Thrashers 2003 draft evaluation

By Holly Gunning

The 2003 NHL Entry Draft was the last for the Atlanta Thrashers under Director of player evaluation and development Bob Owen, who held the position from 1998 to 2003.  He remains an amateur scout and consultant with the organization today.

The team did not make a second or third-round pick in the 2003 draft.  The second-round pick was traded to the Florida Panthers for Ivan Majesky, who played only one season for the team. 

With their nine picks, the Thrashers took no goaltenders, having just drafted Kari Lehtonen in the first round in 2002. They selected two players from the Q, a league they seldom take from, and three Americans.  Toby Enstrom was the first Swede ever drafted by the Thrashers. They took some chances on smaller players late in the draft, long before the rule changes opened up the game for these players.

In all, the draft class yielded two NHL players, with two others still in the prospect stage. 

The nine selections played a total of 231 NHL games so far, for an average of 25.7 games per pick. 

Braydon Coburn, D

1st round, 8th overall (WHL Portland Winter Hawks)
NHL games played: 136
Status: NHL player

There were three defensemen in the 2003 draft all rated highly, and no one knew who would go where.  Nashville was up first at No. 7 and took Ryan Suter, thought to be the most offensive of the three.  Coburn, at 6’5 and a strong skater, was considered "can’t miss," with outstanding upside. Dion Phaneuf was late bloomer, not highly-regarded until late in his draft year and thus a bit of a wild card. The Thrashers, who had Coburn No. 3 overall on their list, took him at No. 8. 

A bright student, but less mature emotionally than most when he turned pro, Coburn didn’t fit in well with AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves, and was not trusted by the coaching staff. In 2005-06 he played nine NHL games, scoring one assist.

The next year, he was supposed to go through the rookie growing pains, but didn’t see much playing time under former Thrashers coach Bob Hartley.  Coburn played only 29 games with the Thrashers that year.  Under the gun to make the playoffs that year for the sake of his own job, Hartley wasn’t willing to let Coburn continue to make rookie mistakes on his watch.  And he made a lot of them.

Coburn wasn’t performing well enough to stick in the lineup and Atlanta needed a more veteran defense heading into the 2007 playoffs. GM Don Waddell traded him to Philadelphia for veteran offensive defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. Zhitnik performed well during that run, but his play quickly dropped off and the return from the trade has ceased production.

Meanwhile, Coburn has finally matured and blossomed this year with 36 points in 78 regular-season games with the Flyers. Philadelphia has signed him to a new contract, and the future looks bright.

coburn was taken in the middle of the trio of Suter, himself and Phaneuf, and if the draft was done over again, would likely still be taken in the middle, with Phaneuf and Suter reversing positions.

Jimmy Sharrow, D

4th round, 110th overall (QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Massachusetts native Sharrow was drafted out of the QMJHL for his offensive skill.  He had even played a little bit of forward as well.  But as sometimes happens with offensive players, ego exceeds abilities. Sharrow showed neither the defensive prowess nor the work ethic to much of an impact at the AHL level during his time in the system.

At the 2003 draft, Sharrow seemed rather unhappy to have had to come back on the second day.  Years later, he left the organization on the first day of a draft — traded to Vancouver for underachieving forward Jesse Schultz in 2007.

Sharrow had a decent year with Manitoba in 2007-08, with 22 points in 44 games, having missed two months with a separated shoulder. But his contract with Vancouver is up this summer and there’s no certainty that he’ll be retained.

Guillaume Desbiens, D

4th round, 116th overall (QMJHL Rouyn-Noranda Huskies)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Desbiens was drafted as a fighter who could also score a bit.  Solidly built at 6’2, 190 then (210 now), his skating was an issue when drafted, and remains an issue today.  His English became polished over his time in the minors, but his game did not keep the pace. 

Like most fighters, Desbiens is quite warm and gregarious off the ice.  His personality is part of his downfall as a player though — unfortunately he doesn’t always take the professional athlete job as seriously as he should.  One example: when he’s not in the lineup, he has trouble staying in proper cardio shape on his own. 

Desbiens didn’t see much playing time this season in Chicago, getting into just 23 games.  He asked to come to Gwinnett to get some games in, spending the last 10 games of the year there, plus playoffs.  With his good hands, Desbiens is nearly a point-a-game player in the ECHL

Desbiens’ entry-level contract with the Thrashers is up this year and he’s unlikely to be re-signed.  He’ll surely find a home elsewhere in pro hockey, it just won’t be with an NHL team.

Mike Vannelli, D

4th round, 136th overall (USHL Sioux Falls Stampede)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Vannelli is perhaps the most frustrating pick five years later because he had more talent than he using — he is no longer playing hockey.

The Thrashers were attracted to Vannelli’s vision and hockey sense.  “Not overly skilled but good vision. Good feel for the game,” Waddell said at the time.  For a team that typically selects players who have one outstanding trait but need some rounding out, these words may be a cautionary tale of what happens when they stray a bit from the mantra.  Vannelli was a good college player, but did not excel in any area, making his NHL potential only mediocre.  A four-year player at the University of Minnesota, where his father also played, Vannelli served as captain his senior year despite his shy nature.

