Tobias Enstrom and Bryan Little headlined a solid year of rookies for the Atlanta Thrashers. The 2007-08 team saw eight rookies take the ice for a total of 210 games. This was six times as many rookie games played than in 2006-07 under coach Bob Hartley, when rookies played just 32 games.
At the end of the 2006-07 season, the Thrashers knew they needed to get younger, and they did so, though only by half a year on average. The 2007-08 edition of the Thrashers averaged 29.3 years old, down from 29.7 in 2006-07.
Opportunities came at the beginning and end of the season for rookies. Enstrom, Little, Brett Sterling, and Mark Popovic made the team out of camp, with Ondrej Pavelec rejoining the team in short order, and Colin Stuart, Boris Valabik and Jordan LaVallee getting chances later on. Typically, rookies play more games on losing teams than winning ones, more as a result than a cause, and this pattern held.
The experience these players were able to get this year should bode well for them latching on more permanently in the future.
Toby Enstrom, D
8th round, 239th overall, 2003
At the end of the season wrap-up, GM and head coach Don Waddell was asked to name the highs and lows of the entire season.
"The high has to be Toby Enstrom," he said. "Here’s a guy who came in as an unknown eighth-round draft pick and what he’d done for this franchise this year was tremendous. His first year in the NHL, 22, the composure he showed on the ice, the hockey sense he has. He had a tremendous first year and I think it’s only going to get better."
Rated No. 6 on Hockey’s Future’s Top 20 Thrashers prospects coming into the season, Enstrom was thought to have a chance to make the roster. He made it and then proceeded to pace the team. Enstrom was 22 years old when the season began, turning 23 in November, but had already played five entire seasons at the elite level in Sweden. This experience was critical.
Only 5’10, but extremely durable, Enstrom bounces off of hits and gets right back up. He stayed healthy and did not tire too greatly from the longer NHL season, playing all 82 games.
A superior stickhandler and skater, Enstrom had 38 points and averaged 24:28 per game, both tops among NHL rookies. His 38 points also tied the single-season franchise record for points by a defenseman and included a franchise-best 33 assists. Enstrom was just 27 seconds short of tying the franchise single-game record for time on ice, when he skated 33:39 on March 7 against Minnesota.
Wearing the number of one of his mentors, former Thrasher Per Svartvadet (#39), Enstrom spent virtually the entire season on the top pairing with fellow Swede Nic Havelid. It took only a couple weeks for them to be united and the two were able to take advantage of their common language to communicate without the offense being the wiser.
Missing YoungStars practice with fellow Swede Niclas Backstrom during the All-Star festivities served only to humanize a young player who didn’t have many close peers on the team. He’s actually not perfect, just like the rest of us. But it was a nearly perfect year for Enstrom, a lack of both individual hardware and playoff berth notwithstanding.
Bryan Little, C
1st round, 12th overall, 2006
Coach Hartley said during training camp that Little needed to be a more cocky – he wasn’t going to grab a spot on the roster by deferring to veterans. "He’s too polite," Hartley said.
The 19-year-old OHL graduate showed such a well-developed sense of the game that he stuck out of camp. The move surprised even him.
"I didn’t expect to be here this many games," Little said at the end of the season.
But he was and he started with a bang, scoring the team’s first goal of the season. For a while, Little, Sterling and Darren Haydar had a good line going.
On Dec. 12, the 5’11 190-pounder was assigned to the AHL Chicago Wolves.
"When I was sent down, Don (Waddell) said he knew my confidence was struggling. I’d get more ice time in Chicago, get to handle the puck more."
That’s Little’s explanation, but it’s hard not to notice that the timing of the move coincided with the addition of another top-six forward to the team, Mark Recchi, who was picked up off waivers on Dec. 8. As a rookie, Little’s contract is two-way, so he was the only forward who could easily be sent down. When another top-six forward came off the roster (Marian Hossa), Little was brought back up and played the rest of the year.
Regardless, the trip to the minors was beneficial, to hear him tell it.
"I just realized when I got back here that it’s just a lot better being in the NHL," he said. "Everything from the way you’re treated to flying on planes, it’s better hockey and just being down in the minors that long made me want to play here."
He said he got frustrated sometimes while up with the Thrashers, and the time away gave him better perspective. In all, he scored six goals and 10 assists in 48 games and was just -2 on a very minus team. Like all rookies, his numbers should only increase over time.
Toward end the year, he was on a line with Recchi and Slava Kozlov, two very experienced veterans, who he called "smart players." Recchi gave plenty of advice on the bench after shifts, and the rookie was appreciative.
"He’s never negative or mad at me, he’ll just come off the ice and give me little tips," Little said. "Like ‘next time try this, or go to the net there.’ Those little things help. He gives good advice. I look up to a guy like that. When I was younger I was watching him play."
Their relationship stuck to the professional though, with Recchi keeping his advice limited to hockey. No fatherly advice coming from this direction.
"He’s probably old enough to be my dad," Little joked. "Don’t tell him I said that."
After completing the circle by scoring the team’s final goal of the season, the still-polite Little was reassigned to the Wolves for the playoffs.
