Minor-league system for Atlanta Thrashers deep on toughness and goaltending

By Kyle West
Photo: The Atlanta Thrashers boast several prospects who are close to being NHL ready including Spencer Machacek. (Photo Courtesy of www.chicagowolves.com)

The Chicago Wolves have four players amongst the top scorers in the AHL, although only one of them can be considered a prospect. Jason Krog, Darren Haydar and Jared Ross are all AHL veterans well past the age where they can be considered future prospects, however winger Spencer Machacek is amongst the top point producers in the league in his third AHL season.


AHL

Akim Aliu, RW, 21

Acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in the Dustin Byfuglien trade, Aliu has continued to underwhelm in the Thrasher’s organization. A strong and fast winger who plays with an edge, Aliu has been held to just four goals with the Wolves this year despite getting regular ice time in 39 games. A controversial figure, Aliu became a media cause célèbre when he refused to participate in a hazing ritual as an OHL rookie. An offseason altercation this year in a Toronto nightclub further added to his reputation as a "troublemaker." Whatever his off-ice demeanor, Aliu has disappointed so far on the ice and is in danger of seeing his gifts for the game wasted.


Patrice Cormier, C, 20

A hard-working player who gives his all to the cause, Cormier played just 11 games with the Wolves before being recalled to Atlanta. Injured to start the season, Cormier’s rehabilitation in the minors saw him score just twice with three assists, however his value to the team goes beyond the scoresheet. A vocal presence and on-ice leader, Cormier is a key performer on the penalty kill and is often assigned to shut down the opposition’s best players. A penchant for crossing the line with elbows and nasty stickwork may be his biggest claim to fame, however the former captain of Canada’s world junior entry is a coachable and reliable player who should see less of the Wolves and more of the Thrashers in the year ahead.

Angelo Esposito, C, 21

A mercurial talent in danger of fading away, the former first rounder whom the Thrashers acquired in the Hossa trade with Pittsburgh had been left out of the lineup for most of the early part of the Wolves season. Seeing some increased ice time recently, Esposito responded with a game winning goal against the Hamilton Bulldogs, his third of the season. A dying ember of hope in a career that had seemed to burn out after three consecutive season-ending knee injuries, Esposito will need to fan those sparks in order to avoid becoming a high-profile bust.

Riley Holzapfel, C, 22

Drafted as a playmaker with high offensive upside, Holzapfel has been undergoing a transformation into a checking-line center. Assigned to shadow the opposition’s top players last season, Holzapfel saw his offensive production decline but was rewarded with a longer look at the Thrasher’s pre-season training camp.

A key performer for the Chicago Wolves, Holzapfel is being counted on as a defensive forward with some skill, however his offensive numbers continue to decline and he seems to have fallen behind Patrice Cormier on the depth chart. To date, Holzapfel has four goals and nine assists in 38 games.

Andrew Kozek, RW, 24

The Thrashers second round pick in 2005, Kozek is in all-too familiar downward spiral. Scoring 48 goals in the BCHL in his draft year, Kozek showed only rare glimpses of that high-powered offensive game in his four years with the University of North Dakota and has since been assigned to fourth line duties with the Wolves. Now in his second full season in the AHL, Kozek is on a pace to score less than the 12 goals in 69 games he scored as a rookie. Unable to improve a cumbersome skating stride and without the size needed to battle through traffic, Kozek’s booming shot is all but wasted.

Arturs Kulda, D, 22

While the hockey world bade a fond farewell to the retiring Chris Chelios last year, Arturs Kulda could be forgiven for shedding a few more tears than most. Chelios’ regular defense partner last year, Kulda had the best plus/minus rating in the AHL and saw his first NHL games with the Thrashers. Penciled into the lineup to start the year, Kulda lost his training camp battle to free agent Freddie Meyer and hasn’t found a defenseman on the Wolves quite so reliable this year, as he is a minus-four on the season. The young Latvian remains a top prospect for the Thrashers, as his combative style makes him a useful player in his own end, but without Chelios beside him his star doesn’t shine quite so brightly.

Spencer Machacek, RW, 22

Another player who lost his training camp battle for an NHL spot, Machacek has responded to the demotion with hard work and an increased focus on playing a complete game. Riding shotgun to AHL veteran Jason Krog on the top line, Machacek is on pace for a near 30 goal season in his third year as a pro. A former captain of the Vancouver Giants, Machacek plays a physical north-south game with a commitment to the defensive side of the game. Adding a bit more jam to his game last year, Machacek has taken the next step in his development and become an offensive threat. Now all that remains is for him to force an opening on the Thrashers depth chart for himself.

