Patrik Stefan three years later

By Holly Gunning

With the 2002 draft approaching, it’s a good time to reexamine a former number one pick. From examining the development of one player since the draft, perhaps we can learn a few lessons about expectations.

Being selected first overall in 1999, especially by a first-year expansion team, was probably the worst thing that ever happened to Patrik Stefan. It set expectations for him far too high, and forced him to play in the NHL before he was ready. If had been selected in a normal draft year, he would have gone much later, and most teams would have left him in the minors for at least another year after the draft. But Patrik had no such luck, instead was thrust into the NHL spotlight immediately. His lack of early success has caused many to mistakenly label him a “bust”, harshest of which have been the Canadian media.

Stefan has had many detractors in his brief career, not least of whom were Thrasher fans themselves. I would count myself as one of those frustrated by his early play. But this past season, very quietly, Patrik Stefan found his game. Maybe he found it in Chicago when he was sent down briefly to the AHL. Maybe he found it in the inspiring performances of the two celebrated Thrasher rookies. Maybe he found it in a long period of good health. Regardless, Stefan is finally fulfilling his potential and beginning to quiet his critics.

Stefan has had problems with injuries. For his first few years with the Thrashers, just when he would recover from one and start playing better, he would suffer another injury. These injuries included a broken jaw, a hyper-extended elbow, a broken nose, and concussions, a recurring problem for Patrik that had scouts worried about his future at the time of his draft. The injuries not only left him with less playing time to get himself going, but the fear of additional concussions probably left him a bit tentative in his play, causing the “floating” that left fans frustrated.

The last half of the 2001-2002 season, however, Patrik was healthy. And probably because of it, he played with a physical edge and more confidence. The difference in his game, particularly in the second half of the season, was phenomenal. He used to be easy to knock off the puck—not anymore. He used to always look to pass—now he’s shooting more, and what’s more, driving to the net to do it. His face-off skills have improved. Every aspect of his game is improved, and for that his ice time increased over the course of the season. He is becoming a player that Coach Fraser relies on in important situations: Stefan’s icetime averaged 14:48 in 1999-00, rose to 15:36 in 2000-01, and in the last half of 2001-02, it was over 18:00, mostly due to increased special teams play. There were games in which he had the most icetime of any forward, including Heatley.

Stefan will never score a lot of goals, he was never expected to. He was drafted for his playmaking ability. Given the right set of wingers, he will eventually put the numbers on the board. Stefan played with several different linemates in 2001-02. He started off at a left wing position on the second line with Ray Ferraro and Tomi Kallio. Later he centered the top line with Heatley and Kovalchuk for a time. And at the end of the season, he centered a second line with call-up J.P. Vigier and Yuri Butsayev. Not a stranger to the power play, Stefan is now killing penalties as well, which he is very good at with his quickness and strong defensive play. It is a real testament to his defensive game that he was close to even for a year on a team where the average +/- statistic was around –15. If you compare his scoring to other players who entered the league at the same age, he is about average. He tends to be streaky in his scoring, so maybe once he figures out what he was doing right during the streaks, he can be more productive.

When Stefan was centering Heatley and Kovalchuk briefly, it was common to hear the line referred to as “the kid line.” It is difficult to really call Stefan a kid, though, since he is extremely mature for his age. Patrik is getting married this summer in his native Czech Republic (although his fiancee is American). He knows what his role and responsibilities are and with such a young roster, Stefan is quickly becoming one of the veteran players on the team. It would not be shocking for him to be given an “A” on his sweater in the near future.

Stefan centering Heatley and Kovalchuk is a line that looks good on paper: Stefan is fast, and distributes the puck very well. In practice, however, there was not really any chemistry on the line. They seemed to get in each other’s way more than anything. Coach Fraser likes to juggle the lines a good bit, so who knows when the match might be tried again. Stefan’s destiny is likely to be a second line center, however. He doesn’t have the offensive instincts for the top line. I would bet that he’ll someday be one of the best second line centers in the league.

The lesson that Patrik Stefan teaches draft watchers is twofold. First is a lesson in patience. Stefan was rushed into the NHL when he should have spent more time in the minors. Don Waddell has said he won’t make the same mistake rushing future draftees.
The second lesson is to not expect every #1 pick to be a superstar. Given the number of picks who have not made the NHL at all, if the pick is a solid NHL player, the team drafting him has been successful. Stefan would make the roster of any team in the league, and at 21 (he’ll be 22 in September), that’s no small feat. He’ll be a solid contributor for the Thrashers for many years to come, especially if he can shake the baggage of being a #1 pick.

Stefan’s rookie contract is up for renewal this summer. Tough negotiations are not expected, nor is a large raise. Stefan probably cannot expect much more than the mandatory 10% raise over the rookie maximum in his old contract.

Comments and questions are welcomed on the HFBoards Thrashers board.