Thrashers 2002 draft evaluation

By Holly Gunning

The 2002 NHL Entry Draft was a solid one for the Atlanta Thrashers. The organization found two NHL players, Kari Lehtonen and Jim Slater, and another late pick in the draft, Nathan Oystrick, remains a viable candidate for the NHL. 

The Thrashers 2002 draft class was 10 players large and included five defensemen, four forwards and one goaltender.  Size seemed to be the order of the day in what was seen as a weak draft class going in. Three defensemen taken were 6’5 or taller, including the tallest player in the draft, Lane Manson, listed then at 6’8. This continued a trend of taking towering defensemen, started in 1999 with Ilja Nikulin and Libor Ustrnul, and maintained in 2001 with Brian Sipotz. In 2002, the team also took four players either playing in or headed to the CCHA in Slater, Pat Dwyer, Oystrick and Colton Fretter

All but one of the 2002 picks, Tyler Boldt, have played in the Thrashers’ minor league system at some point.  Currently the Thrashers own the rights to two other players selected in 2002: Andre Deveaux (182nd overall), selected originally by Montreal and acquired via Tampa Bay, and Joey Crabb (226th overall), acquired as a free agent.

The team’s 10 picks have played a combined total of 255 regular-season NHL games, all with the Thrashers, for a class average of 25.5 per pick. This puts the Thrashers above average in the NHL at this point, but given that they selected a goaltender in the first round, a position that almost always takes the longest to make the NHL and plays fewer games within a season, the average should rise relative to other teams.  And in the long run, the 2002 class will likely outperform other drafts by the Thrashers as well.

Below is a look at each pick and the value that the team got for the pick.

Kari Lehtonen, G
1st round, 2nd overall out of Jokerit Helsinki (Finland)
NHL games played: 110
Status: NHL player

The Thrashers made noise about trading the No. 2 pick going into the draft, which may have served a good purpose in that they received extra picks – a third-round pick (No. 82 overall, later traded) and 2003 fourth-round pick — from the Florida Panthers to pass on defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. The Thrashers walked away with the extra picks and the player they had decided they were going to take anyway in Kari Lehtonen.  Lehtonen went second only to OHL sniper Rick Nash, making him the highest-drafted European goaltender in NHL history.
 
Lehtonen was coming off a spectacular year in which he led Jokerit to the SM-liiga championship and won the playoff MVP award as an 18-year-old.  He stayed in Finland the following year, served his mandatory army duty, then came to North America and played for the AHL Chicago Wolves for two years, including the NHL lockout year.

Lehtonen was to take over the starter’s role for the Thrashers in 2005-06, but spent a lot of the season injured with a hip/groin injury.  In 2006-07, he was really put to the test, playing a huge percentage of the team’s games. He responded with a .912 save percentage and 2.79 GAA in 68 games, the most games he had ever played in a season in any league.  His numbers, were good, but not terrific, as he struggled a bit with consistency.  He’s clearly capable of better play, and in fact followed up the season with a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships. At 23, he’s still a kid in many ways and should continue to improve.  He’s been a winner at every level in his career thus far.

The top four picks in 2002, Nash, Lehtonen, Bouwmeester and Joni Pitkanen, are still battling it out to see who will be the best player to come out of the draft class.  The 2007-08 season will be very telling.

Jim Slater, C
1st round, 30th overall out of Michigan State (NCAA)
NHL games played: 145
Status: NHL player

Having previously traded away the 31st pick in this draft, the Thrashers traded the 41st selection and the 96th selection for the 30th pick in order to select Slater. The hope at the time was that Slater would someday become a second-line center.

Due in part to the NHL lockout, Slater stayed in school all four years at Michigan State University.  He turned pro in 2005-06, and after four games in the AHL, spent the rest of his time in the NHL.  He’s one of the fastest on the team in straight-away speed, but he lacks in the areas of lateral movement, balance, knowing how to use his speed, and defensive play.

Slater didn’t improve in his second season in the NHL, either in points or in play.  He had one less point in three more games, and five fewer goals for a total of 19 points in 74 games.  Scratched this year several games in March, he’s still struggling to find his place.  Instead of the second line center he was hoped to be, he’s been playing most often as a fourth-line center. 
 
While everyone talks about late bloomers, in hindsight, Slater was an early bloomer, having been on the US junior national team’s radar as well.  He was good at a young age, importantly his draft year, but did not improve much over time other than getting stronger as his body matured. Though probably not worthy of a 30th overall selection, Slater should have a long NHL career.  The 24-year-old is at the end of his rookie contract and is a restricted free agent this summer.

While the team did get an NHL player out of the pick, waiting to see if he was available at No. 41 probably would have been a better move because they wouldn’t have been bound to paying a first-round salary.

