The Atlanta Thrashers made fewer offseason changes than one would expect for a team who finished near the bottom of the standings. And for as many veterans who were not retained, new ones were added, meaning that there are only a limited number of spots available for rookies this year.
The Thrashers will be a bit younger than last year’s 29.3 year average, but still not a young team. Instead, they will move from being one of the oldest teams in the league to merely average in age. The drop in age will mostly come from shedding older players like Bobby Holik, Mark Recchi and Alexei Zhitnik, as opposed to adding rookies. Returning players like Slava Kozlov and Ken Klee keep the average age up.
Rookies played 210 games for the Thrashers last year, and there’s no reason to think that the number will increase this season. There were three rookies on the 2007 opening night roster — Toby Enstrom, Bryan Little and Brett Sterling — and there may only be two on opening night this year –- Zach Bogosian and Boris Valabik.
While it’s not an “us vs. them” battle, one area where many of the prospects will be ahead of the veterans is in practice drill knowledge and execution. They’ve seen new head coach John Anderson’s sometimes complicated drills either in Chicago with the Wolves or during prospect camps. This should make the younger crowd comfortable and confident from the beginning, which is often half the battle.
And if they do the drill wrong, they don’t need to fear being belittled. Anderson said he’s more into teaching than punishing — "you don’t have to be a tyrant to be a good coach," he said yesterday. "My hammer is ice time."
For the first time in many years, the team’s most recent first-round pick will likely be part of the roster. Eighteen-year-old Zach Bogosian, a two-way defenseman out of the OHL, is physically ready for the NHL.
Anderson called Bogosian "an 18-year-old man," and said he was surprised how good offensively the blueliner was after watching him in the Traverse City Tournament.
"That will be great because those are the type of players I like — I like guys who can skate with the puck," Anderson said. "He’s certainly going to have the green light to do as much of that as possible. He’s very mature, he works his rear end off. He’s a pro already in his work ethic. We just hope everything pans out for him. We’ll give him every opportunity to stay here. We want to make sure it’s in the best interest of Zach and our hockey club in the future that we make the right decision."
The "our hockey club in the future" point goes out much further than the next year or two. It goes all the way to the end of his restricted free agency. Teams are often reluctant to keep teenagers with the big club unless they are sure they can make a healthy contribution, because by playing them, they take a year off of the player’s free agency age. They would rather have that extra year of the player’s services at age 26, when he is usually more effective, than age 18. But the Thrashers can’t worry about that under the current circumstances — not when they need Bogosian’s bonuses to get them over the salary cap floor.
Emotional maturity seems to be the biggest X-factor with Bogosian. As Waddell put it, "As an 18-year-old, we’re asking someone to take on a lot. We’ll let him dictate [his future] as we go along."
How far along? Up to nine regular season games. At the point, the Thrashers must either send him back to Peterborough or it counts as a year off his entry-level contract.
Bogosian could potentially see time on the power play, but the Thrashers have a lot of options on the point this year, including Ron Hainsey, Enstrom, and Nic Havelid. Forward Ilya Kovalchuk also played the point last year, but could be moved down to a left side sniper position.
A right-handed shot, Bogosian normally plays right defense. He would be a good fit with left-hander Hainsey, less so with fellow right-hander Ken Klee. But either one of them would be a fine mentor.
The other rookie on defense will likely be Boris Valabik. The third-year pro made his NHL debut last March, playing in seven games. GM Don Waddell told Hockey’s Future at the end of the season, "in the last few games he’s proven he can play.” Waddell hoped Valabik would use his time in April through September to work on deficiencies in agility and handling the puck. He also said Valabik needs to come into training camp in September with an eye on a roster spot, with an attitude of "it’s my job."
The defensive defenseman may make the team as the seventh defenseman, seeing time on a lower defensive pairing and on the penalty kill.
In any case, having a history with Anderson and his systems will likely benefit Valabik the most of any other prospect. The 6’7 tower with a mean streak is not a natural fit for the type of system Anderson likes to play, with a very quick transition, mobile defense. But this may be a case of a square peg fitting just fine in a round hole, as Valabik and Anderson have a good relationship after two years together. Yesterday Anderson remarked about how much Valabik improved over the summer.
Injuries on defense will be costly for the Thrashers this year, because there is an alarming lack of depth behind the top seven. The next best players on the depth chart are a significant step down from them. The most experienced defenseman under contract is 25-year-old Nathan Oystrick, who has played 0 NHL games. Last year, the organization brought in veterans Joel Kwiatkowski and Karel Pilar as spares, but there is no one of that ilk under contract this year. Mark Popovic and Steve McCarthy are also gone. Thirty-three-year-old journeyman Jamie Rivers, who has played 454 NHL games, is on a Chicago Wolves contract. And though this circumvents the AHL portion of the salary cap on a two-way contract, it creates the issue of him being picked up by another NHL team.
Any way you slice it, the Thrashers have much less depth on defense this year than they have had in several years. At this point, they need to keep Bogosian as much to increase their depth as to meet the salary floor.
There will probably be a good bit of experimenting with the lines to start the year, especially given a new coach and a new system.
Bryan Little, who played 48 games last year and no longer qualifies as a rookie, will probably be on the second line, but it’s questionable whether he’ll stay at center or move to the wing. Little did play center virtually all the time with the Thrashers last year, but it’s important to point out that he only overlapped with Erik Christensen for two games, since Christensen was injured from mid-March onward. With them both in the lineup, there are more centers than there are lines. Many more in fact, since free-agent signee Jason Williams can play center, as can Chris Thorburn.
