Thrashers CHL prospect season review

By Holly Gunning

The Thrashers began the year with just four CHL prospects, but gained one at the trade deadline in Angelo Esposito.

Four of the five were signed to amateur tryouts (ATOs) with AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves following their seasons, but only Arturs Kulda remains with the team, playing regular minutes on the blue line.  The rest were released from their ATOs this week.

Arturs Kulda, D

7th round, 200th overall, 2006

While Kulda had a very good year with OHL Peterborough Petes, it’s what he’s done since leaving the OHL that is remarkable.  With the Wolves, he cracked a notoriously tough line-up as a 19-year-old defenseman.  Injuries and call-ups gave him that opening, but he impressed and hung on, proving that if you’re good enough, you get playing time. 

Kulda is a strong two-way defender, using his 6’2, 194-pound body and starting the offense out of the zone.  Not surprisingly, he’s very happy with his situation.

"Yeah I really like [it] here," he said.  "I’m enjoying [being] with this team and enjoy every shift on the ice."

Kulda knew many of the players and even some of the coaching staff from playing with them for two years at the Traverse City tournament, and from prospect development camp in Atlanta.

The Latvian played five regular-season games with the Wolves, posting one assist.  Asked in clarification if it was his outlet pass that got him the assist, "I don’t know what this mean, ‘outlet,’ but maybe, yes," he laughed.  With the term explained, he agreed that yes, it was an outlet.

He might not know the translation for all the hockey terminology, but he can play the game.

"We’re very, very happy with him," Wolves coach John Anderson said after the final regular-season game. "A complete pleasant surprise.  He’s making a good first pass.  I’m very happy with Kulda and how he turned out, and would not be afraid to play him in the playoffs at all."

Anderson made good on that statement, playing Kulda in five of the team’s seven playoff games so far.

The injured Grant Lewis was in game-watching mode for a while, so he was able to comment on how fellow defenseman Kulda looked.

"He’s a solid d-man, takes the body, fights sometimes," Lewis said. "I’m assuming he’ll be here next year — I’m looking forward to getting to play with him.  Great kid also."

Kulda’s personality is beginning to come out more now that his English is better. This year he attended Sanford Fleming College in Peterborough and took marketing courses there.

"I had a slow start because of surgery on my knee in September," he said of his year in Peterborough.  "At first I wasn’t really happy with myself, but after World Juniors I started playing a bit better, started to get more points."

In all, he had 34 points in 55 games, tripling his output from the year before. In the OHL playoffs, he had four points in five games.

In Chicago, Kulda is staying in the lineup over the now-healed Lewis, as well as veteran Karel Pilar, Scott Lehman and Chad Denny.

With no contract yet with the Thrashers, and coming to the table as a seventh-round pick, Kulda has every incentive to try to prove himself right now.  "I need to play well," he said as the first thing out of his mouth. "I need to show my best every game, every shift."  The Thrashers now have less than a month to work out a contract with Kulda, who must be signed by June 1 or he goes back into the draft.   

Meanwhile, he’s learning valuable lessons. The coaching staff and team "showed me how better to play, what decisions to make," he said.  "It’s a great atmosphere on this team."  Kulda is happy with his minutes, and who wouldn’t be, since with his strong shot he’s even seeing a bit of time on the power play. 

"So far 0 goals, but I’ll leave them for playoffs."

He did exactly that, scoring his first professional goal on Apr. 12 against Rockford.

"I am very impressed with him," Wolves skating and skills coach Kenny McCudden said. "He does simple things that are the right things.  He does not panic, just gets the puck out.  He skates the puck well, makes the one pass and that’s all that’s asked for a player.  Can he jump into the play?  Yes.  Has he taken the body?  Yes.  I’ve seen him knocked off the puck and still win the battle.  Actually I think he’s a bit of a diamond in the rough right now.  And I hope he continues because he’s gonna have a future."

Kulda must be a diamond only figuratively, because he still bleeds. A few weeks ago, he had a cut on the side of his nose.  "The AHL is tougher than the OHL, but nobody got a penalty for this," he joked.

