Take everything that we learned in 1998 with Nashville and throw it out the window. It’s 1999, and time for Atlanta to enter the league. Unfortunately for the Thrashers and their fans, they suffered right off from what I can only describe as horrendous luck. The reasons are threefold.
First, the general lack of talent available in the 1999 expansion draft is shocking. Nashville had picked over a decent amount of it the year before, but Atlanta was faced with a significantly worse overall crop regardless. My Nashville draft board had 92 players on it, with two teams having only a single player who was quite clearly the best available; the number could have been 98 or 100 otherwise. My Atlanta draft board has 81, and at least 30 of them wouldn’t have made the Nashville draft board at all. The dropoff is staggering. For Nashville, I said that there was enough talent to completely avoid unsigned European players; Atlanta doesn’t have that luxury since there’s so little established NHL talent, or even longshot NHL talent.
Second, a decent amount of the talent clusters onto the same team and completely avoids others. I have five players on the board from Tampa Bay, all of whom are better options than any player in Pittsburgh, Phoenix, or Philadelphia. Carolina has three players on my board, all of whom would quite obviously slot into the top 25 overall. And plenty of the recognizable names out on the various unprotected lists were about to retire, further cutting into the talent available since guys who may otherwise be available were now protected by their current team.
Third, Don Waddell was the GM. It’s tough to explain with any amount of brevity, but Waddell has a strong case for being the greatest GM in IHL history. He was extremely creative, extremely aggressive, and extremely successful. But NHL players are different than IHL ones; a different scouting touch is required. An IHL player can get by on talent, an NHL player must have some amount of smarts to be able to succeed. And in terms of the big picture, an IHL team (particularly independent ones like Waddell put together) needs to focus on winning now; it’s less about development and more about winning. An IHL star can be bulldozed into signing a one-year contract instead of a two-year deal because his other option is to go play overseas; an NHL star can simply leave as a free agent or demand a trade. History has not been kind to Waddell, some of which ties back into the expansion draft here. I would argue that some of the criticism is unfounded, as he wasn’t necessarily dealt a good hand to begin with; that’s an argument for another time.
The trades themselves around the expansion draft were a bit odd as well, and so this runthrough will see actual trades rejected on the basis of not making enough sense to seriously consider. In real life, of course, a team wanting to protect someone specific or get rid of someone specific would undoubtedly come back with a better deal; we have no way of seeing what that would be, so trades are a simply yes or no.
Now, let’s take a look at the actual draft board. The first thing that stands out is the lack of big names, in stark contrast to Nashville’s 1998 draft. Whereas Nashville could have selected several big names as pending UFAs that would have become compensatory draft picks, Atlanta had no such hope. Nashville had their choice of six pending UFAs who would return 2nd-round compensatory picks: Curtis Joseph, Brett Hull, Doug Gilmour, Mike Richter, Uwe Krupp, and Steve Duchesne.
Atlanta had none to choose from; the only UFAs who would return such a pick in 1999 (Theo Fleury and Valeri Kamensky) were both protected by Colorado. Joe Juneau returned the highest draft pick among pending UFAs, which was a 3rd-rounder. Free agency as a whole was extremely weak in 1999, meaning that teams who had high hopes to bolster their lineup through free agency that year were going to have very little to choose from. And more to the point, it also meant that Atlanta could not approach the expansion draft with a strategy of accumulating high picks by picking pending UFAs.
The Colorado situation crystallizes this whole issue. They had both of the year’s top pending UFA forwards in Fleury and Kamensky, and protected them both. This would have been a laughably bad strategy in 1998, but made sense in 1999. They had little else to protect, and losing a pick that would likely be at least a 3rd-rounder (Kamensky) to shield other assets wasn’t wise. They simply sat there and waited for Atlanta to pick from their motley collection of AHLers, press box residents, and unsigned European prospects; none of them was worth losing a pick over, and none was worth making a side deal for. Ottawa would protect Lance Pitlick and Pittsburgh would protect Ron Francis for the same reasons. Ottawa protected Pitlick and left their unprotected defensemen as John Gruden, Chris Luongo, and Patrick Traverse. An unsigned Pitlick and whatever mid-round compensatory pick he would get was more valuable than those three players were. Francis was protected, leaving the two best options at forward as longtime minor leaguer Rob Brown and Tyler Wright, who’d just gone 61 regular season and 13 playoff games without registering a single point.
