1999 Actual Expansion Draft Assessment

This will take a look at the actual expansion draft that the Atlanta Thrashers put together.  Since the exact order of players selected is unknown (and irrelevant), this is simply going in order by positions.

Goalies

Trevor Kidd from Carolina – This is a solid pick.  Atlanta suffered from having three of the 25 best players clustered onto Carolina and the chance to only take one of them; for me, it comes down to Kidd or Curtis Leschyshyn.

Drafting Kidd was astute, trading him as part of an extremely bad deal to Florida was not.  And it wasn’t at the time either.

Norm Maracle from Detroit – Another solid pick that simply happened to not pan out at all.  Maracle wasn’t quite on the level as Mike Dunham the year before, but he was regarded as a solid goalie prospect who was a surefire starter for the next decade.

Corey Schwab from Tampa Bay – I concede that Tampa Bay left little available off of a bad team, but there were better options.  David Wilkie or Jassen Cullimore could have been good pickups for the defensive corps, and Alexandre Daigle could have been a good pickup up front.  Schwab was a backup who was terrific in the AHL but hadn’t done much in the NHL to that point.

Defensemen

Petr Buzek from Dallas – Every year around the All-Star game, some wag or pundit decides it’s a good time to dredge up their own list of the worst All-Stars in NHL history, with Buzek being on the list.  Here’s why I think that’s garbage, and why this was a very good pick for Atlanta.

Buzek was a consensus top pick in the 1995 draft before being involved in a car crash a couple weeks prior that nearly killed him.  He was in a body cast when he was drafted in the third round, and he came to North America despite speaking no English and not being medically cleared to play.  He rehabbed and learned English, then made his NHL debut in the 1997-98 season.  He was stuck in a loaded Dallas Stars system and wasn’t likely to be developed into a top pairing guy there, but he had a ton of potential, an unparalleled work ethic, and the smarts to have a long career.  That it didn’t happen isn’t really the point.

Buzek was better than is remembered, but much like with Carolina, Dallas had multiple top available players (Manny Fernandez being the other) and Atlanta could only take one.

Brett Clark from Montreal – Montreal didn’t leave a ton of players available, and Clark was thought to be a stable defenseman with big upside in the right situation.  Personally I’d have gone for Sergei Zholtok instead, but I can see the logic in taking Clark instead.

Kevin Dean from New Jersey – Atlanta received Sergei Vyshedkevich as an incentive for taking Dean, which I assume was for passing on Vadim Sharifijanov.  Hindsight isn’t kind to any of this, but Sharifijanov was a damned good player at the time of this expansion draft.  Dean was a stable middle-pairing guy in the NHL, and Vyshedkevich a very good offensive prospect from the blue line.  I have no issue with Atlanta taking on a prospect with Vyshedkevich in exchange for passing on the superior Sharifijanov; they needed talent.

Maxim Galanov from Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh didn’t leave a lot, but Galanov was still not a great option out of several others.  Personally I’d have gone for Rob Brown due to the complete lack of scoring available almost anywhere else in the draft, but that’s just me.

David Harlock from New York (Islanders) – The Islanders also left little available anywhere, but Harlock still wasn’t likely to be much of anything.

Jamie Pushor from Anaheim – Supposedly there was a deal in place to draft Pushor and then trade him to another team for a second-round pick, which fell through.  Even so, Pushor was clearly the best Duck available to pick.

Darryl Shannon from Buffalo – This was a pick that didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time, and it still doesn’t 17 years later.  Shannon became a spare part on Buffalo’s SCF team, replaced by Rhett Warrener.  Worse is that taking Shannon meant passing on Geoff Sanderson, who would absolutely slot onto the Thrashers’ first line and have a chance to regain his 30-goal form immediately.  Considering that there was almost no offense elsewhere, but plenty of defensemen similar to Shannon, this wasn’t a good pick.  This also considers that Dean Sylvester was added in as an incentive.

Chris Tamer from New York (Rangers) – Mean and physical, and also the only player on the Rangers roster that really warranted consideration.

Mark Tinordi from Washington – This is just a bad pick no matter how one can look at it.  Tinordi had played barely 60% of possible games the previous three seasons, had a massive salary, and was a pending UFA.  By taking him, Atlanta took on someone who counted against the free agent limit, had a lengthy injury history, and stood little chance of either signing with the Thrashers or of signing for a large enough amount elsewhere to garner a worthwhile compensatory draft pick.  This is with Nolan Baumgartner on the board and available.