In junior, if that stickwork was called, he’d have to get patched up quick because he usually played the entire two minutes on the power play, as well as penalty kills. He played alongside Zach Bogosian, a highly-rated prospect for the 2008 entry draft.

"He was by D partner for most of the season," Kulda said. "He’s a very skilled guy.  I think he will be a high pick."  Asked if Atlanta should select Bogosian with its third overall pick, Kulda said, "I don’t know, I’m not a scout or a manager.  But I can see he’s a good, intelligent, talented player.  I talked to him a few days ago, he’s excited.  Maybe he’ll come to Atlanta."

There’s another highly-rated defenseman in the OHL, Drew Doughty.  Kulda pointed out regarding Doughty that he won the best defenseman award at the WJC, but he wouldn’t discredit his teammate Bogosian in favor of Doughty.  "Both are very good," he said diplomatically. 

This summer, Kulda will train in both Riga, Latvia, his home, and in Toronto with his agent.  He also said he plans to spend lots of time at the beach back home.  In fact, he mentioned that part first.  Somewhere in that span he will also turn just 20 years old.

Riley Holzapfel, C

2nd round, 43rd overall, 2006

Holzapfel played only 49 of 72 games this year, finishing with just 41 points for the WHL Moose Jaw Warriors.  But don’t let the numbers fool you, he was considered to be one of the most skilled players in the league this year.  He was also part of the goal-medal winning Canadian national junior team.

"I got off to a bad start, got a concussion and missed a couple weeks with that," Holzapfel said.  "Then with being gone for the World Junior Tournament, I missed a lot of time.  Then coming back I got suspended for one game and it all added up and I missed quite a bit of hockey this year."

He had the headaches and dizzy spells that come with concussions, but he does not have a history of them.

"That was my first one so they were pretty cautious about it," he said. "It was a pretty bad hit."

Holzapfel’s 41 points were only half of what he scored in a full 2006-07 season. He did finish strongly with eight points in six games in the playoffs.

After getting knocked out by the Calgary Hitmen, Holzapfel came to Chicago and got into one game with the Wolves.

"It went pretty well I thought," he said.  "I was a little nervous at the start.  After I got my first shift under my belt, I felt pretty good out there.  They said they were happy with the game that I played and didn’t have any complaints with me, so that’s a good thing.  I understand that they’ve been together all year and working hard to get to the playoffs with all the forwards that they do have.  It’s fine by me.  If I do get another chance, I’ll just make the best of it."

His play received good comments went all around.  "I only saw bits and pieces, but he looks good — incredible hands, sees the ice well," fellow rookie Lewis said. "He’s obviously  not the biggest guy, but his skill and speed should help him out at this level."

"I’ve always liked him in the two prospect camps I’ve had him," McCudden said. "He’s quick, handles the puck well, great release.  I was able to work with him in a small group [when he arrived].  The coaching staff asked me what he was like.  They were worried ‘does he have that jump, is he handling the puck, is he releasing the puck’ and my answer was all of the above.  He passed with flying colors.  In the one game he played for us, I’m more impressed that he’s a terrific backchecker.  When the puck went the other way, he was able to strip pucks, he was able to pick up somebody and all of a sudden there was a turnover going the other way for us.  He sees the ice well, but more importantly, when he gets the puck on his stick, this kid can score."

No doubt that he was also learning by watching.  He was able to take morning skates and warmups with the team, many of whom he knew from Thrasher camps. 

Holzapfel has his summer pretty booked up.  "In June I gotta go to Calgary for our ring ceremony for World Juniors," he said.  "That’ll be pretty exciting, I’m looking forward to that.  Then going to Atlanta for their camp in July, and then back in August for camp again."

In between all of that, he’ll train back home in Regina, Saskatchewan at a gym called Level 10 with his trainer Dan Farthing.  A few other pro players also train there, like Mike Sillinger. 

One thing he doesn’t need to worry about is a contract with the Thrashers, as that’s been long settled.  Next season, Holzapfel is likely to be full-time with the Wolves, but he is also the one on this list with the greatest chance of surprising and making the Thrashers roster.

