Originally created 06/27/04

Thrashers stick to game plan, get defenseman in first round



DULUTH, Ga. -- Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell got the player he wanted in the NHL draft for the sixth straight year.

If this one works out like the others, the Thrashers might soon be the envy of the league.

Atlanta addressed a glaring need by taking defenseman Boris Valabik with the 10th overall selection in Saturday's draft. The 18-year-old played with Kitchener in the junior Ontario Hockey League last season, where he had 278 penalty minutes in 68 games.

At 6-foot-7 and 212 pounds, Valabik towers over most of his opponents, and he uses his size to clear out space in front of the net for his goaltender.

"He definitely brings a little toughness," Waddell said in a phone interview from the Thrashers' draft table in Raleigh, N.C. "He's a guy that we identified, if we could add a player of his stature to our franchise, we could be set on defense for years to come."

At the team's draft party at a sports bar in suburban Atlanta, the pick was met with raucous applause. And when a video clip of Valabik included him dominating a fight, the cheering got even louder.

"Yeah, he'll fight if he has to," Waddell quipped.

The Thrashers added two more defensemen in later rounds, taking Grant Lewis of Dartmouth College in the second round and junior player Scott Lehman in the third. Before the draft, they got veteran defenseman Niclas Havelid in a trade with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Anaheim received defenseman Kurtis Foster, who has one assist in five career games with Atlanta.

"Anytime you get a solid NHL defenseman like Havelid, a guy that has proven he is a great player, you have to be happy," said Thrashers right-wing Ben Simon, who attended the draft party. "It's a shame you have to give up a good guy and a good player like Kurtis Foster, but this is a business."

Simon knew very little about Valabik before the draft, but when Valabik stood on stage with Waddell and coach Bob Hartley, Simon got a good view of the size of the youngster.

"He looked like a giant up there," Simon said.

Waddell said Valabik probably will spend another year in juniors, then play one season in the AHL before he gets a shot with the Thrashers. When Valabik does arrive with the big club, he might be paired at the blue line with Braydon Coburn, the first-round draft pick from a year ago.

Coburn still hasn't signed with the Thrashers, but Waddell expects that to happen soon. In a couple of years, Atlanta could skate a lineup of Valabik, Coburn, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, with Kari Lehtonen in goal.

Heatley was selected second overall in 2000, and Kovalchuk was taken No. 1 the next season. Both already have established themselves as stars.

In 2002, the Thrashers took Lehtonen, and he went 4-0 in only four starts late last season. He heads into training camp as the likely starter.

And now Waddell added Valabik.

"We had him four or five overall on our list," Waddell said. "We were very surprised he was still there. We were really impressed with him when we met with him. He's a great kid who plays really hard."