Thrashers 2007 draft review

By Holly Gunning

The Atlanta Thrashers were a minor player in the entry draft this year, having traded away their first, second- and fifth-round picks.  Atlanta made just four picks, the fewest ever, and did not begin picking until 67th overall.

The Thrashers owned five picks going into the weekend, but traded a third-rounder to the Pittsburgh Penguins for 24-year-old gritty centerman Chris Thorburn, who they expect to play for the team in the fall.

On Friday night, the team had a conditional deal in place to move into the lower portion of the first round if a particular player was available. But the player was taken "a couple spots" ahead of them, Thrashers GM Don Waddell said, so it didn’t take place. The price for the swap would have been a first-rounder in 2008.

The lesser quality of the draft class made the selections unpredictable. "The draft was all over the map," Waddell said.  "A guy went in the first round who we had 132nd on our list.  That’s just how the draft was."

Waddell pointed out that all four of the team’s selections were in the Thrashers top 90 ranked players, but that doesn’t make this draft any different than normal. That’s about how far down the list the team gets every year, having ranked 125 or so players.

The first three picks were forwards, followed by one defenseman. 

Spencer Machacek, RW

3rd round, 67th overall – Vancouver (WHL)
6’1, 182

Machacek (pronounced Mah-ha-chick) drove the net hard for 21 goals and 24 assists in 63 games last season for the Memorial Cup-winning Vancouver Giants. Machacek parlayed an energizing second half of the season into a consistent playoff contribution for the Giants where he collected 20 points in 22 games.  The Lethbridge, Alberta native already has 40 WHL playoff games under his belt along with nine Memorial Cup game appearances over the past two years.

"I got the opportunity to watch him in the Memorial Cup," Waddell said.  "We all liked the player, but first-hand he’s a winner. He’s been on championship teams and played a big part.  He’s a high-character guy – we did a lot of homework on him.  Hard-nosed guy who every time he’s on the ice something happens.  He’s a little bit of a fireplug."

A WHL observer at the draft who had seen him play called him "relentless," and thought his draft position at 67th was about right.  It was only a concussion that slowed him down late in the year.

Machacek had played with Brooks Bandits in the Tier 2 AJHL in 2004-05. Proving that a lot can happen in one year, he found himself playing right wing with NHL-returnee Gilbert Brule (CLB) in the Memorial Cup by the end of the 2005-06 season. 

"Spencer’s been a big surprise for hockey club," Giants Head Coach Don Hay told Hockey’s Future at the end of the 2005-06 season. "He came in as a kind of an unknown type of player, but he’s really brought a great work ethic and his biggest strength is his skating ability, but he’s also a really gritty competitor."

As a WHL rookie, Machacek scored 23 goals and 22 assists and was +14. He was co-winner of the Giants’ Rookie of the Year honor.

Machacek described himself then to HF as a "gritty guy, two-way player. A grinder who goes to the net and gets some greasy goals."  In 2006-07, he played on the Giants top line with Wacey Rabbit.

"He really gets involved around the puck and he’s got the skill to get into the open and make things happen with his speed. I think he’s going to be a really quality player," said Hay.
 
A possible downside?  He is one of the older players within his draft class, born one month into the cutoff.

Looking ahead to next year, because the Giants will graduate many of their veterans, Machacek will find himself in a leadership role next season.

Niklas Lucenius, C

4th round, 115th overall – Tappara (Fin Jr)
6’0, 189

Opinions on Lucenius varied heading into the draft, based around his skating.  But what people thought of his skating depends on what they were looking for, and when they saw him. 

"His skating was a little bit of a question mark at the beginning of the year but he has worked hard on it," Head European Scout Bernd Freimueller said.  "It still looks a little bit choppy but does not hold him back at all."

Skating is something Lucenius said at the draft he was working on.  Indeed, he spent last summer in the US working with a power skating coach and during the season worked with a skating coach in Helsinki.

Spending time in the US isn’t new to him.  Lucenius was an exchange student near Philadelphia three years ago, where he played on club teams with players like James vanRiemsdyk, who went second overall in this year’s draft. He speaks excellent English as a consequence. Both Lucenius’ former host family and his own family accompanied him to Columbus to see him be selected by the Thrashers. 

Lucenius, like Machacek, was someone Waddell had seen first-hand this year.

"He’s a pretty big guy, a good playmaker, plays with grit," Waddell said. "But he really passes the puck well. In our organization, the one thing we can use is puck-moving centermen.  He’s a guy who fits that bill very well.  European players work more on their skill level and it’s a direct effect to how he’s performed so far.  We’re high on him."

Lucenius scored 28 points in 33 games in the Finnish junior league, playing on the top line. He had ups and downs in his draft year, and his final test in the U18 World Championships was a disappointment.  Freimueller had a lot to say about him.

