Thrashers 2008 Prospects Camp review

By Holly Gunning

Thrashers 2008 Prospect Development Camp was held July 8-13 at the team’s practice facility in Duluth, Ga. Players battled soft ice in the 90-degree heat and humidity — heat that resulted in thunderstorms most afternoons. 

While the on-ice portion was mostly drills, there were also a few scrimmages. Director of Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr told them before the first scrimmage that this is supposed to be a fun game, he wants to see skill and passing, and not to worry about the rough stuff and try to hurt each other.  They mostly abided by those wishes.

New head coach John Anderson led the drills, but it’s far from his first time doing so at the camp.  During his tenure, former head coach Bob Hartley did not take part in prospects camp, so Anderson has been leading the on-ice portion for several years. But now in his new role, Anderson is completely owning the job.

College players are very regulated in the interaction they can have with pro teams in order to keep their NCAA eligibility. Anderson said it’s permissible for him be on the ice with them because, "I’m not being paid right now (in addition to regular salary). LA does it, Washington does it (with their camps). It’s not like I’m coaching games. It’s just ice time if you want to be on there. None of the coaches are paid — we’re here of our own volition. They want us to be here to have faces to put to names, but there’s no money being paid to any of us."

There’s just one holdover from the Hartley era – calling the timed skating exercise “mountains,” rather than Herbies or something else.  When done as a punishment rather than conditioning, it’s usually called a bag skate. The prospects did rather well on this exercise, with times near 45 seconds, which is the goal.  Third-year pro Chad Painchaud had the best time, with newly-drafted Zach Bogosian also a standout.

Anderson noted how different the pro players look than the amateurs. "They’re a little smoother, a little quicker, and they’re not as nervous," he said. "And they know a lot of the drills — that helps immensely. The other guys, they don’t know the shortcuts in the drills and stuff like that. I’m glad (the pros are here) because I can put them at the front of the drills so the drills don’t get screwed up."

“They’re good drills,” WHL first-timer Paul Postma said.  “Some are a little complicated.”

Anderson tried teaching some systems to the prospects as time went on.  He loves to talk nuts and bolts, and was more than willing to talk about the “Neutral Zone Five-Puck Drill.”

“The one we were teaching is called left-side lock," he said.  "I’ll take a puck, throw it, and they go to neutral zone spot we want them to go to.  Then I’ll blow the whistle and I’ll throw one the other way.  Now it reverses.  I want to make sure they know where they’re supposed to go for positioning.  It’s more of a realistic drill too because when the puck gets dumped out, you’re not always coming out together.  You might have one or two, but you have to know where to go in order to help the guys who are coming up later.  It went pretty good – it was a little dicey at the start but they got it.”

It was dicey to the point that Anderson got a little upset with the execution and yelled at them.  He explained what they were doing wrong.

“When we do this, the D steps up through the middle.  It’s really hard for the D to do this if this guy is standing behind them, but it’s OK because the left side is locked on.  He has to trust that guy – this is part of team building – that when that guy is standing there, he’s going to stay and he has to come way up underneath it.  For D, they don’t like to do that.  They don’t like to be coming forward when the puck is coming forward.  That’s why I said ‘get up, get up, get up.’”

Skating and Skills Coach Kenny McCudden concentrated more on skills than skating this year.  The drills he did were deceptive – things that look easy but are the fundamentals of good play. 

Some of the most revealing drills were the 1-on-1’s near the net. “You see a lot of combativeness,” in those drills, McCudden said.

McCudden echoed Anderson in saying that those who have played pro or who are entering pro “stand out automatically because they’re stronger, they’re bigger.” 

“They all need a lot of work," McCudden said.  "But most are going back to college, junior, and hopefully these skills will be taught as time goes on.”

McCudden has helped with four or five prospect camps, he’s lost count.  But in that time, he’s been impressed with the character among the organization’s prospects.  “One thing Atlanta does really really well – and it’s a credit to them – I find the core of kids awesome every year.  No one’s bigger than the next guy.  Everyone’s straight-laced, they want to be here, and to me the scouts are picking those types of players and that character.”

Standouts

Standing out offensively: Angelo Esposito, John Albert and Vinny Saponari, and in flashes, Jonas Enlund. Among among defensemen: Postma and Zach Redmond.