After a good senior year in which he had 39 points in 44 game, the Thrashers offered Vannelli a contract, but the two sides could not settle on terms. Vannelli was signed to an AHL deal by Philadelphia Phantoms, but after two games assigned to the ECHL Wheeling Nailers in the fall of 2007, retired from hockey.  He’s now working in sales with a medical device company in Minneapolis.  Perhaps he’s making the money he was looking for in a rookie contract. 

Brett Sterling, LW

5th round, 145th overall (NCAA Colorado College)
NHL games played: 13
Status: NHL prospect

In the fifth round, the small sniper was a good value pick. Sterling was a teammate of Colin Stuart at Colorado College and had already scored 27 goals his freshman year at the time of his draft. 

Central Scouting measures players in their draft year, and these listings are often the truest measure of a player’s entire career.  They had Sterling at 5’6.5, and that explains succinctly why despite his offensive prowess, the historically size-conscious service didn’t have him ranked.  But Waddell said at the time that Sterling played bigger than he is.  "He competes," Waddell said.

A good teammate with a positive attitude, Sterling is talkative and agreeable. After four years of college, he has played mostly in the AHL.  He made the Thrashers out of camp in 2007, but was sent down when it wasn’t working out.  His NHL taste was disappointing, but there’s some hope that he’ll get it together. If he rounds out his game to become more responsible defensively and figures out where to position himself against NHL defenses, he could be a decent second liner. 

For all the goals Sterling has scored — 108 in college and 103 in the AHL — he has scored just one in the NHL. Bottom line, he needs to produce at the NHL level.  Sterling’s contract is up this summer, so he’ll need to be re-signed by the team.

Mike Hamilton, F

6th round, 175th overall (BCHL Merritt)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust

Hamilton was the oldest of the Thrashers picks at 20.  He put up a lot of points in the BCHL in his draft year, 93 in 56 games.  But, the BCHL is a junior A league, a notch below major junior, and the dispartity between the leagues was even bigger in 2003 than it is now.  A lot of very mediocre players have put up big points in junior A leagues.

Hamilton attended the University of Maine, and Went unsigned by the Thrashers after graduation.  The Wolves signed him to an AHL contract and he spent the entire regular season in the ECHL.  With Gwinnett he played on a scoring line, but is not offensively gifted.  Nor is he good defensively.  He scored 50 points on the year, but was still a team-worst -20.  There’s no reason to expect him back in the system next season.

Denis Loginov, C

7th round, 203th overall (Russia – Ak Bars Kazan 2)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL bust
Loginov was skilled Russian with decent size. He made a bit of progress until he  was in a serious car accident in late 2006.  He had just joined his new team, Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik of the second division, when the accident happened.  As a result of the accident, Loginov played no games at all during the 2006-07 season. He resumed his playing career, and played six games for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik in 2007-08, but he will likely never make it to the NHL.

Toby Enstrom, D

8th round, 239th overall (SEL Modo Ornskoldsvik)
NHL games played: 82
Status: NHL player

Enstrom was the the best value for the Thrashers, and eighth-round pick who stepped right into their top pairing this year.  He was thought to be a steal even immediately following the draft, coming off a year in which he was Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Elite League.

Enstrom was listed at 5’9 by Central Scouting, and that was obviously what let him fall so far.  Regarding his size, Waddell commented after taking Enstrom that “Small guys are going to play if they’re not soft.”

And Enstrom isn’t soft.  He takes a hit well and was durable enough to play every game in his NHL rookie year.  The unassuming player is solid defensively and can stickhandle in a phone booth. Yet in today’s shortened seven-round draft, he wouldn’t even have been picked.  The imperative for the scouts is surely to find more players like Enstrom.  If they end up with too many, export them to other teams.

The most interesting question that can be asked about Enstrom’s selection is whether if the draft were redone today, would he be taken higher than Coburn.  By a lot of people, he probably would be.  Certainly Enstrom is the best late-round selection in Thrashers history, beating out goaltender Pasi Nurminen for that title.

Rylan Kaip, F

9th round, 269th overall (SJHL Notre Dame Hounds)
NHL games played: 0
Status: NHL prospect

Kaip was another player out of junior A, this time the Saskatchewan league.  He returned to the Notre Dame Hounds for another year after his draft and then moved to the University of North Dakota.

Kaip is a heart and soul player, captain of the Fighting Sioux his senior year, physical, and an excellent penalty killer.  Offense isn’t his game, scoring just 15 points his senior year though, eight of them goals.

For a ninth rounder, Kaip has put himself in a good position to have a long pro career as he already plays a pro-style game.  How high he makes it and sticks is the question.  Signed to a one-year contract by the Thrashers, he’ll be in the minors this coming season.