Yannick Tremblay from Toronto – This was an astute pick; Tremblay contributed quite a bit of offense from the back end.  I would have picked Derek King instead of Tremblay, which would have resulted in absolutely nothing since he was out of the NHL in short order.

Forwards

Kelly Buchberger from Edmonton – I had four Edmonton forwards on my own board to choose from, and Buchberger arguably provided the most defense and physical play out of any of them – important considering the time period and the conditions of the game.  What’s not arguable is that he was under contract and would not count against the free agent limit, allowing for more flexibility.

Sylvain Cloutier from Chicago – I’ll begin by saying that I’m sure that Cloutier is a nice guy, and I’ve never been able to find anything that indicates that he was a bad teammate or uncoachable or anything else negative.

That said, this is and was simply an absolutely atrocious selection.  In order to take him meant passing on Dave Manson, which was a bad idea under the best of circumstances.  This cascades into then reaching on other defensemen, and it’s not like Cloutier was an NHL player in the first place; he was a third-liner in the AHL.  This was just a bad selection in every way.

Phil Crowe from Ottawa – I believe that this was a side deal from the Damian Rhodes acquisition.  If I read it correctly, Ottawa sent Rhodes to Atlanta for future considerations in the form of dictating who the Thrashers would take in the expansion draft (Phil Crowe).  Crowe was then shopped by Atlanta before that selection was official, and would be sent to Nashville to complete another future considerations deal that brought Andrew Brunette into the fold.  If that’s the case, this was a terrific pick and a terrific deal in every way.

Peter Ferraro from Boston – Another conditional deal: Atlanta takes Ferraro and flips him right back to Boston for Randy Robitaille.  Robitaille would never play with Atlanta; he was traded to Nashville before the season for Denny Lambert.  All told, a weird deal.

Johan Garpenlov from Florida – Another bad pickup, as Garpenlov had gone from a versatile player who could get big minutes and production in all aspects of the game to washed-up in two seasons.  Florida didn’t leave a ton of good options to choose from, but almost anything would have been better.

Jody Hull from Philadelphia – The Flyers didn’t leave a lot available, and Hull was one of the best options to choose from.  No problems with this pick at all.

Matt Johnson from Los Angeles – I think this is a pick where the context is important.  This expansion draft took place in 1999.  A 26-year-old Eric Lindros was dominating the NHL not just through superlative skill, but through brute force as well.  He’d arrived on the scene in the 1992-93 season and was regarded as being the ultimate player on the forefront of a complete shift in the way hockey was being played.  For those who weren’t there or were too young to remember, the way that Lindros played was spoken of in the same hushed tones as had previously been reserved for players like Orr, Gretzky, and Lemieux.

This ushered in the age of the hyper power forward, and the young guys coming in could both beat your team and beat them up.  It wasn’t just Lindros, it was guys like Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Brendan Shanahan, and others.  What Lindros had over the others was the sheer size and strength, and the way that he used that to his advantage while generating offense.  The others may go into the corner after a loose puck, deliver a thundering hit, and emerge with the puck; Lindros could plow right through the best defensemen in the game while carrying the puck.

What this led to, of course, was a shift in the way that scouting and drafting took place.  If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times starting around 1994: “You can’t teach size”.  Big and physical players were suddenly shooting up to the top of the draft boards, despite the fact that quite a few had not quite demonstrated the ability to play at even an average level in juniors.  Smaller players were left in the dust, and bigger players were simply stuck into the lineup even if they stickhandled like they were holding an axe.

Matt Johnson was a 2nd-round pick in 1994, after Lindros’ second season of charging through opposing players.  In two full seasons in the OHL, he had produced 21 goals and 62 points, but he was around 6’5″ and over 220 pounds.  He wasn’t the first huge guy drafted that year, but he had arguably the most modest credentials to that point.

By the time we hit 1999, Johnson was 23 years old and had primarily been used as an enforcer by the Kings.  He was left unprotected, along with several players who would also be worth a look.  In my own mocks, I pass on Johnson repeatedly for two very simple reasons.  One is that I don’t see a reason to draft an enforcer, and the other is that I don’t believe that a player who to a certain point hasn’t been able to produce offensively in line with the league that he’s in is likely to start doing so.  Like I said, there were other huge guys taken ahead of him, but Jason Wiemer (more stocky than huge) scored 45 goals in his draft year, Brett Lindros had played with adult pros internationally, Wayne Primeau had over a point a game, Chris Dingman had 20 goals and nearly a point a game, Jason Botterill had 20+ goals and over a point a game in college as a freshman, Chris Wells had 30 goals and 74 points.  Johnson’s offensive output was more in line with Brad Brown, a physical shutdown defenseman who stood a mere 6’3″ and 210 pounds.