Standing out defensively: Bogosian and Will O’Neill.  Among forwards: Spencer Machacek.

For target practice, there was newly-drafted Chris Carrozzi, along with invitees Wylie Rogers, Dan Rosen, and Ryan Daniels.

Below is a look at a cross-section of players who attended. 

John Albert, F

Drafted in 2007, this was Albert’s first time at camp.  In between, he had a good freshman year at Ohio State.  He was more prepared than most freshmen for what would await him, having come from the USA program where they play some games against college teams.  With the young team that OSU had, he got more ice time than most freshmen would. Albert was satisfied with his year, but felt he should have scored more goals than he did.

His goal in 2008-09 is, well, more goals.  “I had four goals this year, I want to increase that," he said.  "I hope to get at least 10 goals this year.  I’ve just got to produce for the team.  We have an even younger team this year than last year – we lost about eight seniors.  They younger guys have to play a lot of roles.”

Ohio State has a very good recruiting class coming in this fall.  Several of them were drafted last month.  “I’m looking forward to the guys coming in, especially Zac Dalpe (CAR),” Albert said. “I skated with him last summer, he’s a good player.  Hopefully he can come in and do some damage for the team.”

This was the first camp of Albert’s summer, but he’s got another big one to go — Team USA World Junior camp in August.

“Oh yeah, I’m really excited," he said. "I can’t wait. Coach (Ron) Rolston was my coach at USA, so I know him pretty well.  I know all the guys that are going, so it’s going to be a great time. Hopefully I can make an impression on them.”

Having been through the USA program, which after all was created to build a national team, it’s not surprising that Albert was invited to the camp.  But having not been invited last year, it’s a positive sign that he’s back on their radar.

Of the other two Thrashers prospects going to USA World Junior camp, Albert knows Vinny Saponari already from the USA program, and just met Bogosian at prospects camp. 

Zach Bogosian, D

With Danick Paquette‘s illness, 17-year-old Bogosian was the youngest skater on the ice.

Coach Anderson praised him for his good stick (poke checking) and showing his natural size and strength. There were just a few adjustments to be made.  Anderson said the way he was playing his 2-on-1’s, they wanted him to play off the nearside post.

Bogosian stood out for McCudden as well. “Quick feet, recovers well,” he began. “If it seems like he is going to get beat, he doesn’t.  Probably some of the quickest feet backpeddling I’ve ever seen.”  McCudden was equally impressed with Bogosian off the ice. “He’s got an older head on his shoulders. Off the ice, it’s like talking to a 21- or 22-year-old, which is terrific.”

From a forward’s perspective, Albert said: “He’s got a great stick and he’s a big boy so it’s hard to get past him.  He’s quick too.”

Paul Postma, D

Postma sticks out both for his bright blond hair and for how tall and skinny he is, but he has a sense of humor about both of them.  He recalled how his teammates questioned whether he bleached his hair as they all did for the playoffs.

Near the end of camp, Postma had a meeting with Thrashers Strength and Conditioning Coach Ray Bear to go over his workout and how to put on some pounds. Postma said it’s all common sense, bringing in more calories than you burn, but it takes a lot of time and effort to accomplish. “I probably should cut down on cardio,” he said. “I do quite a bit of it.  It definitely burns a lot of calories.  I don’t think it would hurt if I cut down on that.”

On the fitness tests, Postma said he did pretty well. “I’ve been training quite a bit for this,” he said. “I could have done a little more conditioning.  For my body mass I did pretty good for pullups and not bad for pushups.”  On the mountain, he did a little over 45 seconds, which was a little better than he expected.  He’s done the exercise before in junior, but it’s never been timed.

Postma suffered a cut from a high stick on the bridge of his nose during camp that could have used some stitches, but was glued up.  He went home with a nice souvenir.

The big event for Postma in the last year was getting traded from Swift Current to Calgary. 

“It was kind of unexpected, I didn’t ask for a trade at all,” he said. “It was bittersweet at first, I didn’t really like it just because I liked the guys in Swift Current, but when I got to Calgary, it was awesome, nice and close to home and a great environment to play in.  All of the coaching staff really believed in me and my strengths and I got a lot of opportunities there.”

