Thrashers 1999 draft evaluation

By Matt Gunning

Wise observers often say that a draft class cannot be not be properly assessed until four or five years have passed. With five years having passed since the 1999 draft, Hockey’s Future decided to take a look back at this draft year, team by team.

Although 1999 was a weak draft year in general, with very few potential Hall of Famers or perennial All-Star players, the Thrashers probably did better than most teams, finding two solid NHL players (Stefan and Exelby), and several prospects who might still make it (Blatny, MacKenzie, Santala, Baby). One player originally is now with another organization, and remains a viable prospect (Rob Zepp).

The relative success of the Thrashers in 1999 might be due to the fact that it was the team’s first draft, so they were able to put more time and energy into it than subsequent drafts. Also, they signed more players from this draft class than they might have naturally done, simply out of need for bodies in the farm system. Players who might have been cut loose in other years were given a chance out of necessity. But the conventional wisdom of not judging a draft class until five years later continues to hold in this case, as it wasn’t until this past season that several of the Thrashers’ picks were given an opportunity to test themselves in the NHL (Santala, MacKenzie).

The Thrashers selected eleven players in 1999, who have gone on to play a total of 503 NHL games (an average of 46 games per player). Below is a look at how each pick has turned out so far. The team listed next to their name is where they were originally drafted from.

Patrik Stefan, C 1st round, 1st Overall (out of IHL – Long Beach)
Status: NHL player
NHL games played: 350

Because the expansion Thrashers were starved for offensive talent and because he was already in the North American minors, Patrik Stefan began play in the NHL as soon as he was drafted. If he had been drafted by another organization, it is likely he would not have begun his NHL career so early. Thus his development might have been a bit rushed. It was hampered at times by a series of injuries his first few years as well. When he was healthy, he was given significant ice time in important game situations. Stefan is not, and likely will not become, an elite player in the NHL, but he is still a valuable second or third line center who can score about half a point per game. Stefan’s primary value to the team is his very strong defensive ability in a conference loaded with talented opposing centermen. He has played five years in the NHL, but at age 23, still continues to improve each year.

Luke Sellars, D 2nd round, 30th Overall (OHL – Ottawa)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 1

Sellars put up some good but not overwhelming numbers in the OHL, but has not been able to translate that scoring ability to the pros. Sellars has simply failed to develop the consistency and steadiness needed to become a solid defensemen and his offensive numbers are not strong enough to compensate for his defensive flaws. He played one game in the NHL under what were emergency circumstances – none of the team’s AHL prospects were available to be called up, so he was recalled from nearby Greenville of the ECHL. The Thrashers will almost certainly let Sellars walk after his contract expires this year. At 30th overall, this was clearly a bad pick by the organization.

Zdenek Blatny, LW 3rd round, 68th Overall (WHL – Seattle)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games played: 20

Blatny scored over a point per game in the WHL, but in is first two seasons in the AHL he scored just 7 points in 41 games played the first year, and only 21 points in 72 games played the second. Sometime in his second season, Blatny was put into a role as solid checking forward. He took to this role immediately, and it even resulted in better numbers, 34 points in 61 games played in the AHL and a call-up to the NHL. Blatny did not look out of place during his 16 games with the Thrashers this season, and may make the club as a two-way third or fourth line winger. His contract is up for renewal this offseason.

David Kaczowka, LW 4th round, 98th Overall (WHL – Seattle)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 0

Kaczowka amassed an amazing 414 penalty minutes in his final season in the WHL. While he remains a strong fighter, he has failed to develop sufficiently in his three years pro to move beyond the ECHL. It would be very surprising if the Thrashers renew his contract.

Rob Zepp, G 4th round, 99th Overall (OHL – Plymouth)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games played: 0

Zepp and the Thrashers were unable to reach a contract agreement until the last hour, and when the contract did not make it through the fax machine to the NHL office in time, Zepp had to re-enter the draft. He was then taken in the fourth round again by Carolina in 2001. Zepp is currently leading the ECHL Florida Everblades in the Kelly Cup Finals. He remains a viable prospect, though he will have to compete with several others in the deep Carolina goaltending pool.

Derek MacKenzie, C 5th round, 128th Overall (OHL – Sudbury)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games played: 13

MacKenzie was a solid two-way leader of his OHL Sudbury Wolves team who averaged about a point per game his last three seasons in juniors. In the AHL he continues to display some scoring touch, averaging about half a point per game. The team likes his character and gritty play despite his modest sized frame. If he makes the Thrashers eventually, it will be as a third or fourth line checking center. He has been called up for 13 NHL games so far. His contract is up for renewal this summer.

Yuri Dobryshkin, LW 6th round, 159th Overall (Russia – Soviet Wings)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 0

Dobryshkin has put up some decent goal numbers in the Russian Elite League, but he was an older pick, at 20, who does not appear to be developing further. He will likely not be coming over to North America.

Stephen Baby, RW 7th round, 188th Overall (USHL – Green Bay)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games played: 0

Baby is a huge defensive forward, who can dish out thunderous checks—when he makes contact. He increased his scoring output each year at Cornell University and posted a respectable 26 points in 68 games in his rookie season in the AHL in 2003-04. Already 24, Baby needs to increase his foot speed if he is to have any shot of playing in the much quicker NHL.

Garnet Exelby, D 8th round, 217th Overall (WHL – Saskatoon)
Status: NHL Player
NHL games played: 86

A late round gem of a pick, Exelby became a regular NHL player for the Thrashers this season. A big hitter in junior and the AHL, Exelby reigned in his penchant for the tattoo hit in order to avoid taking himself out of position this season. Coach Hartley leaned hard on the rookie this year, playing him in roughly half of all even strength minutes during much of the season.

Tommi Santala, C 9th round, 245 Overall (Finland – Jokerit Helsinki)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL games played: 33

Another overage European pick, Santala flourished in the Finnish Elite League as 22 and 23-year-old. He made the Thrashers out of camp in this, his first North American season, but looked lost at times on the ice and was sent down to Chicago. He was later recalled but unable to score more than 3 points in 33 games at the NHL level. He will likely get another lengthy chance to see if he can become a useful NHL player, but at age 25 the clock is ticking loudly.

Ray DiLauro, D 9th round, 246th Overall (ECAC – St. Lawrence)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 0

DiLauro was yet another overage pick at 20 years of age, this time out of St. Lawrence University. He was not signed by the Thrashers after completing his college career. Last season he posted 24 points in 52 games for the ECHL Columbus Cottonmouths.

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