Last year’s AHL rookie of the year Brett Sterling made the Atlanta Thrashers roster out of training camp this year, but wasn’t able to immediately convert his game to the NHL. He improved in his time with the club, but after being scratched for four games, the 23-year-old was better off elsewhere.
Sterling, the Thrashers 5th choice (145th overall) in 2003, played 10 games with the team, posting a goal and two assists, before being reassigned to the Chicago Wolves on Nov. 5. With the Wolves, he has five goals and two assists in seven games, playing left wing on the top line with Jason Krog and Jordan LaVallee. He’s +1 on what is a very plus club (now 13-1-1-0).
Defensive play is one thing Sterling is charged with working on in the minors, which includes seeing some time on the penalty kill.
And how is he doing on the penalty kill? “He got scored on his first time out there,” Wolves coach John Anderson said with a sly smile. “Uh, it’s a learning process.”
Hockey’s Future spoke to the 5’7 winger after Chicago’s 4-0 victory over Houston on Saturday.
HF: In your time in Atlanta, were you encouraged that your size and speed weren’t the issue for you?
BS: Yeah, that’s a good thing. Obviously there’s always things to work on in your game and always areas to improve. That’s what I’m doing down here. It’s about timing as much – the team just wasn’t gelling when I was there, things didn’t work out, they couldn’t find the right chemistry. And they’ve found it right now, they’re doing great and I’m happy for them. Hopefully I can continue to work hard and produce here and they’ll bring me back up, but you never know.
HF: Your whole life people have been saying you’re too small or too slow…
BS: People are always gonna say things, they’re always gonna try and hold you back. You can’t worry about it. You laugh it off and you go out there and you prove them wrong. Yeah, I was happy that I felt like I could play at that level. I felt like I belonged there. I did what I wanted to – I made the team out of camp. Unfortunately I didn’t stay as long as I liked, but it’s early in my career and hopefully I can get back up this year.
HF: Was the Thrashers coaching change stressfully for you personally because you were so unsettled yourself?
BS: I think the whole start of the year was stressful for me. I didn’t get off on the right foot for myself. I wasn’t shooting right away, I wasn’t getting chances. And that’s tough for me, especially the game I play. With being in the NHL and having such talented guys [on the team], my power play time was limited – you’ve got some top NHL superstars there. I have to make little tweaks in my game. If I’m not going to be on the power play, I’ve got to be able to play in other situations. And that’s what I’m trying to do here. They want me working here on penalty kill and things like that so that if I’m not on the power play, I can penalty kill, I can play a third-line role if that’s what they need. The coaching change didn’t really affect me for the most part, I was still in the learning process.
HF: What percentage of your goals here are scored on the rush would you say?
BS: It’s hard to say. I probably scored about 30-40 of my goals in front of the net last year, and probably half of the ones that were left were on the rush, half everywhere else.
HF: Did you find the switch to right wing in Atlanta harder than you expected?
BS: Yeah I did. It wasn’t natural to me, playing on my backhand a lot. It was a little tougher than I thought and when you’re not used to it and you’re trying to make the jump to the NHL, it definitely hindered me a bit. I felt a lot more comfortable when I moved back to left. But that’s where the trouble came in because they have such talented left wingers in [Ilya] Kovalchuk and [Slava] Kozlov, those guys are great players.
HF: What did they tell you to work on when they sent you back?
BS: They basically just told me that they didn’t want me just sitting up there not playing games, they wanted me to come down here, play. And like I said, I can always get better defensively. Keep working offensively, and if I can get sound defensively in my own zone, then that’ll be a bigger plus. Hopefully I can work on penalty kill here.
HF: So where’s your stuff right now?
BS: Most of my stuff is in Atlanta, just sitting there, and I’ve got a little bit of stuff here. You know, that’s the toughest part, not knowing what’s going to happen from day to day, but the way I’m looking at it is I’m here until the end of the year, and if I get called up, great, if not, that’s the life of what happens. Hopefully I can go back but you live with it. That’s the stressful part of the job, but at the same time it’s a great life so I’m not complaining. I’ll just wear the same stuff, make sure I wash it.
HF: With that NHL paycheck you might be able to buy a new suit.
BS: (laughing) I can buy a few things, yeah. Definitely.
HF: Did you buy a suit?
BS: Actually I did buy a new suit, yeah, when I was up there. Hopefully I’ll be getting it soon, it’s probably going to Atlanta. It’s not gonna help me here, but that’s alright.
HF: You seem like you’re doing well emotionally.
BS: Yeah. I’ve had a lot of help. Talking to Darren [Haydar], I’ve had a lot of guys from Atlanta call me. Most of them didn’t know it was going to happen – no one kind of knew that I was going to be sent down – most of them called me in the next couple days and just told me to keep my head up and I’d be back up there. It happens to everybody. A lot of those guys have been through this. A guy like Darren, who I know real well, has been through it. He told me you can’t come down here and sulk and be upset because that’s not gonna give them any incentive to call me up. I’ve got to come here and do what I did last year – and be better than I was last year. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
HF: You were saying how you weren’t shooting. Why do you think that was?
BS: I think part of it was playing with Kovalchuk. I want to get it to him. I want him to have the puck. You look at the year he’s having right now… But at the same time, it’s not really conducive to my style because I need to have the puck and shoot. I’m not a guy who’s gonna go down the ice myself and do it, so I get it to Kovy and Kovy’s gonna take the shot and that’s fine, and I expect him to. I just wasn’t getting those rebounds and those chances. Everyone at that level, the sticks are better, rebounds aren’t coming out the same way. It makes it tougher to get those chances.
HF: Who do you think you gelled with the most when you were up?
BS: I think the best I played was with I played with [Bryan] Little and Haydar. I thought that line was really good. Unfortunately when we were doing well, the team wasn’t doing well and they had to switch things up.
HF: It’s fun to see them turn it around though I bet.
BS: Yeah, I’m glad they’re doing well. It was a really stressful time and no one was having fun. It was really nerve-racking. I’m glad they’ve turned it around. Hopefully I can go back up there and be part of it. But if not, it’s a pretty fun run we’re having here too.
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