Thrashers organizational depth analysis, Fall 2009

By Aubrey Chau

With the Atlanta Thrashers in their 10th season in the NHL and having only one playoff appearance to show for it, the natives are getting restless. After almost a decade of futility, Thrashers management need to show that there is some hope on the horizon.

The Thrashers have drafted well in the first round. Many poor seasons means most of those first round picks have been very early picks, giving them bluechip prospects to choose from. 

Where the Thrashers have had problems is with their drafting after the first round. Very few of their picks after the first round have panned out and been able to make an impact in the NHL. 

As a result, they have a handful of first rounders who have had at least some success in the NHL, but not a lot of players drafted in the later rounds have been able to support them. But the prospect pool is in a bit better shape than it has been in recent years. If the Thrashers are to have true success, some of their later-round picks must make the leap. 

Left Wing

The crown jewel of their 2009 draft, Evander Kane, is currently at left wing. Kane has a combination of size, speed, skill and grit. So far, he has not disappointed. After three games playing on a line with center Rich Peverley and right winger Colby Armstrong, Kane has already potted a goal, and an assist. As an 18-year-old, he should stick the full season with the Thrashers. Kane will be a very important part of the team for years to come.

After Kane, there is second-round pick Carl Klingberg on the left side. Drafted 34th overall, Klingberg is big, skilled forward who is not afraid to throw his weight around. He is playing this season in the Swedish Elite League, where he should continue to play for a few more seasons.    

Niklas Lasu and Michael Forney are the only other Thrashers prospects at left wing. After putting up decent numbers in the Swedish Junior league, scrappy Lasu split last season between Frolunda of the Swedish Elite and their farm team, Boras. Drafted in the fifth round in 2008, 124th overall, Lasu is a gritty leader, not an offensive player.   

Forney is tall with some offensive skills, but plateaued after high school. Injuries have hampered his development as well. Even when he was healthy, Forney, drafted 80th overall in 2006, could not crack the University of North Dakota’s offense-starved lineup. Forney played last year with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL and led them in scoring, which was not surprising given his age. The 21-year-old was signed out of the USHL by the Thrashers, a very rare occurence. Unable to stick with the Chicago Wolves, he was sent down to the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL this week. 

The Thrashers will need to add depth to this side of the ice, or switch some of their many centers to this position.   

Center

The Thrashers have ample depth at center and can afford to move some of their many young centers to the wing. Most of the center prospects are better offensively than defensively, which could be an issue.

Angelo Esposito and Riley Holzapfel both need some more seasoning with the Wolves in AHL. After four years in the QMJHL, Esposito has started the season with the Wolves and will be expected to show the speed and skill he became known for in junior. An exceptional playmaker, he has the hockey sense and hands to become an NHL player, but questions about his desire remain. 

A decent skater with good hockey sense, Holzapfel is entering his second full season in the AHL and needs to show that he is capable of putting up points. Otherwise, he must round out his game and learn how to contribute defensively.

The Thrashers have a handful of young centers who are a few years away from playing professionally. Eric O’Dell and sniper Jeremy Morin have already started this season off quite well offensively in the OHL. Daultan Leveille and the underrated John Albert are both playing in the NCAA.

There is not a lot of size or grit in the group, however. They are all slightly below average sized centers with decent offensive skills and will need to do something to stand out from the crowd. O’Dell may have the best shot at a long NHL career.

Right Wing

Just like the left wing position, there is not much depth on this side. The top prospect on the right side is Spencer Machacek, who, despite being very average in size, sets himself apart from many other Thrasher forward prospects with his gritty style of play. His willingness to play with a bit of mustard, in addition to his responsible two-way game is what will take Machacek to the NHL. 

Vinny Saponari is a skilled winger who has good puck skills and adequate scoring abilities. He needs to show that his skating and ability to stickhandle at top speed can separate himself from the rest of the pack of offensively-skilled Thrasher forwards. Saponari has the skills to one day become a supporting player for his hometown Thrashers on their second or third line.  

Danick Paquette is still a few years away from making the pro ranks, but like Machacek, he has the grit that the Thrashers are sorely lacking from their forward prospects. He drives to the net with purpose and plays an agitating style that other teams hate to play against. There are concerns about his conditioning, skating and on-ice discipline. If he can address these issues, there could be a third or fourth line spot for him in a few years. 

Rounding out the right wing ranks are Andrew Kozek and Matt Siddall. Kozek is a small, offensively-minded winger. Siddall is a big banging body, but lacks the puck skills to play in the NHL. Neither are likely to see the NHL.

Defense

While the Thrashers have limited depth at the forward position, they do have a few defensemen who are already getting steady work in the NHL, with a few more on the way.

Zach Bogosian is the jewel of the Thrashers blueline and should be for many years. At only 19, he is already receiving key minutes as a top pairing defenseman. An effortless skater, Bogosian plays a very efficient game. He handles the puck well and does not shy away from the physical aspects of the game. As he gains experience, Bogosian will only continue to improve and graduate from prospecthood (65 games) very soon.

After playing 50 games with the Thrashers last season, the not-so-friendly giant on the blueline, Boris Valabik, has stuck with the Thrashers again as their seventh defenseman. At 6’7, he brings a mean game that makes opposing forwards think twice about charging the net. He should remain a third-pairing defenseman. 

Anssi Salmela has stuck with the Thrashers and is now playing on their third pairing. He has good puck skills, plays a responsible defensive game and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty and rough up opponents. Only three games into the 2009-10 season, Salmela has already scored a goal and an assist. With Bogosian and numerous Thrasher veteran defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart, Salmela should continue to play supporting role, but with more experience, could see the minutes of a second pairing defenseman.

Arturs Kulda plays a defensively responsible game and has some offensive potential. He should get the occasional call-up to the NHL once injuries hit. Grant Lewis has more offensive potential and played one game with the Thrashers last year.

Starting his first season with the Wolves, former WHLer Paul Postma has a good chance of becoming an NHL regular. He is quick and mobile with good puck skills and vision, however, he still needs a season or two of experience in the AHL. Once he fills out completely, Postma projects as a top-four defenseman who can play on the power play. 

Goaltending

As injury woes continue to plague Thrashers starter Kari Lehtonen, Ondrej Pavelec has benefited and inherited Lehtonen’s role as the starter and performed admirably. At 22, Pavelec has the size and skill, and now the pro experience, to be a solid NHL starter.

If Pavelec continues his steady play, he could take away Lehtonen’s job even once healthy, as Lehtonen’s career has been riddled with long injuries and inconsistent play.

Also in the system are Alex Kangas and Edward Pasquale. Kangas is a very good technical goaltender, but is still working on consistency. Pasquale also has good skills and shows potential to be an NHL goaltender, but like Kangas, they are both years away from the NHL. Kangas could well leave the Univ. of Minnesota a year early to turn pro next year. Pasquale has two more years in the OHL.

Overall

The Thrashers have a few surefire prospects that are on the cusp of being impact NHLers (Bogosian, Kane and Pavelec). Beyond them, there are question marks, as there are in all organizations. 

Needs to address include size and grit at the forward positions. The Thrashers are strongest at defense, where they have three prospect defensemen (Bogosian, Valabik and Salmela) on their current roster. With Bogosian as the cornerstone of their blueline, Valabik and Salmela will play valuable supporting roles.