Thrashers 2005 draft preview

By Holly Gunning

Thrashers Top 10 Prospects

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2. Braydon Coburn, D
3. Boris Valabik, D
4. Jim Slater, C
5. Grant Lewis, D
6. Jim Sharrow, D
7. Nathan Oystrick, D
8. Colin Stuart, LW
9. Ilja Nikulin, D
10. Brian Sipotz, D

The Atlanta Thrashers have generally had good luck in NHL draft lotteries, and this year was no different, being awarded the eighth overall pick in the wide-open contest. Though a decent player could be had in this position, trading the pick is an option, as always.

The eighth slot is an improvement over last year’s position of 10th, when defenseman Boris Valabik was selected out of the OHL Kitchener Rangers.

Team Needs

The Thrashers made a lot of moves in the summer of 2004 to improve the team, fully prepared to play in the fall if the CBA had been settled. They acquired offensive defenseman Niclas Havelid, along with veterans Jaroslav Modry, and Scott Mellanby. All three are still expected to take the ice with the team in 2005-06.

While the defense will be much improved with Havelid, Modry, and rookie Braydon Coburn added to the squad, there is no star on the blueline who can play 30 minutes a game. If the eighth pick is traded, an area of interest could be a top defenseman who could step in immediately.

Going into last year’s draft, GM Don Waddell listed the team’s needs as being on defense and at center. The team then took three defensemen with its first three picks in Raleigh: Boris Valabik, Grant Lewis and Scott Lehman. The need at center remains. If a center is selected with the eight pick or acquired via trade, the hope would be that the player would be capable of centering winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who has lacked a steady pivot.

Organizational Strengths

Goaltending is obviously an area of strength for the organization. Kari Lehtonen has played two years in the minors for the club and is ready to step into at least a split role alongside fellow Finn Pasi Nurminen. Michael Garnett will likely be the No. 1 goaltender for the Chicago Wolves in 2005-06.

Defensive depth is a strong area amongst prospects, and size is not lacking among them. Braydon Coburn, Boris Valabik and Brian Sipotz top the list of big bodies. The other area of strength is two-way forwards with grit, for example Jim Slater, Derek MacKenzie, Karl Stewart and Colin Stuart. Slater will be a rookie this fall and is likely to spend the season with the Chicago Wolves.

Organizational Weaknesses

Offensive depth remains a serious weakness for the organization. The strength of the big club is of course top line scoring talent, but there are almost no players coming along the pipeline who can score. Expect the team to add some offense to the system, probably with the first pick, but if not, certainly in the other rounds.

Offensive talent is always at a premium, so to acquire it, in the past teams sometimes have had to look beyond other deficiencies such as size. The Thrashers have used a specialty list, ‘small and skilled’ in previous drafts, but with the new rule changes in the NHL, these smaller players might not have to separated out as much, as they won’t be at such a great disadvantage.

Draft Tendencies

One clear preference of the team has always been for college players. Waddell has acknowledged his preference for players either in, or entering the NCAA, saying you could “put them in the bank” for several years before you have to make a decision on them.

The rules contained in the new CBA will only increase this tendency. Starting in 2005, European picks will have to be signed within two years of their selection, just like those from Canadian juniors. College players will be the only ones that will retain a lengthy deadline. Expect at least one of the available college players to be taken.

Character has always been very important to the Thrashers in drafting. Waddell believes high character players are self-motivated, thus more likely to excel. Interviewing players at the annual NHL Combine in Toronto is thus an important event on the team’s calendar.

Translating these tendencies to this year’s first round pick, it’s hard to imagine that any of the college players in this season’s crop are worthy of an eighth overall pick. If the Thrashers have their eye on a college player, they may be able to trade down for a later selection. The need for a center can certainly be satisfied at the eighth slot, the only question is which one. Ryan O’Marra, Marek Zagrapan, and Martin Hanzal will all likely be available.

The Thrashers value outstanding attributes in players they select, be it size, fighting ability, or offensive talent. O’Marra is well-rounded and considered a safe pick, but by all accounts has character in spades. Character is even more important than ever to the team, and if he’s taken by the Thrashers, this will have been the key.

The Thrashers currently hold just five picks in this seven-round snake draft, having traded their third and seventh rounders.

Player most likely to be taken with the team’s first pick (Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Ryan O’Marra, C, OHL Erie Otters.

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