The Atlanta Thrashers have seven prospects playing in the NCAA, six forwards and one goaltender. All but two, Andrew Kozek and Michael Forney, were drafted in the fifth round or later of their respective entry drafts.
Alex Kangas, G, 20
5th round, 135th overall, 2006
Kangas is the only Thrashers collegiate prospect making noise on a national scale right now. He is 13th in GAA in the nation, second among freshmen, with 2.14 with the Univ. of Minnesota, and 12th in save percentage in the nation, third among freshmen, with .923.
Twenty years old when he started college hockey this fall, Kangas supplanted junior Jeff Frazee (NJ) as the team’s starter in January.
Was his start better than what the Thrashers expected?
"When he first got there, I think he found out the hard way that the conditioning level for college is a little big different than junior," Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr said recently. "So he didn’t have the best start that he could have had. But he got a chance to play and when he’s played, he’s played quite well.
"I don’t want to comment on the other goalies in the situation there," Marr said, "but he’s been given an opportunity to be the No. 1 guy and he’s kind of risen to that challenge."
Kangas has excelled individually, but his team has not. Normally one of the top teams in college hockey, Minnesota is just 12-13- 7, second to last in the WCHA. The Golden Gophers have just the 46th-ranked offense in the nation, scoring 2.38 goals per game. Goal support is not something Kangas can count on.
"Minnesota’s in — I don’t know if you want to call it a rebuilding year — but the wins don’t come easy," Marr said. "They have to work hard and he’s seeing lots of shots and he’s keeping them in a lot of games. Hopefully he’ll get to the point he can win them some games, but I know right now whenever he plays they have a chance to win."
John Albert, C, 19
6th round, 175th overall, 2007
Albert, a true freshman having just turned 19 in January, is off to a good start with Ohio State. His offensive numbers don’t look that impressive at first glance, but given how little the entire team scores, they begin to look much better. Albert has posted 18 points playing in all 34 games on a productive line with senior Tommy Goebel and freshman Sergei Somma. Albert leads the team in assists with 15 (five of them on the power play) and is third in scoring. He is second in shots with 95, but has had trouble converting with just a .032 shooting percentage.
He has posted a -7 rating on a pretty minus team, but a better indicator of his defensive acumen is that he sees some time on the penalty kill as a freshman. Albert has just eight penalty minutes and on faceoffs, he has posted a .525 win percentage.
"OSU is a team that is in transition," Marr said. "They knew this year would be a tough year but expect to be much stronger next season and are looking at John Albert to be one of the players leading the way. The coach [John Markell] has indicated to me that most nights, John is their best player centering the top line. He is getting excellent ice time, opportunity and experience. I’m quite pleased with his play and the fact he is being challenged to be a leader. His NHL speed continues to make a difference for him."
The first player the Thrashers selected out of the USNTDP, Albert will hope for better results for his Buckeyes next season. They are just 6-16- 2 on the year so far.
Jesse Martin, C, 19
7th round, 195th overall, 2006
Nearly a point-per-game player in the USHL last year, Martin has 10 points in 30 games (six goals, four assists) with the Denver Pioneers this season.
"Going into the season, [Denver coach] George Gwozdecky said he would be a regular player, so that was good to hear," Marr said. "It was good that Jesse went and played that year in the USHL because it got him away from home, on his own. He got a little stronger. This year he got even stronger. His skating isn’t where it needs to be to be a professional player yet, but you can see his skating’s a lot stronger. In his game it makes a big difference for him."
The skating issues Martin has are a need to move his feet more regularly, a wide stance, and a bit of a lumbering stride. He too often reaches for the puck instead of skating to it. These issues haven’t kept him from getting ice time on both special teams and a good spot in the rotation.
"He played the wing on the top line at the start of the year, then they had him centering the second line," Marr said. "We view him as a centerman. He’s been used in the last minute of periods, been used in some good situations, so that tells us that he coach trusts him."
Martin is still centering the team’s second line with Kyle Ostrow and Anthony Maiani. He’s good down low and in traffic, and is all of his listed 5’11.
