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The draft that went COLD

Five years ago, the Atlanta Thrashers got rash -- and it still hurts

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Glancing over an NHL team's list of draft picks is a bit like perusing the contents of a time capsule -- allowing a glimpse of previous eras and regimes, if you will -- and offering a chance to relive moments that spawned franchise glory and also epic failure.

 

Officially, this little Saturday Special exercise began about a month ago while yours truly was scanning some of the publications and websites dedicated to next week's draft in Pittsburgh.

Reading up on some of the prospects, we came across a draft expert who declared every draft class needs five years to be honestly and properly evaluated.

Building on that, we cracked open the Winnipeg Jets' media guide and turned to pages 214-215, where the Atlanta Thrashers/Jets annual draft record is documented. Dragging an index finger along each spring's collection of talent, it was easy to almost skip over the Thrashers' 2007 draft haul, seeing it was limited to just four names and, for the only time in franchise history, included no first- or second-round picks.

So what happened five years ago? Why did a franchise that had religiously adhered to the build-through-the-draft blueprint that had previously yielded building blocks such as Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, Kari Lehtonen, Jim Slater, Ondrej Pavelec and Brian Little so violently veer off course?

To fully understand the why, the how and what the bleep happened in '07, we need to rewind to the trade deadline that winter...

-- -- --

The Thrashers entered the 2006-07 season with the highest expectations in franchise history, having just missed the playoffs by two points the previous year. And 2006-07 started off promisingly enough, as Atlanta was 29-18-8 by the end of January. But a 2-7-2 nosedive just before the trade deadline in February had left Don Waddell, the only GM in the franchise's days in Atlanta, itching to make a move to stop the bleeding and keep the playoff dream alive.

First, Waddell shipped promising young defenceman Braydon Coburn, the team's first-round pick in '03, to the Philadelphia Flyers for Alexei Zhitnik in hopes the veteran Russian D-man could bolster a floundering power play.

Coburn, it's worth noting, has since morphed into a 6-foot-5, 220-pound 20-minutes-a-night regular for the Flyers. Zhitnik played 83 games for the Thrashers and then spent two years in the KHL before retiring.

But it was the second deal before the deadline that has left a permanent scar on the franchise. Pushing all his chips to the middle of the table, Waddell sent Glen Metropolit, along with first- and third-round picks in 2007, a second-round pick in 2008 and a conditional first-round pick in 2008 should Keith Tkachuk re-sign in Atlanta (he didn't, and the selection reverted to the Thrashers) to the St. Louis Blues for Tkachuk, an almost 35-year-old with an iffy playoff history.

It was a dramatic weekend for the Thrashers. Waddell summed it up: "The future for us is now."

There were some immediate short-term gains. Tkachuk and Zhitnik joined a squad that already featured Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov, and the Thrashers went on an 11-5-1 run to capture the Southeast Division crown and enter the post-season as the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

It was in the playoffs, unofficially, when this whole thing exploded in Waddell's face and left a crater so deep the organization is still trying to crawl out of it.

The Thrashers were swept in four straight by the New York Rangers. Tkachuk had a goal and two assists in the four games and Zhitnik went pointless.

The club really felt the sting in June at the draft in Columbus. With no picks in the first or second round (the second-rounder was traded to Anaheim for Vitaly Vishnevski, who played all of 52 games for the Thrashers before being sent to Nashville for Eric Belanger), Waddell & Co. watched as the 29 other teams got busy around them.

With their four picks, Waddell and his staff, to their credit, did find some talent that at least remains on the radar screen.

They swapped an extra third-round pick acquired in a previous deal to Pittsburgh for Chris Thorburn. The big right-winger was not only part of the popular GST checking line with Tanner Glass and Jim Slater last season, but also wears an assistant captain's A and is one of the team leaders.

With the 67th overall pick (also landed in another deal), the team grabbed Vancouver Giants forward Spencer Machacek, a 23-year-old winger who will likely push for work on the third or fourth line this fall.

