 2005-06 season with a 41-33-8 record, good for ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just two points behind eighth place Tampa Bay.

Though a decent player could be had at 12th, trading the pick is certainly possible, and indeed more probable than in past years due to the immediate needs of the team rising to the forefront. One or two key pieces are likely to make a much greater impact for a team close to contention than during the building years.

Beginning with the 2005 draft under the new CBA, the league moved from nine rounds to seven, a concession to the players’ union. “Fewer rounds make more players free agents,” Thrashers GM Don Waddell explained last week.

But despite the fact that there will be more than 60 fewer players selected, the organization did not decide to make its job easier by ranking fewer players on its list.

“No, we still did 125 like we always do,” Waddell said. “You never want to get caught short of players because you might end up with more picks. We stayed with the same.”

Atlanta interviewed 77 players at the annual NHL Combine in Toronto several weeks ago, which was similar to normal as well.

The Thrashers hold picks in each of the draft’s seven rounds except the fourth (due to the Shane Hnidy trade), and may have two third rounders depending on the outcome of the conditions on the recent trade of Petteri Nummelin to Minnesota.

Asked to compare the 2005 and 2006 drafts overall, Waddell said, “Well, in the 2005 draft the focus was (Sidney) Crosby. You wouldn’t hear about a lot of other players. Now it’s not 100 percent clear-cut who No. 1 is, but I think the first seven or eight players in the draft are top guys.”

Last year was the first time, besides moving up in 1999 for Patrik Stefan, that the team did not make its own first round pick. Instead Waddell traded down twice in 2005, picking up two additional second rounders, and still getting the player he wanted in winger Alex Bourret.

Team Needs

The most pressing team need is for a top center to replace unrestricted free agent Marc Savard. The team has three solid centers with Stefan, Bobby Holik and Jim Slater, but all have second to third line talent. An offensive center who can play on the top line is needed, and with few of the 2006 picks ready to step into the NHL, this need will likely be met either via trade or the free agent market. The hope would be that the player acquired would be capable of centering winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who has lacked a steady pivot for years.

The Thrashers have about nine NHL level or NHL-ready defenseman, an area where they can afford to deal from to obtain a center.

“I think that’s the one area where we have assets at,” Waddell said. “If a deal was there, we’d certainly look at it. If you come into camp with eight NHL defensemen I think you’re OK, because first of all you protect yourself from injuries, but if you find out in camp that you need something else, you always have that trading bit as well. I think right now that if there’s a deal to be made out there, that’s the position where we could afford to give up a guy.”

But while the defense was much improved especially with Niclas Havelid in the fold last season, there is no true No. 1 defenseman on the team. If a top defenseman is offered on draft day, the deal would be looked at long and hard.

A steady veteran backup goaltender for Kari Lehtonen is a need as well, though one that could probably be satisfied on the free agent market.

Organizational Strengths

Moving to the prospect pool, goaltending is obviously an area of strength for the organization. Lehtonen, 22, will be the club’s starting netminder for years to come. Ondrej Pavelec and Dan Turple are both fine goaltenders in their own right behind him. It will not be an area of concentration next weekend, but if a quality goaltender falls on draft day, the Thrashers won’t be afraid to pick him up.

Defensive depth is another strong area, and size is not lacking among prospect blueliners. Braydon Coburn and Boris Valabik top the list of big bodies. Mark Popovic, Grant Lewis and Nathan Oystrick round out the top 10.

Organizational Weaknesses

Center is not only a need with the NHL club, but throughout the system. The team will likely be spending not just its top pick, but several others, at the pivot position.

“If everything’s semi-equal, we would take a forward and hopefully a center,” Waddell said. “Center is a position that we don’t have a lot of depth at right now in the organization, and it’s something we’d like to address.”

Joel Stepp, Brad Schell and Denis Loginov head the thin list of centers in the prospect pool.

Fortunately, choosing a center at the No. 12 spot in the 2006 draft should be no conflict with the “best player available” mantra. Over half of the top 15 players available are indeed centers. Bryan Little, James Sheppard, and Cory Emmerton will all likely be available to the team.

Offensive talent is always at a premium, so to acquire it, teams sometimes have had to look beyond deficiencies such as size. The Thrashers always use a special list of players, called ‘small and skilled,’ but with the new rule changes in the NHL, these smaller players don’t need to be separated out as much, as they aren’t at as much of a disadvantage.