Fredrik Pettersson, RW, 23

The free agent signing was one of the last cuts in training camp, however he has thus far failed to look like a player capable of staying the course in North America. An undersized winger, the speedy Petterson plays with buzzsaw intensity and has a quick and accurate snapshot. Scoring 20 goals in 54 games with Vastra Frolunda of the SEL caught the attention of the Thrashers and he impressed in training camp. However since being demoted to the Wolves he has managed only 4 goals in 29 games and has struggled to show the same ability to generate offense for himself and his teammates. Petterson has played two seasons in the WHL so should be somewhat accustomed to the more physical game on the smaller ice and his early returns a very disappointing for a player thought to able to produce some goals for the Wolves this year.

Paul Postma,
D, 21

One of the sharper upward curves in terms of player development, Postma was drafted in the seventh round of the 2007 entry draft as a player with a hard shot who moved the puck well but was also ungainly and skated with an awkward stride. Two years later Postma destroyed the WHL with 23 goals and 84 points in 70 games and last year he was the Wolves power play quarterback, firing home 15 goals in 63 games. A proven offensive catalyst, Postma is continuing to get stronger in even strength situations and learning how to play without the puck. Once he bulks up his 6’3 frame sufficiently and proves he is not likely to be culpable for defensive gaffes, Postma will be a valuable asset to the Thrashers blue line.

Andrei Zubarev, D, 23

From Atlantl to Atlanta, Andrei Zubarev has found the transition from Europe to North America to be challenging. Signed from KHL club Atlantl, Zubarev had been an impressive puck-moving defenseman in Russia who came to camp and impressed with a calm, effective game. Victim of a numbers game, Zubarev has been the odd man out in Chicago however, playing in only 18 games with the Wolves. Maintaining a cheerful demeanor while sidelined, Zubarev is outwardly committed to staying in North America.


ECHL

Chris Carrozzi, G, 20

Rookie pro Carrozzi has been the number one goalie for Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL, starting 25 games and seeing plenty of the puck. His 3.12 goals against average and .894 save percentage are hardly eye-catching but the sixth round pick in 2008 has had to make a dramatic adjustment after being the backstop on an OHL powerhouse in Mississauga. With far less protection from his defense, Carrozzi will be forced to work on his glove hand and lateral movement, two attributes that have been somewhat weak for the young netminder, during his ECHL baptism of fire.

Michael Forney, LW, 22

Dropped from the Wolves roster after just four games, Forney has boosted his confidence by becoming a top scorer with the Gladiators. Scoring just eight times, Forney has 25 helpers in 35 games. A third rounder in 2006, the UND dropout has yet to live up to his early promise as a Minnnesota high school standout. A renewed commitment to fitness and the confidence boost from being a top-line forward may be just what he needs to get his development back on track.

Ian McKenzie, RW, 23

A giant of a man from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, McKenzie acts as enforcer while rarely having to drop the gloves. There are few in the ECHL who would care to tangle with the super heavyweight and his presence is a deterrent to anyone who would take liberties with his Gladiator teammates. A hard-worker who has enough hockey sense to play a role and take a regular shift, McKenzie will always be able to find employment in the minor leagues.

Danick Paquette, RW, 20

Much as he did in his junior career, Paquette is starting with a new team as an agitator. A third rounder in 2008, Paquette began his first few years in the QMJHL as a scrapper who mixed things up before developing into a more controlled offensive force. His last year of junior Paquette scored 36 goals in 64 games while reducing his penalty minutes by half. His first year in the ECHL he is out to make a name for himself in a new league and has already well over 100 minutes in penalties in 34 games. Spending that much time in the box inhibits Paquette’s offensive talents but his game is well-established and his current scoring rate of seven goals and 11 points should progress throughout the year.

Edward Pasquale, G, 20

Starting the season as the Wolves number one netminder, Pasquale thrived in the early exchanges. As Ondrej Pavelec was recovering from a fainting spell, Pasquale had the AHL all to himself and was sensational in the first few weeks of his rookie season. However AHL shooters began to fins holes in his game and his stats ballooned With Peter Mannino sent back down to the Wolves when Pavelec recovered, Pasquale found himself demoted to the ECHL to form a tandem with Chris Carrozzi. The two OHL standouts give the Thrashers remarkable depth at the goaltending position. With the Wolves, Pasquale posted a 5-6 record, 3.16 goals against average, and a .892 save percentage through 11 games. In the ECHL, he posted a 2-2 record, a 2.94 goals against average, and a .926 save percentage through four games.