Atlanta's fourth-round pick, 115th overall, was Finnish centre Niclas Lucenius. Now with Riga Dynamo in the KHL, Lucenius has never played one shift in North America.

The Thrashers' fifth-round selection was forward John Albert, who just finished a solid first season with the St. John's IceCaps after four years at Ohio State University. Albert is now an unrestricted free agent, but a player the Jets will attempt to re-sign.

And finally, in the seventh round, 205th overall and the seventh-last pick in the draft, the Thrashers chose Paul Postma, an AHL all-star, the IceCaps MVP and one of the Jets' top prospects.

So what does reliving all this five years later do, other than open old wounds? More than anything, it hammers home the belief of the current Jets management crew, led by Kevin Cheveldayoff, that a team must build through the draft.

Bold, risky moves, unless they result in a Stanley Cup championship, often leave scorched earth behind. In the Thrashers' case, Tkachuk's stay was not only brief -- 22 games, including the playoffs -- but trading for him cost the organization potential future building blocks.

Potential, of course, is the key word here and key to any draft, especially one that involves selecting still-developing teenagers. It's an inexact science, to be sure, and hindsight always provides the opportunity to reassess.

Wrote ESPN.com hockey writer Scott Burnside on the day of the Tkachuk trade in 2007: "...Waddell stepped up and made a move that will, in all likelihood, be seen as a turning point in the franchise, one way or the other."

Prophetic words. And connect the dots however you wish, but consider this: The Thrashers/Jets franchise hasn't made the playoffs since.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

THE 2007 FIRST ROUND REVISITED

Pick Player  Drafted by  Pos  NHL GP  G  A  Pts

1 Chicago  Patrick Kane  RW399126243369

2 PhiladelphiaJames Van RiemsdykLW196475299

3 PhoenixKyle TurrisC186314475

4 Los AngelesThomas HickeyD0000

5 WashingtonKarl AlznerD21543539

6 EdmontonSam GagnerC/W36677143220

7 ColumbusJakub VoracekRW31957126183

8 BostonZach HamillC20044

9 San JoseLogan CoutureC1846862130

10 FloridaKeaton EllerbyD11621517

11 CarolinaBrandon SutterC/W2865354107

12 MontrealRyan McDonaghD12283341

13 St. LouisLars EllerC163252247

14 ColoradoKevin ShattenkirkD153186886

15 EdmontonAlex PlanteD10022

16 MinnesotaColton GilliesC12751116

17 NY RangersAlexei CherepanovRW(Deceased)

18 St. LouisIan ColeD522810

19 AnaheimLogan MacMillanC0000

20 PittsburghAngelo EspositoC0000

21 EdmontonRiley NashC5011

22 MontrealMax PaciorettyLW2025361114

23 NashvilleJonathon BlumD566915

24 CalgaryMikael BacklundC138153146

25 VancouverPatrick WhiteC0000

26 St. LouisDavid PerronC2927499173

27 DetroitBrendan SmithD14167

28 San JoseNick PetreckiD0000

29 OttawaJim O'BrienC34336

30 PhoenixNick RossD0000

Notable from the first round:

  • Cherepanov died in 2008 at the age of 19 after collapsing on the bench in a KHL game.
  • Of the 30 picks in the first round, six (Hickey, MacMillan, Esposito, White, Petrecki and Ross) have yet to play in an NHL game.
  • So much for patience: Ten of the 30 picks in the first round have already been traded by the team that originally drafted them -- Turris, Voracek, McDonagh, Eller, Shattenkirk, Gillies, MacMillan, Esposito, Nash and White.

Other notable picks from the 2007 draft:

  • PK Subban, Montreal, 43rd overall
  • T.J. Galiardi, Colorado, 55th overall
  • Wayne Simmonds, Los Angeles (now with Philadelphia), 67th overall
  • Yannick Weber, Montreal, 73rd overall
  • Linus Omark, Edmonton, 97th overall
  • Matt Halischuk, New Jersey, 117th overall

 

-- Ed Tait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 C4

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