ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Thrashers have a list of nine players they might select with their first-round pick of the NHL draft.
Too bad they have the 10th selection.
"It's kind of a joke, but we truly went through it and we come up with nine guys that we really like," general manager Don Waddell said. "I truly believe we will get one of those nine guys, because I don't think our list will be the same as everybody's list in the league."
Waddell has every reason to be confident heading into Saturday's draft in Raleigh, N.C. In the Thrashers' first five seasons, he landed franchise cornerstones Dany Heatley (2000), Ilya Kovalchuk (2001) and Kari Lehtonen (2002) in consecutive years.
Patrik Stefan, the top overall pick in '99, is still around, too, though he has underachieved a bit and never risen above the third or fourth line.
And Atlanta has been successful elsewhere in the draft, too. Goaltender Pasi Nurminen, the starter for most of the past two seasons, was taken in the sixth round, and defenseman Garnet Exelby, an eighth-round pick in 1999, led all NHL rookies last season with an average of 28.4 shifts a game.
"We always focus on the first pick, but we have nine picks," Waddell said. "The first few picks there are decisions to make, but as you get deeper in the draft that's where your scouts earn their money because if you can find a couple of players later in the draft who end up playing for you, those are home runs."
Finding them is particularly hard.
"There are no secrets in hockey," said Dan Marr, the Thrashers director of amateur scouting and playing development. "Everybody is scouted and viewed by every team, so you try to have a philosophy as an organization that gives you some context for how you view the players.
"Of course, you have to project a little bit with these players because of their age."
Like past seasons, the Thrashers need help on defense. They improved there in 2003-04 and allowed a franchise-low 243 goals, which was 41 less than the previous best. The solid play of Nurminen helped, as did the emergence of Exelby and Andy Sutton.
Still, Waddell would like more improvement.
"We'd like to have a top-four defenseman and a center in the more immediate future or some place down the road," he said. "Right now, our emphasis is in those areas and with all things being equal, we would tend to be more defensive-minded."
Included in those nine players Waddell likes are three defensemen, two goalies and four forwards.
"If we had our choice it's pretty obvious we'd take a defenseman," Waddell said. "But there are two goalies that I put in the top four or five picks. If one of them is sitting there at No. 10, it would be foolish not to look at that position. "
The Thrashers appear set in goal with Nurminen and Lehtonen, who finished 4-0 with a 1.25 goals-against average in his only four starts at the end of the season. With Heatley and Kovalchuk back for their third seasons, along with other top scorers Shawn McEachern, Slava Kozlov and Marc Savard, Atlanta likely is one or two players away from reaching the playoffs for the first time in 2004-05 - assuming the NHL settles its labor issues with the players' union and has a season.
Any of those probably won't come from the draft.
"Right now, if we stay where we are at the 10th pick, we feel we're not going to get a player who's going to play for us next year anyway," Waddell said.
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