Spencer Machacek, W

3rd round, 67th overall, 2007

Machacek had a terrific year for the Vancouver Giants, scoring 78 points in 70 games as captain.  He came in 14th in league scoring and outscored Holzapfel this year, although long term that’s probably not how things will play out.  Holzapfel’s game is more pure skill, while Machacek’s is more crash the net.  Crashing the net is how the winger has been so successful on the scoresheet.

Holzapfel said of Machacek, "We played Vancouver twice this year and I only played him once.  Spencer’s a great player who is a hard-working guy, always gives his best every night.  That’s what you can expect from him."

A very willing hitter, Machacek played left wing on the top line with Mario Bliznak (VAN) and Michal Repik (FLA) most of the year, but in the playoffs was swtiched to a line with Lance Bouma and James Wright.  In past years, Machacek had played right wing rather than left, so it was a change for him.

Once the Giants were knocked out of the playoffs, and Machacek could end his feeble attempt at growing a playoff beard, he joined the Wolves.  Chicago had already finished the regular season by the time he arrived, so he did not play but just to get a feel for the place as a preparation for next year.

Machacek is already signed to an entry-level deal with the Thrashers, and although he was a 2007 pick, thanks to his October birthday he does not have to return to junior and should be Chicago-bound this fall.

Angelo Esposito, C

via trade with Pittsburgh

Esposito was a 2007 first-round pick by Pittsburgh, acquired at the trade deadline in the multi-player deal for Marian Hossa.  Esposito’s production for the QMJHL Quebec Remparts jumped immediately following the trade.  While it’s positive to know he can score virtually at will in junior, it’s concerning that he wasn’t doing it before.  The Montreal native has often been criticized for a poor work ethic to go along with his high skill level.

At an age when most players’ production takes off, Esposito’s has fallen each of the last two years.  He went from 1.72 points per game in 2005-06 to 1.32 in 2006-07, to 1.23 last year.  His 69 points this year placed him only tied for 29th in league scoring.

Esposito’s Remparts were knocked out of the playoffs in just enough time for him to get in one regular-season game with the Wolves.  Anderson was happy with his play in that game.

"You can see he’s got some savvy, a good shot, and he’s pretty smart with the puck. His first game, he was a little nervous, but I thought he played very well for us. I’m happy we had a chance to use him.  He’s a quick learner. He hadn’t seen our team play or our systems at all. Nelly (asst coach Todd Nelson) spent a good 45 minutes before the game explaining a few things we like to do. He was very receptive, a quick thinker."

Strong on faceoffs but with a raw game, the natural center is 6’0, 190 pounds and still needs to fill out for pro hockey. He also still needs to sign an NHL contract, making a lengthy stay with the Wolves risky for him.  By virtue of being a first-round pick, he is guaranteed first-round money.  But an injury before the contract is signed would put that in jeopardy.

Esposito, who doesn’t turn 20 until next February, still has junior eligibility remaining, so next season he will have to return to the QMJHL if he does not make the Thrashers.  That seems like a near certainty, given how far away he is at this point. 

Paul Postma, D

7th round, 205th overall, 2007

Like Kulda, Postma is a seventh-round pick made good.  The smooth-skating defenseman had a breakout year, helped by the fact that he was traded from Swift Current to the Calgary Hitmen at the beginning of the year.  He also put some much-needed weight on his 6’3 frame. 

Holzapfel said of Postma, "We saw them in the playoffs, that’s who ended our season.  He’s a great d-man who has some offensive skill to him and can definitely score."

Indeed he can score, outdoing teammate Karl Alzner (WAS), who is widely regarded as the best defenseman in the WHL, during both the regular season and postseason.  With 42 points in 66 games, Postma finished 15th in defensemen scoring in the league during the regular season.

"This year the trade that happened with him, going from Swift Current to Calgary, really helped him out a lot," Holzapfel said.  "It was the best for him I think."

In the first round of the playoffs, "I thought his play really excelled and he managed to do pretty good," Holzapfel added.  Postma finished with 10 points in 16 playoff games — six of them goals.  Holzapfel said he thought Postma was seeing more ice time with Calgary, in particular on the power play, than with Swift Current. 

Postma had the longest postseason of any Thrashers CHL prospect until knocked out by the Lethbridge Hurricanes.  He will return to the Hitmen next season where he should get even more ice time.