Postma got a lot more ice time in Calgary.  “In Swift Current I didn’t play much at all,” he said. “In certain situations I didn’t get any ice time, penalty kill and stuff, and when I came to Calgary I was one of the first guys out there.” 

With Karl Alzner (WAS) expected to play in the NHL, Postma’s ice time will likely only increase.  He will need to improve his puckhandling and defensive positioning for the pro game.

Angelo Esposito, F

Esposito has been to prospect camp before, but it was with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that originally drafted him.  Having been acquired by the Thrashers in March, it was his first time spending time in town with the organization. Last spring he was in Chicago for a week with the Wolves, so he had met several people – Anderson and players like Riley Holzapfel and Spencer Machacek.

In camp last week, Esposito got comfortable after a day or so, showing his creativity with the puck. He often hung out with Vic Saponari, an invitee out of Boston University. The spotlight was not on Esposito, shining the brightest on new draftee Bogosian instead. That’s probably a good thing, as the team is concerned about the pressure on him.

Having been the consensus No. 1 pick a few years ahead of the 2007, but sliding into the 20’s, "That’s a lot of weight on his shoulders to prove everybody wrong," Anderson said.  "I talked to him yesterday and Danny Marr talked with him. We just told him the slate’s clean — don’t worry about what everybody else says you’re supposed to do. Just play. Just play and let your hockey do the talking. He was fine with that. He’s a good kid. I can joke with him, give it to him out on the ice. He’s getting to understand our mentality a little more."

The pressure on him hadn’t come to any kind of head though. "I like to stop things before they happen," Anderson said. "I understand the pressure and what you can go through with that. Danny (Marr) came to me and said, ‘let’s get him on board here,’ don’t worry about what everyone else is saying. It’s what you do for us. And we don’t care what they say either. I can see in his face out here, he’s happy and having fun. This is a game, we want to have fun."

On what he liked about Esposito’s game, Anderson said "His ‘dartiness’ is excellent. He’s got a great release and a good shot."

As to why he didn’t spend more time in Chicago last spring, Anderson said "His agent wanted him to play one game with us, which I was fine with. He wanted to practice a little bit then go back, he has to play another year of junior. We were very impressed with him and he had a real good game. The mission was accomplished. I think he feels a little bit more comfortable with us too. I’m glad he did come down for the game and got a little experience. It’s made my relationship with him a little bit better."

Newly signed to a contract, Esposito will almost certainly return to junior this fall, where he’ll need to continue to fill out and work on play away from the puck.

Myles Stoesz, F

Stoesz has been working hard this summer on his skating and training. The Manitoban has rented an apartment in Winnipeg to be closer to where he trains. He said "it’s the first summer I feel really good. My trainer has pumped me up, making me feel good about myself. Like I’m going to improve a lot."

He’s also using a skating treadmill three times a week for three or four weeks leading into camp. He’s seeing a skating coach, Andrea Rawlings, and has been on the ice just twice with her so far, but said, "she’s helped out a lot. I’m gonna keep going all summer (three days a week)."

Anderson, never a huge proponent of tough guys, said of Stoesz, only that "Myles’ concept of the game is better."

McCudden sees in Stoesz someone who can really be helped by some additional work.  McCudden said “I still want him to incorporate some lateral motion.  He likes to go right at the player – I’d like to see him step out and use his lateral motion, be creative.  When he was down at my end today, he kept on doing the same thing over and over. I go, ‘Myles, you’re good enough to puck protect, you’re going to your forehand all the time. Try your backhand, try to dipsy doodle.  This is what this is about.  Let yourself go – feel comfortable.’  Sometimes I feel that he grips the stick.”

“As far as the skating stride, yes, his feet look quicker, his balance looks a bit better, and a skating treadmill can only help a player like Myles who has had to work at his stride," McCudden continued. "Treadmills work for some, and they don’t work for a whole lot of others.  I’ve seen a lot of injuries come from treadmills.  I think when they put it up on an incline – the last time I checked the ice rink wasn’t like this, you know? (making a slope with his hand)  To force yourself against it, that’s where you get your hip flexor problems, your groin problems, possibly knee problems.  Where I think a treadmill is good is that it harnesses you if it’s flat, and gets you to release and reload (demonstrating proper skating technique).  Myles had a short stride and probably always flipping out to the sides.  This machine, if you go laterally out it kind of throws you off.  So it’s good for players with that [problem].  In the mid-90’s when those machines first came out, so many NHL clubs were using them.  I don’t know of any that make it mandatory for their players to go on them anymore.”