Pat Dwyer, RW
4th round, 116th overall out of Western Michigan (NCAA)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Having dealt their second or third round picks in 2002, the Thrashers made their next selection the following day at 116th overall, choosing Montana native Pat Dwyer out of Western Michigan University.

Dwyer is a chippier player than you’d expect for his build at 5’10 and skinny. He also has a strange habit of having career years his rookie years, having done so both in college and as a pro. 

The Thrashers declined to sign Dwyer to an NHL contract, but arranged for affiliate Chicago Wolves to sign him in 2005-06. He was the fifth leading scorer on the team at age 22.  The following summer he was picked up by the Carolina Hurricanes.  In 2006-07, he scored 41 points in 79 games for the AHL Albany River Rats.

On the small side with not enough offensive talent, Dwyer has probably made it as far as he’s going to go.  He has another year on his contract with Carolina.

Lane Manson, D
4th round, 124th overall out of Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Manson’s size was the attraction, listed then at 6’8, the tallest player in the 2002 draft.  Thrashers GM Don Waddell has explained in the past that the organization likes players who have something outstanding or special about them. Manson definitely stands out from the crowd. 

Like most big players, though, Manson struggled with skating.  It was not just run-of-the-mill bad though.  Make no mistake about it – his skating was horrible.  And while it did improve over the past five years, it did not come far enough.  The now faster NHL put a louder stamp on it, but the truth is that he wouldn’t have made it in old NHL either. 

But, the Saskatchewan native does have something a lot of players lack – heart.  From former teammates praising his work ethic, to being a willing combatant, to his aspirations to be a leader, he’s someone players want to go into battle with.  Like Manson himself, his heart is not hard to miss – he wears it on his sleeve.  He’s a highly emotional player and person, the first to fly off the handle, but first to laugh as well. 

After two years with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators, Manson played with Dayton of the ECHL this year.  He had 10 points and 166 penalty minutes in 67 games, and in the playoffs, three assists in 22 games. For the second year in a row, he was on the team that lost in the ECHL finals. 

Manson’s contract with the Thrashers ends this summer, and he won’t be renewed.  But there’s a possibility that he could be back in town with the Gladiators next season. Coach Jeff Pyle said last week that Manson is a good character guy who he’d welcome back on the team.  He just needs to "stop thinking he has to do more."  Manson has indicated interest, and Pyle said he’ll talk to him about it soon.  If he does return, it would be surprising not to see a letter on his chest this year. 

Paul Flache, D
5th round, 144th overall out of the Brampton Battalion (OHL)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Flache was a drafted as a re-entry, originally picked in 2000 by the Edmonton Oilers with the 152nd overall pick.  Taken again at age 20, he was signed immediately by the Thrashers and began play with then-ECHL affiliate Greenville Grrrowl.

Don’t let the size at 6’6 fool you, Flache had more finesse than force to his game. He’s a very good skater for his size, and also has a coveted right-handed shot from the blue line. He had played forward growing up, and did so again a bit during his pro career as well.

Flache played three years in the Thrashers system, but didn’t gain traction. The New York Islanders signed him in 2005-06 when his contract was over with the Thrashers, and he was sent to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.  There he suffered a serious concussion, which was not his first.
 
The next year he was brought back to Gwinnett on an ECHL contract as captain — a curious choice even at the time.  And in fact, his captaincy was such a disaster that it became the elephant in the corner that no one even spoke of during the season. 

Perhaps Flache was coming to terms with what others could see — that he was never the same player after his last concussion and breaking the vertebrae in his neck the summer of 2006. He suffered broken vertebrae again during a game in 2006-07, but returned to play at the end of the year.   He had 12 points in 45 games played.

The past several summers, he and his twin brother Peter, retired from hockey in 2005 to attend college, have run Flache Hockey Academy.  If Paul continues in hockey this season, he’ll likely play in Europe.  If he retires, he’ll likely head to college as well, and perhaps, start a band.

All in all, his story is a shame because he had all the raw materials to make it pretty far in hockey, with size and skill.  He lacked health and probably some of the heart to make it happen.

Brad Schell, C
6th round, 167th overall out of the Spokane Chiefs (WHL)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL prospect

Going into the 2002 draft, reviews were very mixed on Schell, a high scorer in his draft year with 20 goals and 36 assists in 70 games. He had back surgery the next year, but has been fairly healthy since then, save for a separated shoulder at the end of last year.

Signed by the Thrashers in 2004, he’s spent most of his pro career with Gwinnett, and led the ECHL in scoring this season, with 25 goals and 85 assists in 63 games played. He played 10 AHL games in 2005-06, and was called up again in February.  With Chicago, he scored four points in 12 games in the regular season, two points in 15 games in the playoffs.