"When I was down there, I realized how much more I’d rather be here, so it was kind of like a wakeup call," he said. "But it’s kind of fun playing down there because it’s a younger team, younger guys my age so I don’t mind it."
After the AHL playoffs, Little will return to his home Cambridge, Ont. where he’ll train. He was happy with the way he came to camp physically this year, but for next year he said he wants to "Work on conditioning, get a little stronger in my upper body because in this league there’s guys who are really big and strong. I want to get quicker but I also want to get stronger too."
More importantly, though there’s little danger of losing his roster spot, Little doesn’t want to leave any question that he belongs next year.
"I need to come in with an attitude. Next year, come with confidence and keep my confidence."
1st round, 10th overall, 2004
Valabik got seven games in with the Thrashers at the end of the year, just enough to give him a good idea what he needs to do to be ready for next year, and for the Thrashers to assess his future.
Waddell said at the end of the year "In the last few games, he’s proven he can play."
Valabik averaged 16:41 per game, on the bottom pairing with either Mark Popovic or Joel Kwiatkowski, and saw some penalty kill time.
He assessed his own performance near the end of the season this way.
"I don’t feel bad out there. I obviously think I can do better, but I was really nervous from the beginning so considering that, I feel really good," he said. "Just being in the NHL is a great accomplishment, but you don’t want to stop working. Nothing’s for sure for next year. I’m just trying to prove what I can do out there."
The 6’7 Slovakian scored no points, but had 42 penalty minutes in just seven games. He has a reputation as a bit of a loose cannon, and didn’t do anything to dispel that. In one particular game, he came in to protect Eric Boulton, garnering a game misconduct.
"I saw someone taking a charge on one of our players," he explained. "I didn’t really like that. I reacted the way I reacted."
Regarding enforcement duties in general, he said "I don’t feel like I need to do it, but I have always been like that. I got in trouble for it back home all the time because I was stepping up for my teammates."
Wolves coach John Anderson says Valabik needs to play on the edge to be effective, but it’s not clear if NHL coaches will be so tolerant of killing off penalties and being down a defenseman.
As far as training for the next camp goes, Valabik will be spending a good bit of it on the ice, doing some intensive skill work.
"I always say this but I really mean it, I need to work on everything if I want to be a good defenseman," he said. "I don’t want to just play in the NHL, I want to be a successful defensive defenseman, help my team, be on the ice the last five minutes of a game and on big penalty kills. To do that, I need to work on everything — skating, puckmoving, stickhandling — everything."
Valabik has some mobility and puck hurdles to jump, but his hard-working nature is in his favor.
"He’s a player who really cares," Waddell said.
2nd round, 41st overall, 2005
Pavelec isn’t one to analyze his game. Ask him why he’s playing well, and he just doesn’t have an answer for it. He’ll chalk it up essentially to luck.
That’s fine, because his numbers do plenty of talking for him.
Recalled to Atlanta on Oct. 19 when starter Kari Lehtonen suffered a groin injury, the Czech faced a tough schedule of teams. He posted a .905 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in seven games with the Thrashers, playing well when the team needed a positive lift.
The 6’2 reflex goalie had weight problems in the past in the QMJHL, but he maintained a steady weight all this year, starting for the Wolves. He’s battled some inconsistency, but ended the season largely on a positive note.
But despite this early success, Pavelec is unlikely to move up to Atlanta on a permanent basis next season. At just 21 years old, it’s better to let him mature before putting too much pressure on him. And with Lehtonen finally coming into his own, there’s no need to rush Pavelec.
Two young goalies as a tandem is not a normal model for an NHL team. Regarding Lehtonen, Waddell said, "Who his partner is is critical. I don’t think Kari is the kind of guy who you want to sit there and challenge all the time. I think you need someone who is supportive of him and also that Kari knows can come in there and play and be effective when he needs to take a night off. I think that’s where he is now [with Johan Hedberg]."
All of this means maintaining the status quo in goal next year, assuming the contracts can be consummated.
"We have a great young goalie in Pavelec, but you want to be careful," Waddell added. "One year in the American League, I think he’s got a great future in front of him, but whether it has to happen immediately or down the road, I’m OK with."
Brett Sterling, LW
5th round, 145th overall, 2003
As expected, Sterling made the Thrashers roster out of camp. He started the season at right wing on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Todd White.
But 2007’s AHL rookie of the year wasn’t able to immediately convert his game to the NHL. The 5’7 sniper improved over his time with the club, but after playing 10 and being scratched for four games, the 23-year-old was sent down on Nov. 5.
"I was happy that I felt like I could play at that level," he said in November, back in Chicago. "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."
Sterling makes a living at the right post at the AHL level. But he wasn’t afforded so much time and space in the NHL, not to mention precious power-play time. Sterling took 14 shots for just a 7.1 shooting percentage.
"I didn’t get off on the right foot for myself," he said. "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."
Normally wingers are fairly equally adept on both sides, but switching to right wing over his natural left proved more difficult for the right-handed shot than even he expected.