"But he’s still not physically strong enough to compete against those older players," Marr added. "But the ice time that he’s getting, the experience that he’s getting and the environment he’s in, we’re really happy for him."
Rylan Kaip, C
9th round, 269th overall, 2003
Kaip, captain of the Univ. of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, is a heart and soul player on an elite team. He backchecks hard and skates well. He’s a mainstay on the penalty kill and even got into a rare knockdown fight against Minnesota State’s Trevor Bruess on Jan. 18. Kaip missed a game due to the disqualification from that fight.
Kaip is playing right wing on the Sioux’s third line, along with Matt Watkins (DAL) and Chris Vende Velde (EDM). He has 11 points in 28 games (six goals, five assists). His passing ability is better than his five assists would suggest, though his hands are probably not NHL-caliber. But a very good sign is that the play rarely ends with him.
Kaip is a very solid college hockey player, and indeed will probably make a good pro player, but turning 24 next month, his odds of making it to the NHL are slim. Playing in the Thrashers system on a minor-league contract is a reasonable outcome to expect though, either late this spring or next fall. The Thrashers hold his rights until Aug. 15.
Andrew Kozek, W, 21
2nd round, 53rd overall, 2005
Kozek is finally starting to put up some points for North Dakota, but it is taking playing with TJ Oshie, a first-round pick by St. Louis, and Ryan Duncan, the reigning Hobey Baker winner, to do it. Kozek scored a hat trick on Denver’s Peter Mannino last weekend, but Duncan was involved in all of the tallies.
Kozek has doubled his production in his junior year as a 21-year-old, posting 16 points in 28 games, with 13 goals but only three assists. A high goal to assist ratio usually means a player is not in the thick of the play, and poor vision or slow feet could be the culprit. In Kozek’s case, it may be a little of both. No one would argue that he has a good shot, but unless the rest of his game rounds out along with it, his potential in pro hockey is limited.
Rising from the third and fourth lines to the top line this year, Kozek is also playing on the second power-play unit.
Michael Forney, LW
3rd round, 80th overall, 2006
Forney was considered a highly-skilled prospect out of high school, and was heavily recruited by colleges. But that seems like a long time ago now. He has struggled with injury and becoming a regular, and has only played 19 games in the past year and a half for the Fighting Sioux.
Last season, Forney suffered a shoulder injury and first went with a conservative treatment of rest and rehab. He tried to return, but the injury was recurring. This past spring, he had a major operation (actually two) to fix the shoulder permanently. He was ready to play in the fall, though not quite at the start of the season. He’s now healthy, but still not playing.
"The coaches there still think he has to get stronger," Marr said. "I think he feels he’s getting stronger, but when you’re not there every day, you can’t say ‘well, the kid says he’s strong.’ So he hasn’t been able to work his way into their lineup yet and they still don’t think he’s physically strong enough or maybe mature enough physically to survive in their lineup. They’re afraid he’s going to go back in and get hurt. And it’s a competitive lineup to try and crack. For a guy to come in and who’s not on top of his game, it’s going to be hard for him. So it’s frustrating.
"We can’t be on the kid too much, he hasn’t been playing," Marr added. "And his immediate priority is not with the Thrashers. We’ve talked with his advisers at length, you know, no one’s happy that he’s not playing or in the lineup. But he needs to find a way to get into their lineup."
Matt Siddall, RW, 23
9th round, 270th overall, 2004
Siddall just beats out Kaip as the lowest-drafted Thrashers pick in the college ranks, and indeed in the entire system, having been taken 270th overall in 2004.
Marr said of Siddall, "In his senior year, he has recently picked up his play and production and is using his size asset more consistently. His skating has improved, but still isn’t where it needs to be, yet he compensates well when he’s working, keeping his feet moving and playing physically."
With 20 points in 29 games (9 goals, 11 assists), Siddall has improved every year at Northern Michigan, but it seems doubtful to be enough to earn him a contract by the Thrashers.