Schell is a good playmaker, very patient with the puck, but he’s also a bit too passive and lackadaisical. A defensively-challenged player as a rookie, he’s now killing penalties, which makes him a lot more versatile going forward. He has improved as a pro, but not enough to change his outlook as not likely to make the NHL.

Schell’s contract with the Thrashers ends this season and he’ll likely go on to a decent career in the AHL.  It probably just won’t be with this organization.

Nathan Oystrick, D
7th round, 198th overall out of South Surrey (BCHL)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL prospect

Of the three players on this list still categorized as prospects, Oystrick has the best chance of making the NHL, possibly as early as this season.

He was drafted after winning the BCHL Defenseman of the Year award in 2001-02, putting up 57 points in 50 games.  While in 2007 BCHLer Kyle Turris may be taken in the top three, in 2002, few players in the BCHL went highly in the draft.  His skating held him back a little as well as his size at 5’11. 

Oystrick went on to Northern Michigan University that fall. He used to fight a lot in junior, but since that activity is banned in college hockey, he developed other ways of being intimidating and worked on his overall game.  He was considered a very good, but not elite, defenseman in college hockey.

The Thrashers signed Oystrick at the conclusion of his college career, but didn’t have lofty expectations for him, even heading into this season.  He has exceeded their expectations, however, to the point of being in line for a call-up last season and on the watch list for 2007 training camp.  He was the third highest scoring defenseman in the league, as a rookie, with 47 points in 80 games, and registered a solid 94.2 mph slapshot in the AHL All-Star game.  The 24-year-old is one of several potential future solutions on the power play. 

Colton Fretter, F
8th round, 230th overall out of Chatham Maroons of the Western Ontario Junior Hockey League
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL prospect

Fretter is a prime example of why evaluating a draft class cannot be done until five years later.  After four years in college, the soft-spoken player made some noise in his pro debut in 2006-07.

Fretter’s league was even more seldom looked at that Oystrick’s – in fact no one had ever been drafted out of it before. Even being drafted came as a surprise to him. Fretter caught the Thrashers’ attention as a prolific goal scorer.  He had had poor skating in his 18-year-old season, but had already been improving in that area by the 2002 draft. 

Atlanta Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr, who helped draft Fretter in 2002, said that the organization was concerned about Fretter’s skating at the time as well. Marr said Fretter’s "stride was short and choppy," he had no acceleration and couldn’t pull away. But, Marr noted last fall, Fretter has improved a great deal since then.

Fretter attended MSU for its kinesiology program, where he was a teammate of Slater.  Fretter will become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist later this summer after he takes his certification exam.

The Thrashers set him up with an AHL contract after college through their affiliate Chicago Wolves.  He was sent to Gwinnett and played on a line with fellow Thrashers 2002 pick Schell. Coach Pyle gave Fretter top-line minutes, very liberal reins, and Fretter responded by scoring 36 goals and 32 assists in just 51 games.  Fretter was out for seven weeks with a broken ankle, and still beat the next rookie by 12 points.  Not surprisingly, he was named ECHL Rookie of the Year.

Each ECHL Rookie of the Year for the past several years has gotten an NHL contract, the most recent being Alex Leavitt (PHO), Joey Tenute (WAS) and Kevin Doell (ATL).  Goal scorers don’t grow on trees, so Fretter isn’t likely to break that trend.  Where he signs for next year will be a story worth watching. Don’t count out the team that originally drafted him.

Tyler Boldt, D

8th round, 236th overall out of Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

This pick was acquired by the Thrashers from Anaheim in the Denny Lambert deal. With it they selected another defenseman, but not a towering one at 6’2.  Boldt was not signed to a contract by the organization in 2004. He played his overage year in 2004-05 and then retired. The only Thrashers 2002 pick who is out of hockey, Boldt was just not good enough.

Pauli Levokari, D
8th round, 257th overall out of HIFK Helsinki (Finland)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Like Manson and Flache, Levokari was attractive for his size at 6’5, 226 lbs. Drafted as an overager at 24, after a season in which he had eight points and 86 PIMs in 29 games in Finland, Levokari came to North America immediately and played six games for Chicago and four for Greenville.  His skating was poor and he wasn’t physical. He was included in the Tomi Kallio deal sending him to the Columbus Blue Jackets. He stayed in the AHL an additional year, playing for Syracuse and Wilkes-Barre.

Since then, Levokari has bounced around Europe.  In 2006-07, he had 4 points and 115 penalty minutes in 29 games with SaiPa Lappeenranta of the Sm-liiga.

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