With NHL training camps shortened this year, it was especially important for prospects to hit the ground running if they wanted to make the team. New faces and new coaches picking the team meant new opportunities.
Brett Sterling noticed what everyone was going through while keeping a cool head himself.
“A lot of guys are really stressed out – they really want to make it," he said. "This is my dream to play here and I got a piece of it last year. But I want to make a career out of this and to do that you can’t fret over every single thing. Some things are out of your control.”
Training camp unfolded like a movie — with some plot twists at the end. The trade to acquire Mathieu Schneider affected one prospect in particular: defenseman Boris Valabik, by pushing him down the depth chart. The jettisoning of checker Brad Larsen helped Sterling, though he doesn’t directly replace him. Ken Klee’s departure also means Bryan Little, who lived with Klee last year, will have to find somewhere else.
One player did not hit the ground running, but caught up to speed very quickly. Zach Bogosian, the team’s No. 3 pick in the 2008 draft, came in penciled onto the roster, but with a hip flexor injury suffered in the Traverse City tournament.
He sat out for about a week, but returned in time for four preseason games. He showed that he knows what to do in every game situation, and can handle himself physically. He will likely be paired with the 39-year-old Schneider, who has been playing in the NHL since 1987 – three years before Bogosian was born.
the Thrashers have nine games to make a final decision on Bogosian, if they want to send him back to junior, but he’s already better than all the other options the team has, so that’s very unlikely. The only sticking point is if he is emotionally handling the pressure of the NHL. But in a low-pressure city like Atlanta, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
Veteran Garnet Exelby said of Bogosian, “He’s got all the physical tools. He’s a young defenseman – only time will tell on how he’ll be able to handle the pressures and if he can step into the lineup or not. He definitely seems like a good kid, good head on his shoulders.”
Moving up to forwards, it’s not that Sterling had a terrific camp – he had just a good camp. But he stays due to what everyone else was doing – or not doing in this case – and that’s scoring. Sterling led the team in preseason scoring with three goals, while the entire team scored only 14 in six games. On a roster that’s not scoring, it makes it tough to send down the one guy who can.
A few days before final cuts, he felt his camp was going well.
"Obviously it’s a tough situation, they’ve got a lot of forwards and it just depends on what direction they want to take the team," he said.
He scored two goals in the game at St. Louis, but didn’t consider it a relief, because he wasn’t concentrating on it.
"It feels good when you get those chances and you bury them, but it’s not a matter of scoring goals. I’ve started to realize that. I know that’s what I’ve done in the past and it’s something I need to continue to do, but if you’re getting the chances, if you’re playing well — and obviously I need to pick it up in the defensive zone, that’s always been a knock on me. I feel like I’ve made strides this summer, starting to play strong in the defensive zone. That’s what I’m going to work on because getting those chances has been there."
Sterling was used last year on the penalty kill in the AHL with the Wolves, to try to improve his defensive awareness, and the Thrashers kept up that testing in the preseason.
"They’re using me in situations that I’m not completely comfortable in, but it’s something I’m going to need to work on, to make myself a well-rounded player," he said.
Having made the team out of camp last fall and then not sticking, you’d imagine he’d feel pressure this year, but he convincingly argued that he didn’t.
"No, you know I really don’t," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt. If I don’t start up [in Atlanta], that’s OK, maybe I’ll get a chance if something happens or if I play well in Chicago. I know with Johnny and Nelly and Cunney, that they’re going to put the guys in there that they think can do it, and if I get a chance, that’s great and if not, I wish them the best of luck. There’s not much more I can do. I can continue to play my game and work on myself and help the team as best I can."
Sterling at age 24 is much the same player physically as Sterling at age 23, but his mental game is stronger.
"I know I can play. I know I can do well at this level," he said. "They’re great players up at this level obviously and that makes it tougher. It’s a challenge but I love being challenged. I love having that opportunity to prove myself to people. But I’m not going to sit here and stress day in and day out like ‘oh God I made this mistake.’ You’re going to make mistakes, it’s going to happen. I like the fact that I came into camp this year a lot more relaxed. I know what I can do, it’s just a matter of going out there and proving it."
Colby Armstrong played on a line with Sterling during preseason and came away impressed.
“Sterls finds open ice, he’s great at that, making himself open around the net," Armstrong said. "He’s kind of a tough guy to keep track of out there, but he plays with that grit too. I like playing with Sterls. Not afraid to pay the price for a smaller player. It’s good to have a guy in your lineup who works that hard.”
One of Valabik’s assignments over the summer was to work on his skating. Ice time is often hard to find in Slovakia in the summer because they take down the rinks, but Valabik reported that this year there was ice earlier in the fall so he stayed home and practiced with his hometown team longer before making the transition to skating with the Thrashers who were in town. As for the skating camp in Sweden that he talked about going to last spring, that didn’t happen due to the long playoff run by the Wolves.
But he got good comments about his skating when he arrived in Atlanta.
“I had a few people telling me that it’s come along," he said at the start of preseason action. "It’s something I work on, so it’s nice to hear those compliments, but the biggest compliment’s going to be if I stay with the team the whole season. We’ll just have to wait for that.”
Another assignment for him was to come in with confidence. That also gets a checkmark.
“I got a lot of experience last year during the playoffs," he said. "Just knowing what Johnny wants from his players, that gives me a lot of confidence. Having had Johnny as a coach in general.”
Indeed, Valabik has a very good relationship with Anderson.
“The first year I was kind of guessing what he wanted – what he wants from his players, what he wants from me," Valabik said. "The second year, our relationship got tighter, and obviously the fact that we won the cup together doesn’t hurt. I know exactly what he wants from me, what he wants from his players.”