Little is better suited to center than wing, given his strong defensive game and good vision, but there is also Todd White to consider for that second-line role. White began last season on the top line with Kovalchuk, but finished on one of the lower lines. Christensen will get a chance with the top line, but no one really knows if he has true first-line talent, as he’s rarely had an opportunity to play with good players for an extended period. Regarding who would center Kovalchuk’s line, Anderson said "we have some things in mind that might catch people off guard." So, it’s an open question.
All in all, Little is the most likely to center the second line, and should easily double and probably triple his point total from last year of 16.
Is there a role for 23-year-old Brett Sterling? The 5’7 sniper needs to play on a scoring line and he needs to play left wing. There’s no chance that he’s going to beat out Kovalchuk or Slava Kozlov for a roster spot, so the only way to fit Sterling in seems to be moving Kozlov to the right side, or Kozlov on the third line, where he was most of last year. Injuries to a top-six forward could also put Sterling on the roster, but it’s just as likely that Eric Perrin or Colby Armstrong would move up to a scoring line and someone else be added behind them. In all, it’s difficult to construct a roster that has Sterling on it.
Defensively skilled 26-year-old Colin Stuart will be in the mix for a spot on the third or fourth line. He played 18 games with the team last season. The speedy winger is on the second year of a three-year contract, the third of which is NHL only. Those with two-way contracts are often the ones to get cut, as it’s more budget-friendly. Stuart was held out of games at the end of last season in Chicago so that he would not count as a veteran in the AHL going forward. So if he goes back down, he can still get plenty of ice time.
Crash and bang winger Jordan LaVallee is unlikely to make the team, as there were many things that Atlanta wanted to see improved after his two-game stint last season: his play away from the puck, starts and stops, having a constant motion, and finishing checks.
The formerly touted Angelo Esposito is not expected to make the roster. Too young for the AHL this year, he’ll return to the QMJHL, where he’ll play for the relocated Montreal Juniors and try to end his junior career on an up note.
In goal, there are no changes from last year. Kari Lehtonen remains the starter, with Johan Hedberg the backup. Lehtonen’s injuries allowed top prospect Ondrej Pavelec to get into seven games last year, and he 21-year-old will hope to see some work this year as well.
Much like the story on defense, the Thrashers are thinner in goal this year than past years. Last year at this time, they had veteran Fred Brathwaite slated for Chicago, with Pavelec and Dan Turple also under contract. Brathwaite left for Russia, and was not yet replaced on the depth chart. It leaves only Turple under contract beyond Pavelec.
The Thrashers were exceptionally lucky last year with lack of injuries, in particular among their best players. Betting that the luck will remain wouldn’t be wise. In a slightly silver lining, having finished third from the bottom of the NHL standings last year, the Thrashers are in good position to pick a servicable player off waivers during camp.
Traverse City Tournament
Thrashers prospects placed second in the eight-team 2008 Traverse City Tournament, losing a tough game to the Dallas Stars in the championship game. They came together as a team very quickly under new Wolves head coach Don Granato, who met the players for the first time at the tournament. Hard work is his motto, and that’s what he got out of the team in the form of physicality, blocking shots and solid defense.
Team scoring was fairly spread out, but Spencer Machacek led the team in scoring with two goals and two assists in four games. Angelo Esposito scored two goals in the tournament. Newly-drafted goaltender Chris Carrozzi was inconsistent, posting both a shutout and an eight-goals-against game. He finished with a 3.23 GAA and .882 save percentage, which put him ninth and tenth respectively among the tournament’s 17 goaltenders.
There were no major injuries at the tournament, but several small ones. Zach Bogosian suffered a calf injury and missed one game, while Grant Lewis broke a toe and sat out a game as well. Danick Paquette missed a game for a bruise on his back side, while Tomas Pospisil suffered a concussion in the second to last game.
The majority of the team boarded a charter flight to Atlanta immediately following the last game. Two players who were not originally invited to main camp were added: Carter Bancks and Scott Marchesi. Marchesi is under contract to ECHL affiliate Gwinnett Gladiators, and Bancks is part of the WHL Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Building a team
In 2006, under serious pressure to win, former coach Bob Hartley only invited to main camp those expected to play for the team or be a call-up. This meant that several players under contract with the team were not invited, and junior players like Bryan Little only saw ice time with a handful of veterans on one day.
Those non-invited players reported straight to Anderson’s AHL camp that year. Having seen it from the other side, Anderson assured HF that everyone would be invited this fall.
"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 in July. “We spoke to (strength and conditioning coach) Ray Bear about one thing we’re going to do. There’s like four things we’ve already got set.”
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.”
The first items on the preseason schedule are two "prospects" games in Nashville. With the shorter training camp under the CBA, it’s a chance for more games for the young players, Waddell said. It’s something the two teams have talked about doing for several years. The prospects will go via bus for the approximately four-hour drive.
Thurs. Sept. 25 @ Nashville
Fri. Sept. 26 @ St. Louis
Sun. Sept. 28 @ Detroit
Wed. Oct. 1 DETROIT
Fri. Oct. 3 NASHVILLE
Sat. Oct. 4 ST. LOUIS