I believe, however, that the Johnson pick by Atlanta can be defended for the simple reason that someone would pay big for him.  A division rival of Philadelphia, looking to neutralize Lindros in his prime, would love to be able to hammer #88 into submission.  Philadelphia itself may be looking to create a physical juggernaut of a line with Johnson on a wing with Lindros up the middle and John LeClair on the other side.  And the idea of a 23-year-old who could theoretically still be molded into a hockey player in the shape of a poor man’s Lindros would undoubtedly be very enticing to half the teams in the league.  And they would pay handsomely to do so.

Of course, that’s not what happened.  But I will strongly defend the original pick even though I wouldn’t have done it myself.

Tomi Kallio from Colorado – The Avalanche left absolutely nothing on the draft board, even opting to protect two pending UFAs who they stood little chance of re-signing.  Kallio was a shrewd pick, as he would cost nothing until coming to North America, he had the same type of international resume as 1998 breakthroughs Milan Hejduk and Kimmo Timonen, and it prevented a bad reach for one of Colorado’s other unprotected players.

Steve Staios from Vancouver – Staios was drafted from Vancouver as a defenseman and then converted to wing.  I’m not familiar with the internal machinations of why the Thrashers did so; it’s very possible that his skill set was very well suited to playing up front in whatever system they felt like running.  However, he was also a much cheaper option than taking Murray Baron, so the pick makes sense there as well.

Mike Stapleton from Phoenix – The Coyotes didn’t leave much out there, and my own board from them consists of Stapleton and Mikhail Shtalenkov, who was worth maybe half as much as he had been a year prior.  The added bonus was that Atlanta also got goalie prospect Scott Langkow in addition to Stapleton, which makes this pick a win-win.

Ed Ward from Calgary – I remember very little about Ward, except for the time that he was in the NHL Skills Competition.  I think it was for the hardest shot, and it was around 1996, which was also around the same time that Jon Rohloff was in the same competition.  For those who don’t remember, the Skills Competition used to involve a lot of non-All-Star players as well; it made it fun to see guys like Stu Grimson right there with Wayne Gretzky.

Where was I?

Anyway, Ward was always one of those guys who was described as a popular teammate and a good locker room guy.  Calgary didn’t leave many good options (as my own pick of Marty Murray, who was playing overseas at the time, shows), and Atlanta also picked up Andreas Karlsson in exchange for passing on someone unknown and taking Ward.

Terry Yake from St. Louis – Undoubtedly you’re getting tired of hearing me say “so and so didn’t leave much”, yet it’s still true.  Yake was a scoring forward who produced when he got good ice time, not so much when he was buried in the bottom six.  Obviously he’d be a top-six guy on an expansion Thrashers team, thus making this a good pick.

Alexei Yegorov from San Jose – This is not to be unkind to the memory of Yegorov, who died at age 27 (in 2002).  But this selection is simply indefensible for several reasons.

If San Jose was one of the dozen other teams out there who had almost nothing to choose from, this might be a good pick; they weren’t one of these teams.  I have three Sharks on my board, including another European who’d played in North America and gone back overseas (just like Yegorov).  Bill Houlder was unprotected by the Sharks and represented a vastly superior option.  He had a player option for the next year, which he could have opted out of and become a UFA; even so, there was still at least one better option.

In looking at the overall body of unsigned European prospects, I drew a line that connected international play and caliber of player.  It seems like a really, really obvious consideration, yet somehow (like in this case) seems to have been overlooked.  This had to do with me analyzing whether we could figure out what separated Hejduk and Timonen from nearly every other unsigned Euroipean player who was available and did little or nothing in the NHL.  In this case, let’s just throw away every single player from San Jose except those two Europeans who had gone back overseas: Yegorov and Jan Caloun.

