Atlanta Thrashers 2000 Draft Preview

By Greg Andrade
After an abysmal inaugural season in the NHL and a mediocre draft last year, the Atlanta Thrashers will look to build more organizational depth and acquire desperately needed talent at the 2000 NHL Entry Draft this weekend. The decisions made by general manager Don Waddell and the Atlanta scouting staff on Saturday and Sunday will be critical to the future health of the franchise. With very little talent on the current NHL roster and very few legitimate prospects on the way, the Thrashers must use every pick wisely.

It all starts with the second overall selection this weekend. Atlanta has many options available and its selection will likely depend on what happens with the first overall pick. The New York Islanders currently own that pick, but may trade it or swap picks with another team. If that happens, it can impact what the Thrashers plan to do.

Atlanta is perhaps most interested in Dany Heatley, the top rated North American player in the draft. Many scouts believe he is ready to step into the NHL immediately and the Thrashers could definitely use his dynamic offensive ability. The only potential problem is that Atlanta already has two excellent left wing prospects in Tomi Kallio and Zdenek Blatny. Still, there have been consistent rumors around Atlanta that Heatley is the team’s first choice. But nothing is certain at this point and Heatley might not be available if he is taken with the first pick.

That leaves several other possibilities, including Slovakian left wing Marian Gaborik, who is ranked fourth among Europeans in this year’s draft, but is widely considered to be the top prospect coming out of Europe. He is a proven offensive threat and spent last season with Trencin of the Slovakian elite league, where he was an impact player among much older veterans. Another possible choice is Pavel Vorobiev, a Russian right wing who shot up the draft ratings late in the season and is now at the top of the CSB’s list of European prospects. Positionally he would make sense, because the Thrashers are very thin at right wing in the organization. Along with Vorobiev there is fellow countryman Mikhail Yakubov, a center that several NHL teams might be looking to take among the first few picks of the draft.

The only other reasonable options would be Russian left wing Alexei Smirnov and Czech Republic center Vaclav Nedorost. Smirnov has great size at 6-3 and 211 pounds, but there are many questions about his work ethic and attitude. Nedorost was rated as the top European in the CSB mid-season rankings, but dropped to sixth in the final report. He has a year of experience in the Czech Republic Extraliga and is developing into an excellent two-way player. The disadvantage in taking a player from among the Europeans is that none of them would be ready to step into the NHL right away. They would need to play a year of junior hockey in North America to adjust to the smaller rinks and different style of play.

Perhaps the only other choice would be goaltender Rick DiPietro, who has been the most talked-about player in this draft. He just completed his freshman season at Boston University and is the top rated goaltender in the CSB rankings. He has excellent skills and reflexes, an almost arrogant level of self-confidence and his puck handling ability has been compared to that of Martin Brodeur. If he were taken with the second pick, DiPietro would be the highest drafted goaltender in NHL history. But NHL teams are so excited about him that even the New York Islanders are considering him at the first overall pick, while several GM’s have been trying to make trades to move up and acquire him.

The Thrashers could take advantage of the DiPietro craze and put their second overall pick on the block, in the hope of finding a team that will trade them a later pick in the first round, along with young talent or prospects. Most people around the NHL are expecting a flurry of trade negotiations leading up to the draft, so Atlanta will undoubtedly have opportunities to make a trade. They could also take DiPietro for themselves and have a potential franchise goaltender. But some scouts feel that DiPietro is further away from the NHL than many people believe and that he will need time to mature and refine his game before he is ready for the big-time.

Beyond the first round, Atlanta will focus simply on taking the best players available and filling out their organizational depth chart. The Thrashers need talent and depth at every position, although right wing and goaltender are the thinnest positions in the organization. Even though Rob Zepp has developed into a solid prospect in goal, Atlanta will probably target at least two goaltenders in this draft. They will also look to land a good right wing prospect, if not in the first round then in the second. And ultimately they will look for legitimate defensemen with good size and the potential to be top five blueliners in the NHL.

If Atlanta can acquire the depth and talent it needs to round out the organization and possibly find a few gems in the late rounds, the Thrashers could speed up the building process and get closer to contention. But all the pressure will be on Waddell and his staff over the weekend, because a bad draft could cripple the franchise for several years to come.