While the Atlanta Thrashers have been struggling for goals in a winless pre-season, the Thrashers AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves scored five in a winning start and look poised to improve on last year’s impressive campaign. The Wolves finished first in their division and battled past local rivals Milwaukee in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs before losing a game seven to the Texas Stars. Wolves’ fans can expect another winning season this year, with veteran Jason Krog leading a surging pack of talented prospects.
Krog is the Chicago captain and has become the ultimate weapon at the AHL level, dominating minor-league defenseman. Last year Krog became the top-line playmaker, turning in just 14 goals but tallying 61 helpers in 78 games. With 202 NHL games under his belt he has veteran credibility and leads the young prospects by example.
Two of those prospects, Spencer Machacek and Patrice Cormier will be bitterly disappointed at not making the Thrashers this year. Machacek had an excellent AHL season last year and with the departure of Colby Armstrong had been penciled in as a third-line winger. One of the last cuts from training camp, Machacek will have to continue to play a physical two-way game to put himself in position for a call-up.
Cormier is a first-year pro and was having an outstanding training camp until breaking his foot off a blocked shot in a preseason match.
Center Riley Holzapfel also had a long training camp with the Thrashers and will look to continue his transformation into a checking line center with speed. Menacing power forward Akim Aliu will be keen for a positive season with the Wolves after being demoted to the ECHL to finish his first pro season in the Blackhawks organization, but arguably no one is more desperate for success than Angelo Esposito. Once a “can’t miss prospect” Esposito has seen declining returns since being drafted in 2007 and missed almost all of last year to a knee injury. Fellow Quebecers Danick Paquette and Anthony Stewart bring a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to the rink as rookies with the Wolves, while AHL veteran Jared Ross will be a key player counted on for leadership and special team duties this year.
Winger Michael Forney will look to continue to improve his skating and keep climbing the Thrasher’s depth chart as will Andrew Kozek, who got a longer look at the Thrasher’s camp this year. Sadly, playmaking center Eric O’Dell has put his pro debut on hold after being sidelined indefinitely due to concerns over a heart problem discovered in the off-season.
Winger Nigel Dawes is making the most of his opportunity as a fourth line energy player with the Thrashers, taking the place of injured veteran Jim Slater.
Paul Postma is the top prospect on the Wolves blue line and will be looking to follow up on a 15 goal rookie year with continued success running the Chicago power play. Uncertain in his own end at times, Postma needs to solidify the defensive side of his game to be considered for an NHL spot. Noah Welch and Ian MacKenzie, weighing in as super heavyweights, will provide plenty of strength in front of the net and protect their teammates while the slighter Jamie Sifers will carry the puck.
Mike Siklenka was signed out of Austria where he scored 24 goals in 48 games; the Wolves will be happy with half that many out of the 31 year old who last played in the AHL in 2004.
Perennially injured Boris Valabik is again sidelined to start the season and the lanky Slovak may see more time with the Wolves on rehab assignments.
There is a logjam in goal for the first time in a longtime on the Thrasher’s depth chart, with Peter Mannino and Drew MacIntyre returning to the Wolves and first-time pros Chris Carrozzi and Edward Pasquale forced to the ECHL for playing time.
Mannino played in 38 games with the Wolves last year and was solid throughout, posting a 2.34 goals against average. The former University of Denver standout is now approaching the prime age of 26 and will be keen to push his way upwards into NHL reckoning.
Drew MacIntyre has more minor league experience and is a year older than Mannino but will have to fight for dominance in the crease. MacIntyre started 41 games last year and posted a 2.54 goals against average.
Don Lever is in his second season as head coach of the Wolves and entering his seventh as an AHL head coach. Vastly experienced as an assistant coach at the NHL level, Lever has only one losing season to blemish his impressive record at the AHL level. Winner of the Calder Cup with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007, he will be pushing the Wolves for a reprise of their 2008 title.
Recent European imports Fredrik Pettersson and Andrei Zubarev have been among the more impressive prospects at the Thrashers training camp and are threatening to win a spot at the NHL level. The grinding, abrasive play of winger Pettersson enlivened the Thrashers during their winless streak of exhibition games while the smooth-skating Zubarev has proven to be worth the wait. Signed to an NHL contract five years after being drafted, Zubarev’s calm defending and patience with the puck has made it hard for the Thrashers’ brass to send the Russian down.
Fellow blueliner Arturs Kulda has also had a strong camp but can’t be sure of a place with the Thrashers as Zubarev and summer signing Freddie Meyer, who has played large chunks of the past three years with the New York Islanders, are threatening to steal his spot.