And what does Anderson want from Valabik? To use his size for one thing. Anderson has said repeatedly this offseason that he wants his defensemen to skate the puck and jump into the play. Valabik isn’t that kind of blueliner, but Anderson is defensive if you imply that Valabik doesn’t fit into his scheme.
“I love defensemen skating the puck, but I also understand size and reach," Anderson said. "The way Boris is skating now, he’s improved so much over the last couple years. His play recognition is so much better, his penalty killing is wonderful –- he steps up on a play and he breaks passes up from the high position to the low position really well. We’re not going to have 20 Kovalchuks. We’re not going to have 20 Tobias Enstroms. That’s reality. You have to bring something else to the table. Boris brings size and strength and [is] getting better with his skill level. He’s going to be a big cog in our wheel this year.”
But that cog was demoted back to the AHL this week. If it was Anderson’s decision alone, it seems Valabik would be on the team. But with Klee gone and Schneider in, Valabik isn’t the team’s top six. He will get more time in Chicago, and come up with injuries strike. He could end up playing more minutes for the Thrashers than 25-year-old Nathan Oystrick, who was retained as the seventh defenseman.
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec said after the first preseason game that John Anderson is trying to do the same thing in Atlanta that he did in Chicago, and that it seemed to be working. For his part, Pavelec was clinging to what worked for him last year too. He had worn the same pair of skates for about three years, and knows it’s time for a new pair. But he couldn’t bring himself to make the switch to the new skates for the first preseason game. “I had like four pairs in the dressing room and I’m a little bit scared to switch,” he said. “It was working last year.”
He did change one thing, his jersey number. He had talked about changing from #33 to #31 last November when he was called up to the Thrashers, but finally made the change during this camp.
Asked early in camp about his chances for staying in Atlanta, Pavelec kind of chuckled, directed the question to the coaching staff, and cited the one-way contracts of those ahead of him. The gist of his answer was that the question was kind of silly –- he had little chance of making the roster under the circumstances. Which made his agent’s announcement to the press earlier this week that Pavelec wouldn’t be reporting to Chicago very puzzling. In the end, he did report.
Moving on to those who were further down the depth chart, Armstrong was encouraging on the topic of Angelo Esposito.
“I was with him in Pittsburgh for a bit. He looks like he’s improved a lot since the last time I played with him," Armstrong said. "That’s a good positive.”
Armstrong thought Esposito was quite nervous for his first NHL preseason play though. “He’s a young guy trying to make an impression, his first time here in camp," he said. "They sent him down but he’s going to have a good future here. As long as he keeps getting better every year, that’s the main thing.”
The now much heavier Grant Lewis also saw his first preseason action, since he was injured during camp last year.
Anderson said about Lewis’ first preseason game that he got better as the game went along. “He started moving with the puck a lot more, made some good plays," he said. "I was really happy with how he progressed out there.”
Defensive partner Exelby said, “He talked to me a little before the game and said he was quite nervous, which is understandable I think in your first NHL preseason game. I still get nervous playing in however many preseason games I’ve played.”
“I think once he settled down he played pretty well and moved the puck well," Exelby continued. "Smart player, definitely has the good patience like a lot of offensive-minded defensemen do.”
Exelby added that Lewis looked more comfortable in the second game.
Boulton said of the pair, “Two kids who are honest – they get on the forecheck, work hard. I thought we had a pretty good game. Banged one goal in there and I was commenting to the other guys that I really enjoyed playing with them. They did their job well, worked hard, finished their hits and grinded it out.”
Advice he gave them on the bench: “Just keep the game as simple as possible. Get it in, limit our turnovers and work their D.”
To his surprise, they did not keep quiet like a lot of rookies.
“No, it was the exact opposite, actually,” Boulton laughed. “They were all gung-ho to be in the game. They were really enthusiastic to be on the bench.”
The forward lines on the first two days of training camp were a jumble of veterans and prospects. Maybe the coaching staff thought Ilya Kovalchuk needed some protection in camp, or maybe it was just good luck, but 21-year-old tough guy Myles Stoesz ended up on Kovalchuk’s right wing.
Stoesz and Kovalchuk actually had more in common at camp than ever before. Kovalchuk had some teeth knocked out recently, making him look a lot like Stoesz, who’s had some of his bottom ones gone for a full year. One might assume that this commonality would give Stoesz an opening to chirp Kovalchuk a bit. But they aren’t on chirping terms just yet, apparently. Did Stoesz say anything to Kovalchuk about it? "No, definitely not," he laughed.
Stoesz said he was nervous early on that day, but not nearly as nervous as last year. "On one drill I messed up a pass that Holzapfel gave to me and kind of dumped it into the corner and then Kovalchuk gave me a tap on the pads and said ‘good job, keep going’ that kind of thing, so that was nice to hear," he said. "That just totally calmed me down. At first I was scared that if I screwed up, he was going to yell at me or whatever."
On playing with Kovalchuk, Stoesz said, "He’s one of the top guys in the NHL, so to play with him even for a practice, it was a heck of an experience. A lot of fun just to watch him, the way he does things. He does everything at full tempo and even in practice he pumps his fist when he scores — I love that. He’s got passion for the game it seems. It’s good to learn from that."
Stoesz plays an up and down grinding game, so the finesse plays from Kovalchuk were not something he was used to. "It’s amazing. Any pass from him is good," he said. "Times when I’d be out and down, he finds a way to pull it through and dish you a puck and then you score."