"I’m a firm believer that ‘it’s in the ice.’  That’s what I tell them, ‘it’s all in the ice.’  It can help Myles and other with moving parts that are not moving properly.  And Myles’ moving parts were not moving properly at one time.  If he gets the mechanics done right, he’ll be able to incorporate it on the ice.”

Arturs Kulda, D

Players who have played professionally are usually not expected to come to prospects camp, so when they do, it’s a safe bet that it was their choice. 

Artie Kulda had a very long season, having played all year for the OHL Peterborough Petes before joining the Wolves for the playoffs.  During those playoffs, Marr asked him if he wanted to come to the camp, to which he replied affirmatively.  Kulda said he has barely had any time to work out this summer since the season ended so late.  He also hasn’t been to the beach in Latvia, a favorite pastime, because it’s been cold and rainy.  But, he’s not still tired from the long season.

Kulda thought the funniest thing that happened in camp was what he did to himself.  “I almost killed myself in the first practice," he said.  "I shot the puck trying to impress the goalies, just doing a lap and I stepped on a puck and hit myself on the board.”

Chad Painchaud, F

Painchaud had some commitment to show this summer, after having been sent home early from ECHL affiliate Gwinnett Gladiators.

Anderson said of Painchaud: "I had a talk with him yesterday in my office, he had a little bit of a bump in the road there at the end of last year. But look, the slate’s clean as far as I’m concerned, I never hold any grudges. I talked to him after the incident with Jeff (Pyle) and I said look, your hockey’s going to do the talking. How you play. I don’t care about anything else that’s happened in the past. Let’s let your hockey do the talking and that will decide where you are and what you’re gonna do. We all make mistakes and we all say things that we regret."

Anderson confirmed that it was Painchaud’s choice to come to the camp. "Yes," he said. "He asked if he could come in. And absolutely. Guys want to play — God bless ’em. I’m all on board with that. I think he wanted a clean slate. Good for him. And what’s hard for him when you think about it, it’s his third year pro, he’s been here and done this already. It’s good — he shows that he cares, cares about his career and I’m very happy to see it quite honestly."

Rylan Kaip, F

Kaip showed up a day late to camp, but he had a good excuse — he had just gotten married.  Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils was his best man.

Five years after being drafted, Kaip has finally graduated from UND with an exercise science degree and signed a contract with the Thrashers.  A superb penalty killer, Kaip didn’t put up many points in college. Criticism of his puck skills isn’t unfounded, but he is definitely on board.

“It’s good to finally be a part of the program," he said.  "I’ve got a lot of respect for this program.  It’s my fourth time here.  I made it every year except for the lockout year (when there was no camp).”

Captain at UND, the Saskatchewan native describes himself as a quiet leader, doing so by example.  “If you don’t do it yourself, you can’t ask someone else to do it.  That’s kind of the mindset I’ve had.”

Mike Forney, F

Forney got into the lineup with North Dakota only three times last year, his sophomore year.  Some of those scratches were healthy, some were not.  He decided to leave the program and go to the USHL, a junior league, where he can get more ice time. He’ll play for Green Bay, which happens to be where he played his first USHL game back in 2005-06.  In asking for his dismissal from UND, he forfeited the last two years of his scholarship there. 

“I’m not sure if I’m going to back there, actually,” he said. On re-entering school to finish his four-year degree, he said “Yeah, it’d be nice to have.  It really would be.  I’m just taking it one year at a time.”  For right now, he’ll take a few classes at the local community college in Green Bay, which he can put towards finishing his two-year business degree from UND.

At 20 years old, it’s probably the last year he could reasonably play junior hockey, though there is no formal age limit in the USHL.

“Um, I think I’m still in my developmental years, so I’m going to the USHL. I’ve been injured the past couple years so I haven’t played in many games.  I just thought it’d be best for me to go to the USHL and play 60 games there.”