Caloun had two seasons below a point per game since 1990, one when he had 41 points in 42 games as a 17-year-old year in the Czechoslovakian League, and the other when he had 73 points in 76 games in the IHL in his first North American season (which he followed with 23 playoff points in 21 games).  He had 8 goals and 11 points in an 11-game stint with the Sharks, had gone back overseas, and dominated the Finnish League.  He played for the Czech Republic’s gold medal team in the 1998 Olympics, played in the 1999 World Championships, and also in a handful of the smaller international tournaments.  In 1998-99, he led the Finnish League in assists and points, was named first-team All-Star and best player, led the playoffs in scoring, and then capped it with a gold medla in the World Championships.

Yegorov was once the AHL Player of the Week.

OVERALL CONCLUSIONS

Atlanta was a horrendous first-year team, and did little over the coming years to actually build an NHL team that was anything close to respectable.  All of this comes back to the expansion draft.

However, on a pick-by-pick basis, they didn’t do badly.  What undid the Thrashers’ expansion draft was threefold.

First is that there wasn’t a ton of talent available in certain spots.  There are several teams whose best available player wouldn’t have made it onto the Predators’ 1998 draft board at all, but Atlanta still had to choose someone from these teams.  They also suffered from the bad luck of having multiple higher-end players clustered on the same team, with only one player able to be chosen.  If Atlanta had been able to take both Trevor Kidd and Curtis Leschyshyn from Carolina, it would have made a big difference right off the start.

Second is that although the pick-by-pick selections were generally solid, there were three colossal screw-ups that significantly hampered the team.  The first one was the absolutely baffling selection of Sylvain Cloutier from Chicago rather than Dave Manson.  Manson was without a doubt one of the three best defensemen available to choose from, and he was passed over in favor of an AHL third-liner.  The second one was taking Alexei Yegorov from San Jose over Bill Houlder (or possibly Jan Caloun); Houlder would be among the ten best defensemen available, and more realistically one of the five best, and he was passed over in favor of a European player who hadn’t done much to that point.  The third one was the incredibly bad machinations with Carolina and Florida, which saw Atlanta take Trevor Kidd, then flip him to Florida for three of their unprotected players and then also have to take on the salary and roster spot of a prematurely washed-up Johan Garpenlov.  The cost of Gord Murphy prevented them from taking Manson (possibly), and Kidd undoubtedly could have garnered substantially more on the open market.

Third is that I believe that the team wavered between an ironclad plan and none at all, resulting in a bizarre impulsiveness that jerked players in and out of the lineup and both into and out of the franchise completely.  It almost looks like certain things were hammered into stone tablets, and as soon as something went wrong or outside of the plan it led to just throwing ideas around and grabbing random ones.

I believe that the plan was to have Damian Rhodes and Norm Maracle as the two goalies on the roster, with Scott Langkow in the IHL until he was ready.  Both Rhodes and Maracle were injured early, meaning that suddenly it became necessary to sign Rick Tabaracci to a contract mid-season just to be able to dress two goalies for an early-season game.  For a team that had the chance to draft up to five goalies in the expansion draft and picked up both Rhodes and Langkow in trades, this was inexcusable.

Or we can look at the Rhodes/Crowe/Brunette situation.  Atlanta picked up Phil Crowe and (most likely) sent him to Nashville for Andrew Brunette.  Then it seems like someone sat up in August and said, “Hey, we need another physical guy who’s not necessarily an enforcer”, and someone else said, “By Jove, you’re right!  Let’s trade Randy Robitaille, who we haven’t even seen in training camp, and get someone like Denny Lambert.”  Players who the Thrashers couldn’t wait to pick up in the expansion draft were gone by November.  Free agents were picked up and then cast aside, and nothing ever seemed to build up to anything.  I’m also a Cleveland Browns fan so I’m very familiar with this particular drill and how rarely it produces positive results.

The biggest issue, of course, is that once an action is taken that’s pretty much it.  There’s no way to pass on Dave Manson in the expansion draft, then go back and take him anyway once you get into the season and realize that your defense is awful.  There’s no way to pass on Geoff Sanderson and then graft in 25 or 30 goals when you realize that the offense isn’t there.  Whiff on Maxim Galanov, big deal (trust me, when we get to 2000 you’ll see me defend the fact that neither Minnesota nor Columbus took Martin St. Louis).  Whiff on established top-line and top-pairing players, that’s not something to come back from.  Someone who had value like Jamie Pushor was sent packing in July for Jason Botterill, an attempt to add offense to the team two months before training camp began and a direct result of the inability to get someone like Sanderson into the fold.

Atlanta had their moments in this churning cycle of players in their first year.  But all told, it was simply a sign of things to come.

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