What this meant was that the specific strategy of taking a pending UFA to get a compensatory draft pick out of the deal was not an option for Atlanta for two reasons. First is that the soft free agent market combined with teams’ recent financial conservatism on the payrolls meant that getting a high draft pick as compensation was extremely unlikely. Second is that it would mean leaving actual NHL talent on the board that could be much better served to go onto the Thrashers’ ice and try to prevent the new team from looking like a navy and red version of the 1992-93 Senators and Sharks.
On the other hand, there were two new wrinkles that Nashville’s expansion season had just shown. The first was that unsigned European players could compete at a high level in their first NHL season, and the second was that it was entirely possible for a player who’d been shoehorned into a position of fourth-line fighter to actually be able to play really well when given a chance.
First, the unsigned Europeans. Nashville acquired one (Kimmo Timonen) as part of a side trade with the Kings that saw the Predators pass on Garry Galley. And they had the chance to draft Milan Hejduk from Colorado, but passed. Timonen was a veteran of three WJCs, two World Championships, the 1996 World Cup, and the 1998 Olympics but had not played in North America before Nashville acquired him. He would begin the season in the IHL with Milwaukee, but play 50 games for Nashville and show a lot of promise. Hejduk had been in two WJCs, a World Championships, and the 1998 Olympics before coming to North America; he scored 48 points in 1998-99, then added 12 points in 16 playoff games. He too showed a ton of promise going forward.
I wrote previously that unsigned European players simply weren’t worth the risk. Too few actually came over, too few stayed if they ended up in the minors, and too many simply weren’t that good. But the quick adaptation and success of Timonen and Hejduk after just a single season in North America should force Atlanta to reconsider this exclusion. There’s no question that Timonen and Hejduk were both among the upper-echelon options; no one puts together an international resume like that without being a damned good player. Someone with similar pedigree could certainly be worth a look.
The second big shift was because of Scott Walker, who’d been a rough-and-tumble defenseman for his entire career until being called up to Vancouver in 1995-96. He went onto the fourth line on the wing and continued his bashing ways. Until 1998 when Nashville claimed him, his biggest claim to fame was an incident where he pummeled Phoenix defenseman Michel Petit while blood streamed down Walker’s face. Walker had his arms pinned against his sides in a scrum behind the Phoenix net, and Petit took advantage of the situation to deliver multiple sucker punches to the unsuspecting Walker. After breaking free, an enraged Walker grabbed Petit and proceeded to beat the living hell out of the larger defenseman.
Until he was 25, that’s all Walker was known for in pro hockey. But after being drafted by Nashville and being placed into their top six, he put up 15 goals and 40 points despite missing time with a separated shoulder. In just under 200 games with Vancouver, Walker had 10 goals to his name and was thought to be nothing more than a fourth-line winger. Turns out he could play a little bit, which adds another class of available players for Atlanta to seriously look at.
As for the overall talent on this draft board, there’s little scoring and a lot of depth defensemen. There are two defensemen who could be considered first pairing caliber (Mark Tinordi and Dave Manson), one forward who’s signed for any period of time who has serious scoring ability (Geoff Sanderson), and a lot of project prospects or guys who were once on the level of those three players and haven’t been for years.
In short, Atlanta could not do what Nashville did in terms of drafting style because it simply made no sense to do so. Everything changed that much in just one year, some of it because of the Predators and some of it in spite of them.
The mission for the 1999 expansion draft is very simple. Accumulate whatever NHL talent there may be, don’t get rid of it unless it’s for actual long-term solutions in the form of top prospects or established high-level players, and hope that the various project players develop and the older guys discover the fountain of youth. Otherwise, it’s going to be a long first five years of this team.