His injuries require a full listing.  At the end of his senior year in high school, he separated his shoulder.  A month later, he broke his ankle at the U-18 World Championships.  At his first practice at UND, he separated his shoulder again.  This past year, the screws from his previously broken ankle were starting to fall out, so doctors took the screwheads off.  Then this got infected, necessitating another surgery last month.  Forney hadn’t skated at all before coming to prospect camp, all he was allowed to do was off-ice work. At camp, equipment managers had to ruin one of his skates by cutting a hole in the side to allow for the healing ankle.  A thick black pad covered the hole, on the inside of his step.  Next he’ll get a pair of custom Bauers with the laces moved out and with built-in adjustment for the ankle pressure, which right now is causing him pain.

Drafted for his offensive skills, he showed a few flashes of that at prospect camp, but is still very unpolished as a player.  He has plenty to work on.

Most college players who go back to the USHL end up transferring to another college program to finish out their eligibility.  It’s a little too early to predict where Forney might end up the following season, but that’s a path to watch for. 

Zach Redmond, D

While for the pro guys, this camp seemed like a continuation of the previous season which ended in June, for the college players, it’s a ramp-up to the 2008-09 season.  They’ve been done since March, and will start casual practices in just a few weeks.  Redmond reports back to school at Ferris State on Aug. 4. 

Redmond was certainly ramped up for the scrimmages, taking the puck to the net himself on several occasions.  In his conversations with Dan Marr, Redmond was told that at the NHL level, one of the biggest differences is not making as many mistakes. That will be something he focuses on this year – hitting the tape with his passes, hitting the net with shots.

For a seventh-round pick, Redmond has good offensive skill, but he must learn good defense.  Thrashers coach Steve Weeks took him aside for some lengthy discussions on proper defensive technique.  Defense can be taught to most people, can it be taught to him?  That will be the question for the soon-to-be 20-year-old player.

Injuries and events

It was a light year for injuries at prospects camp.  Paquette became sick shortly after arrival, so he did not participate.  Invitee Patrick Cusack, his teammate from Lewiston in the QMJHL, suffered a lower-body injury and was held off the ice. Postma’s stick to the nose and Scott Bartlett’s bloody nose gave the trainers something to do on the ice.

The most eventful thing that happened may have been Grant Lewis beating what was thought to be an unbeatable game at the arcade, to hear him tell it. Others would say it was Stoesz’s shootout goal.

Stoesz missed picking up the puck at center ice, which immediately brought jeers from the bench, but he went on to bury a wrister on Carrozzi high. He motioned to the bench for a reaction. It got a lot of laughs, and he certainly made up for missing the puck. He said that what happened is that two shooters prior, Esposito was recalling a shootout he had this year in which he missed on the pick-up and then fired high. Stoesz was thinking to himself ‘don’t miss the puck, don’t miss the puck,’ and then promptly missed the puck.  Esposito’s story got into his head.

Looking ahead to fall camp

In 2006, under serious pressure to win, Coach Hartley held main training camp with just those expected to play for the team or be a call-up attending. This meant that several players under contract with the team were not invited, and junior players like Bryan Little only had one day of a handful of veterans on their sheet of ice.

Those non-invited players reported straight to Anderson’s AHL camp that year.  Having seen it from the other side, Anderson was emphatic when asked if everyone would be invited this fall.

“Yes, yes," he said. "We want to make everybody welcome, make everybody feel part of it.  Because even if that one guy never plays a shift for Atlanta, we want that reflection of a good organization, of a fair organization.  So everybody who is under contract will be invited.  Some may be injured, some may go back to junior because they want to go back to junior, but we want to bring in everybody under contract.”

Going along with this, there will be a much greater emphasis on team-building during camp.  “Absolutely, we’ve already starting planning,”Anderson said. “We spoke to Ray Bear about one thing we’re going to do.  There’s like four things we’ve already got set.  I don’t want to say anything until we get it all organized.”

One of the four things will be a fieldtrip, but nothing too big-budget.  “It’s not about the money,” Anderson said. “It’s about this (folding his hands together showing cohesion).  One thing we’ve organized, everybody will like.  It’s kind of neat and very unique.”

And looking ahead even further to the season, we’ll be seeing more of McCudden, who will visit the big club for a few days at a time every month or so to work on skating and other skills.  Prospects in Chicago have said for years how much he has helped their game, and now he’ll continue to work with them once they get to the NHL.