Officially, this exercise began about a month ago while yours truly was scanning some of the publications and websites dedicated to this weekend’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 team already featuring Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov, and the Thrashers went on an 11-5-1 run to take the Southeast Division crown and enter the post-season as 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. 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 Jets 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.
Machacek was taken in third round
With the 67th overall pick (also landed in another deal), the team grabbed Vancouver Giants forward Spencer Machacek, a 23-year-old winger who was the St. John’s IceCaps’ leading scorer this past season and will likely push for work on the Jets’ third or fourth line this fall. He’s a restricted free agent.
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. Like Machacek, he’s a restricted free agent who the Jets will almost certainly retain.
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.