ST. PAUL, MINN. - Recent history suggests the Atlanta Thrashers got better at the draft table as the franchise grew older.
The skeptics say they could only get better after the first pick in franchise history, Patrik Stefan, never really panned out the way most thought he would.
Had Stefan not been chosen first overall, the bust label wouldn’t have followed him around as he was certainly a serviceable NHLer (64 goals, 188 points in 455 games) before injuries caused him to retire early and move into the agent business.
But being the first player chosen carries an enormous burden for many and over the years, the argument has been made that the Thrashers never fully recovered from that famous pick.
It didn’t help that then Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke stole the show on draft day and orchestrated a huge deal that saw the Sedin Twins land in the left coast, with the second and third selections.
The Sedins wanted to play together and it’s not like the Thrashers had any tangible assets as an expansion franchise that would have allowed them to pick up a second first rounder to make the deal happen.
And let’s not forget that Stefan had been playing professionally in North America in the International Hockey League for parts of two seasons and was considered more NHL ready than either Sedin at the time.
But that’s the thing about the NHL Entry Draft — in most cases, time and a great deal of patience is required before we can put too much weight into how a pick is going to be remembered.
The Thrashers actually put a few bullets in that theory over the past three drafts, as successive first round selections Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov all made it to the NHL in their first rookie seasons.
However, while all three have great upside and have contributed to a certain extent, it’s really too early to really determine how big an impact they’ll have long-term.
As the franchise has officially been sold and will relocate to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season, we’re here to look at some of the hits and misses from the draft table.
The hits are easy to determine, though the tough news for the Thrashers is that most of these players spent — or are spending — their prime years with a different team.
That label holds true for first round picks Ilya Kovalchuk (first overall in 2001), Dany Heatley (second overall in 2000) and Braydon Coburn (eighth overall in 2003).
Kovalachuk was the face of the franchise and after the franchise couldn’t lock him up long-term, he was shipped to the New Jersey Devils, who did get a multiyear deal done, but not until after paying a stiff price trying to circumvent the salary cap.
Heatley’s days in Atlanta were numbered after he was involved in the tragic car accident that led to the death of teammate Dan Snyder and he’s since moved from the Ottawa Senators to the San Jose Sharks.
Coburn, meanwhile, was the youth sacrificed in the deal that brought veteran Alexei Zhitnik for a playoff push that resulted in a clean sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers in what was the Thrashers’ lone post-season experience in 12 seasons.
You could also make a case for goalie Kari Lehtonen (second overall in 2002) being a strong pick, but injuries prevented him from becoming a star with the Thrashers and he’s now the starter for the Dallas Stars.
Towering defenceman Boris Valabik (10th overall in 2005) hasn’t found a regular home in the NHL, while winger Alex Bourret (15th overall in 2005) spent last season in the ECHL and hasn’t had a sniff of the NHL.
Mistakes are going to happen when you’re dealing with young players, but when you’re a team like the Thrashers, those errors haunt you for a long time.
At the same time, being able to scoop up an All-star blue-liner like Tobias Enstrom in the eighth round and a starting goalie like Ondrej Pavelec in the second round are moves that must be applauded.
How will things turn out for Winnipeg as the franchise shifts north of the border?
Nobody knows for sure, but new general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff gave another glimpse of how important the draft will be this weekend and moving forward.
“We’re going to be big believers in the development side of things and the scouting side of things,” said Cheveldayoff. “One thing our ownership group is very adamant about is that drafting, developing and building from within is an investment, not an expense.”
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LW Ilya Kovalchuk
First overall in 2003
RW Dany Heatley
Second overall in 2000
D Braydon Coburn
Eighth overall in 2003
C Bryan Little
12th overall in 2006
Too early to tell: D Zach Bogosian, LW Evander Kane, C Alex Burmistrov
C Patrik Stefan
First overall in 1999
RW Alex Bourett
16th overall in 2005
G Kari Lehtonen
Second overall in 2002
D Boris Valabik
10th overall in 2004
Steals include: D Tobias Enstrom, 239th overall in 2003, G Ondrej Pavelec, 41st overall in 2005, LW Darcy Hordichuk, 180th overall in 2000