"We consider him a good two-way player with a high energy level. Creates chances for himself and his teammates by driving the net and jumping at loose pucks. Good puck skills but maybe not a top-notch finisher. Certainly the best Finnish forward on the U18 team. Played an excellent tournament at Christmas in Switzerland, was a little bit unlucky around the net at the U18-WC. Quite strong, does not back down from anyone. Can take a hit. Gets most of his points from being around the net. Has well-advanced defensive game. Can both play center and wing but is better at center."

It was with the national team and the senior team that he played wing. 
As a two-way player, Lucenius is someone who can be used in all situations.

"As a young player [Tappara] used him all over the place and he’s been one of their better players," Waddell said. "As he moves into the higher ranks, we’ll find out if he’s going to be more of a checker or a playmaker.  We think right now he’s got the ability to be a playmaker, but along with the grit."

Lucenius played his early years for TPS in his hometown Turku. He eventually moved to the Tappara system in 2005-06.
 
His father was a goalie, and Niklas also started out in net as a child before becoming a forward. These two facts makes it even funnier that Lucenius showed no recognition of the name Kari Lehtonen on draft day, even after repeated prompting. Instead of the Finnish national team hero, Ilya Kovalchuk is the Thrasher who Lucenius is most familiar with.

Having played most of last season with the junior league, he saw a little bit of action with the Tappara senior team last season. He hopes to make the lineup this season. Interestingly, he will compete with fellow Thrashers prospect Jonas Enlund for ice time.  Enlund, drafted in 2006, will probably be the team’s third-line center, and Lucenius the fourth-line center.  Lucenius’ potential long-term is higher than Enlund, but his youth puts him lower on the team’s depth chart at this point.

Lucenius has an agreement for two more years with Tappara, but "can leave if I want to" he said.

John Albert, C

6th round, 175th overall – USNTDP
5’10, 180

The Thrashers took their first ever player out of the U.S. National Team Development Program in John Albert, a playmaking center.

During the draft year, NHL Central Scouting weighs and measures all of the prospects they rank.  They had Albert listed at 5’9, but in sizing up the player in person, that measure is clearly off.  Albert explained that he’s grown over the past year and is now 5’10 1/2.  He doesn’t seem to have internalized his recent growth though, still describing himself as small.

A Concord Township, Ohio native, Albert’s trip to Columbus was much shorter than that of Lucenius – just two hours.  Albert’s trip was short, but his wait was long, picked 175th out of 211 players.  He said it was a tough wait, and admitted that being afraid to get out of his seat to get a bite to eat, he got pretty hungry sitting there.

"Yeah I was actually," he laughed. "I haven’t eaten this morning yet."

Describing his play, he said "I’m a quick forward. I can create some offense here and there, do my best. I can work on the PK. I’ve got some speed."

Albert, who had 33 points in 47 games this season, will attend
The Ohio State University in the fall.

Waddell said Albert was another player he was really familiar with.

"He can really skate," he said. "High skill. He’s going to a good program college-wise, which we always look at.  It’s important for their development."

In the mixed schedule that is the USNTDP, Albert played some of his best hockey against NCAA competition last year.  He compiled nearly 50 percent of his points in his 22 games against NCAA opposition.  He was also on the silver medal-winning team at the 2007 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

During the 2005-06 season, his first in the program, he recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) in 55 contests for the U.S. Under-17 team, which placed him second on the squad in scoring.  He helped lead Team USA to a silver medal at the 2006 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, registering nine points (one goal, eight assists) in seven games.

Albert’s USNTDP teammate and future Buckeye teammate C.J. Severyn was drafted by the Calgary Flames just moments after Albert at 186th, which resulted in a reunion in their new team colors.  Albert and Severyn will room together in an OSU freshman dorm this fall. 

Paul Postma, D

7th round, 205th overall  — Swift Current (WHL)
6’2, 173

Thrashers prospect Colin Stuart shares a name with a designer shoemaker, and Postma shares his with a marketing guru. And he must have done a good job selling himself to the Thrashers.

"Big guy, can skate, his upside is unknown at this time, but he has good hockey sense," Waddell said. "Good kid, [our scouts] interviewed him [at the NHL Combine] and we’re real comfortable with the character of the player."

Born and raised in Red Deer, AB, Postma had a good rookie season in 2005-06, one of only two 16-year-old players to make the squad. In 58 games he had 11 points, playing in all situations.

Swift Current head coach Dean Chynoweth told Hockey’s Future early last season that he saw Postma as a guy the club hoped would develop quickly as an offensive contributor.

Last year he had 24 points in 70 games, so he did come a long way offensively, though he doesn’t project as an offensive defenseman at the pro level. He has very good acceleration, is not physically dominant, but with his speed he doesn’t always have to play ‘the heavy.’  Postma is just a solid all-round, hard-working defenseman. He was -19 on the year, but most of the team was minus as well.  They struggled to score goals, and when they did, it was mostly on the power play.
 
The tallest of the four picks by the Thrashers, Postma is also the lightest at just 173 pounds.  

Glen Erickson, Glen Jackson, Pekka Lampinen, Sean Ruck and Dustin Nielson contributed to this article. Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.