"It wasn’t natural to me, playing on my backhand a lot," he said. "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 Kovalchuk and Kozlov; those guys are great players."
Sterling made two short return trips to the Thrashers roster in January and February, both times to fill in for Kovalchuk. Once was for a suspension, and the other an injury. In all, he played 13 games, posting a goal and an assist. The rest of the year, he continued to rack up the goals in the AHL.
A team player with a positive attitude, Sterling will likely be given another chance to prove what he can do. Where he can and will fit in is a key question, however. A summer of working from the right side could only help him. In the end, he must produce.
Colin Stuart, LW
5th round, 135th overall, 2001
Stuart and Kevin Doell were called up in late December/early January, during a time when the veterans on the team needed to be shown the value of hard work. These two players provided good energy as injury replacements.
Stuart will best be remembered for scoring a highlight-reel game-winning goal on Jan 6. His speed is and has always been world-class, and his defensive play is good. But his hands remain his weak point. He had five points in 18 games, achieving beyond projections to a slightly higher scoring rate than he had in the AHL this year.
Stuart could see more time next season on a checking line, but turning 26 in July, isn’t likely to make dramatic improvements – what you see is what you get. It may or may not be enough to secure a spot.
The Wolves must be planning for at least the possibility of him coming back next season by sitting him down the stretch a few times to keep him at just 260 pro games played — the limit for what is defined as a veteran in the AHL. This maneuvering will allow them to dress him freely next year.
Jordan LaVallee, LW
4th round, 113th overall, 2005
LaVallee was called up late in the year for what is popularly referred to as a "look-see." It’s the type of call-up you usually only see on a team that has missed the playoffs – the type of call-up that wasn’t seen in 2006-07.
With good size at 6’2, 205 lbs, the 21-year-old played on the fourth line with Todd White and Eric Boulton. In his second game, LaVallee scored his first NHL goal on a backhander just throwing the puck on net. In total he had two points in two games.
Listed as LaVallee-Smotherman on NHL official scoresheet, he prompted a lot of questions. It is his legal name, but not his preferred playing name.
As he told Hockey’s Future in 2005, "My full name is Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman. LaVallee is my mother’s maiden name. That was given to me as a middle name, and ever since I started playing hockey, my parents thought it was a better hockey name, so that’s just stuck."
"Stuck" is what he’s aiming for, namely for himself on the team. LaVallee will be given a chance to grab a spot next season, but his opportunities depend a lot on what the roster looks like heading into camp.
Defenseman Mark Popovic played well in limited minutes (33 games), especially compared to some of the veterans around him. But the 25-year-old will likely be squeezed out by additions to the top of the depth chart. Center Kevin Doell also made his NHL debut, but as he was over 26, he does not count as a rookie by NHL standards.
Rookie outlook for 2008-09
Having played 48 games this year, Bryan Little won’t be considered a rookie next season, but it will be his first full year in the NHL. Little can play on a scoring or a checking line, thanks to his exemplary defense, but belongs on a scoring line due to his skill. There’s no question that he’s a lock for the roster.
But beyond Little there are no locks. The strongest candidates have only about a 50 percent chance of making it. Here’s a run-down, going from most to least likely.
Sterling — On a team even more in need of secondary scoring without Hossa, it seems almost required to give Sterling another shot. But with left wingers Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov both still under contract for two more years, it’s not certain where Sterling would fit in. The results of his versatility exercises remain to be tested.
Valabik — If Valabik has a good summer of skating and skill work and comes into camp with confidence, he could steal a job in the top six. The onus is on him. He’ll be given a fair shot, but won’t be handed a spot. But he is up against numbers, as many of the veteran defensemen are still under contract, and if free agents are brought in, there is even less room on the blue line.
LaVallee — The pieces on the bottom two lines of an NHL team are more interchangeable, and that bodes well for LaVallee, who could be turned to simply because he’s a new face after a tough year. He could take Brad Larsen’s spot for example. LaVallee acquitted himself well in his tryout in Atlanta, though it was only two games.
Stuart – With 18 games played, it’s fairly clear what Stuart can and cannot bring. His contract is still a two-way next year, so there’s no added incentive to give him a spot over another player. Stuart fits best on a third line.
Pavelec — If either Lehtonen or Hedberg cannot be re-signed, Pavelec would likely take their spot. He has the skill to play in the NHL right now, it’s just a matter of maturing and being consistent.
Riley Holzapfel — It would be a big jump to make it out of the WHL after an injury-shortened year, but Holzapfel is the most likely candidate to do it, given his age and pedigree. He has the advantage of being a skilled centerman, however, an area of need for the team.
Andrei Zubarev — While everyone would love to repeat the Toby Enstrom experience, Zubarev will be a year and a half younger than Enstrom was if he comes to North America this fall. He also did not receive as much playing time with his Russian team to prepare him. Zubarev is much more likely to spend the year in Chicago.
Angelo Esposito — Not only is it highly unlikely Esposito would make the team this fall, it’s unlikely he would the year after either. Another year of junior and then a stint in the minor leagues is in the cards for the skilled but raw 19-year-old.