When the Thrashers selected Patrik Stefan with their first pick in their first draft in 1999, general manager Don Waddell said: “This is a very big day for our franchise. We’ve made it no secret how we feel about Patrik and what kind of player he is.”
Three years later, when Waddell made Kari Lehtonen the first goalie the franchise drafted with a No. 1 pick, the Thrashers’ GM said: “Our scouts say that he is the best amateur goalie coming out for the draft in the last 10 years. He can make the difference for our team for a lot of years to come.”
Stefan was a bust and is now out of hockey. Lehtonen’s career has been a roller coaster and he is now in Dallas. No deep analysis necessary here.
When Lehtonen was traded Tuesday night to the Dallas Stars, it punctuated the franchise’s largely inglorious draft history, primarily with their early selections. We know that the lifeblood of any team — particularly an expansion club — is the draft. Maybe that’s why we’re constantly checking for a pulse in Philips Arena. This deal comes five days after the team’s best choice, Ilya Kovalchuk, was traded to New Jersey over money. It comes five years after another top pick, Dany Heatley, was traded in the aftermath of a tragic car crash.
Lehtonen has never reached the heights of Kovalchuk or Heatley. He hasn’t played this season and is coming off back surgery. His immense talent has been smothered too often by injury or immaturity. He was never a favorite of former coach Bob Hartley and was benched during the Thrashers’ lone playoff series.
How desperate was Waddell to dump him? He just traded a former first-round pick for a minor-league defenseman and a fourth-rounder. Given what he got back in the deal, what was the rush? It would be just his luck if Lehtonen ultimately turns into the goalie he envisioned.
The Thrashers’ drafts — compounded by poor player development — have been at the forefront of Atlanta’s problems. Consider: The Thrashers have drafted 12 players in the first round since 1999. Of those, one is out hockey, one is out of the NHL, four are elsewhere in the NHL, one is at Michigan State and only five are on the current roster: defenseman Zach Bogosian (the absolute star of the group); forwards Bryan Little, Evander Kane and Jim Slater, and defenseman Boris Valabik (on injured reserve).
Counting only the first two players drafted by the team every season — generally very early selections — Waddell has drafted 12 players in the first round since 1999, six in the second and two each in the third or fourth. Of the 12 first-round picks, six were among the first four selections. Four of those six are gone: Stefan, Heatley, Kovalchuk, Lehtonen. Only Bogosian and Kane remain.
Here’s the year-by-year breakdown of the team’s first two picks every year since 1999. Players on the current roster are underlined.
First (1): C Patrik Stefan: The first overall pick was one of the biggest flops in NHL draft history. He scored only 64 goals in seven seasons and retired two years ago.
Second: D Luke Sellars: Played exactly one NHL game with the Thrashers. A minor-league lifer.
First (2): RW Dany Heatley: He asked out of Atlanta, was traded to Ottawa and eventually forced a trade from the Senators to San Jose. He’s still a talented played but has been plagued by emotional issues.
Second: D Ilya Nikulin: He has never signed with the team. Still playing in Russia.
First (1): LW Ilya Kovalchuk: Traded in his eighth season to New Jersey before becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Third: G Michael Garnett: A bust. Mostly played in the minors. Had 24 games with the Thrashers in 2005-06 when the team had injury issues. Now in Russia.
First (2): G Kari Lehtonen: Talented but was held back by maturity issues and injuries. He’s trying to return from back surgery.
First (30): C Jim Slater: Has played most of the last five seasons in Atlanta, but primarily is a third- or fourth-line forward and hasn’t lived up to the expectations of a first-round pick.
First (8): D Braydon Coburn: Developed into a solid defenseman but was traded to Philadelphia in 2007 in an ill-fated deal for Alexei Zhitnik, who helped get the team to the playoffs that year but ultimately was bought out by the team.
Fourth: D Jim Sharrow: In the minors. Traded to Vancouver in 2007.
First (10): D Boris Valabik: He has developed slowly. He made the roster this season but is out for the year with a knee injury.
Second: D Grant Lewis: In the minors.
First (16): RW Alex Bourret: He’s arguably as big a bust as Stefan. He has never played an NHL game, was traded twice, released by Phoenix and is now in the Czech Republic.
Second: G Ondrej Pavelec: The Thrashers’ current starting goalie. He has struggled with consistency but that’s not uncommon for a 22-year-0ld goalie.
First (12): C Bryan Little: He had a breakout season last year with 31 goals. But his production has dropped off to nine goals this year.
Second: C Riley Holzapfel: In the minors.
Third: RW Spencer Machacek: In the minors.
Fourth: C Niclas Lucenius: In Finland.
First (3): D Zach Bogosian: On the team. Should be a staple in the lineup for several seasons.
First (29): C Daultan Leveille: Playing at Michigan State.
First (4): LW Evander Kane: On the team. He has 12 goals in 50 games and looks like he will be a solid player for several years.
Second: LW Carl Klingberg: Playing in Sweden.