“I think some of those guys may have made it onto our regular list because of the way the game’s being played,” Waddell said. “But certainly we still have [the list]. What we’ve looked for with small and skilled guys is that they bring intangibles, something special to the table. Whether they’re a speedster, a goal scorer, they have to bring something. They can’t be just a regular player, they have to have some special skill. That hasn’t changed.”

Draft Tendencies

The Thrashers have gone to a different league for their first picks each of their seven years at the draft table: the IHL for Stefan, the NCAA for Dany Heatley, Russia for Kovalchuk, Finland for Lehtonen, the WHL for Coburn, the OHL for Valabik, and the QMJHL for Bourret. With Waddell stating he is looking seriously at junior players at the top this year, the organization looks like it will finally start doubling up on leagues in the first round.

One preference of the team has always been for college or college-bound players. Waddell, who comes from a college background himself, has explained this in practical terms, that a team could “put them in the bank” for several years before you have to make a decision on them. The rules contained in the new CBA will only increase this tendency. European picks must now be signed within two years of their selection, matching those from Canadian juniors. College and college-bound players will be the only ones who will retain a lengthy deadline.

Despite this preference, in 2005, the Thrashers took only one college-bound player out of eight, Andrew Kozek bound for the University of North Dakota, at 53rd overall.

Character has always been very important to the Thrashers in choosing players. Waddell believes high character players are self-motivated, thus more likely to excel.

“If you look at some of the guys who we did have success with late, (Pasi) Nurminen, (Garnet) Exelby, (Darcy) Hordichuk, those kind of guys, they all had the same thing, a lot of passion for the game,” he explained. “That’s something we talk about all the time that we look for — people that want it more than the guy ahead of him. They might not have as much skill, but if they’re that determined, there’s a better chance that they’re going to get there. Nothing’s going to stop them.”

With character so important, interviewing players at the annual NHL Combine in Toronto is thus an important event on the team’s calendar. While agents coach players on what to say, which can lead to some not-so-candid interviews, the Thrashers try to get around that by talking to players multiple times over the course of the year, and by throwing them a few curveball questions.

“We do a lot of interviews, not just at the Combine,” Waddell explained. ”All of our area scouts are in charge of meeting with players after games and stuff like that. Everyone has a different method, but I think how we go about it – we only bring three people into the room. A lot of teams have 8, 10 people. I think it becomes pretty intimidating. I try to break the ice, get these guys loose right away. One of my first questions always is ‘tell me your wife’s name, I heard you’re married.’ These kids are 17 years old, they look at me like I have three eyes. That gets them laughing. There’s no doubt they’re coached a little bit [on what to say], but I think you can find out a lot in 15-20 minutes about a kid. We know them as a player, we’re not going to ask them at all about playing. ‘Give us your family history, brothers, sisters, did anyone else play hockey? Did you father play hockey, mother play hockey? Your education. Growing up what was your most favorable memory as a hockey player? If we were talking to your teammate, what would he say about you? If we were talking to your best friend, what would he say about you? Talking to your 10th grade teacher, what would she say about you?’ We ask them a lot of questions like that, not about hockey.”

With the cat out of the bag on their questions, though, Waddell and his staff might have some extra work to come up with a few new ones for next year.

Sometimes doing their homework means the staff following up the teachers and guidance counselors.

“The higher picks we try to visit,” Waddell continued. “We’ve been known to go to people’s homes. You’re trying to do as much homework as you can as quickly as you can. There’s guys from this draft that we have followed up with. There’s a player who is in that top group 12 or 15 that could be in our pick area, we’ve talked to his high school teacher, we’ve talked to his counselor. We heard there’s [behavior] issues at school. If you hear something, you want to make sure you go and try to find those things out.”

Homework done and list tidied up, as always, the Thrashers will be looking to cover their bases by doing any deals that bring them additional picks.

“If it was a perfect science, we’d all draft players who would play,” Waddell said. “If that was the case, we’d only have two rounds a year because certainly there’s a lot more misses in the draft. That’s what it’s all about. The more picks you have, the more chance you have coming out of there with players.”

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Bryan Little, C, OHL Barrie Colts.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.