Underachieving prospects major problem for AHL affiliate of Atlanta Thrashers

By Kyle West
Photo: A former first round pick, Angelo Esposito has struggled to not only stay healthy, but adapt to the AHL level. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Chicago Wolves failed to make the playoffs in 2010-11, let down by a weakness at center and a reliance on prospects that did not live up to even minimal expectations. A dismal season for the Thrashers organization at every level saw the Wolves collapse in the second half, much as did the parent club. Talks are reportedly underway to annul the affiliation agreement with the Chicago Wolves as the Thrashers prospects assigned to Chicago have struggled for meaningful ice time.

Forwards

Spencer Machacek, RW, 22

The reliable effort of the former Vancouver Giants captain has been a consistent feature of the Wolves no matter the standings or his linemates. Regular as a line-worker, Machacek punched in with another 20 goal season and gave his team full effort on every shift. The third year pro had his longest stint in the NHL yet with 10 games at the turn of the year but failed to produce a point in limited ice time. Machacek has to make the most of his chance to earn a roster spot next season as he is running out of time as a prospect. The third round pick in 2007 plays a solid game at both ends of the rink but unless he can generate something out of his third line minutes will find himself stuck in the AHL for longer than he wants to be.

Ben Maxwell, C, 23

The smooth skating center was acquired at the deadline from Montreal in the Brent Sopel trade and scored his first NHL goal in a 12 game cameo with the Thrashers. A top scoring playmaker at the AHL level, Maxwell combines a fluid skating style with quick hands and excellent vision. The knock on him has always been his reluctance to get into the traffic areas and fight through checks, but during his Thrashers stint Maxwell showed an increased degree of feistiness and even dropped the gloves for his first NHL fight. Given the holes at center on the Thrashers depth chart, Maxwell has his best chance to win an NHL starting job in front of him when training camp comes.

Fredrik Pettersson, RW, 23

The free-agent signing from Sweden had a slow start with the Wolves despite his strong showing in the Thrashers training camp. A smallish winger at 5’10, Pettersson made his name in Sweden by being tenacious in puck pursuit and fighting through checks, a task he found more difficult on the smaller ice of the AHL. Belatedly finding his scoring touch, Pettersson finished with 11 goals and 32 points in 67 games. Signed for one more year, Pettersson is going to have to continue his good momentum into training camp and strive to show the ability that made him a star in the SEL for the previous three seasons. Perhaps with countryman Carl Klingberg making room for him on a line, Petterson can find some space to get his deadly shot off.

Riley Holzapfel, C, 22

Much like Machacek, Holzapfel has been consistent in his production for the past three seasons with the Wolves, just he has been consistently underwhelming. Drafted in the second round as a playmaker and scoring center, Holzapfel has posted modest offensive returns with the Wolves and is attempting to reform himself as a checking line center. His 12 goals and 27 points this year were remarkably similar in stats terms to the previous two season in the AHL and his inability to show the dominant force that he was in the WHL can only be a disappointment to the Thrashers brass.

Akim Aliu, RW, 22

Assigned to Peoria in a player swap deal designed to give the Wolves some roster improvement late in the season, the powerful winger proceeded to further fan the flames of the Thrashers AHL affiliation controversy when he matched his 9 points in 43 games with Chicago in only 16 games with the Rivermen. In a further 16 games in the ECHL, Aliu scored 12 times and added eight assists, proving that he can produce within different venues. Whether the Thrashers seek to renegotiate their affiliation with the Chicago Wolves or not, Aliu must be better in order to shake the bust tag that hovers over his head at the moment.


Andrew Kozek, LW, 25

The former second rounder spent the last few games of the season on loan to the Hershey Bears, in a swap of minor-league players that send Josh Godfrey (WAS) back to the Wolves. Having scored just seven times in 57 games with Chicago, Kozek scored four goals in 14 games with the Bears, prompting further claims that the Chicago Wolves organization is just not doing a good job of developing prospects. Whether the Thrashers brass wishes to blame the structure of the AHL affiliate or not, there is no denying that the performance of Kozek has been a point of dismay. Drafted as a BCHL sniper, Kozek failed to get his big shot to the back of the net often enough to make him a viable prospect.

Angelo Esposito, C, 22

When he wasn’t injured, he was a regular in the lineup and received decent ice time to try and produce, yet Angelo Esposito scored only three goals in 57 games. A former first rounder who was a key piece in the Marian Hossa trade, Angelo Esposito is looking like a bust for the Thrashers. Unable to recapture the heady mix of speed and skill that made him a midget level phenom in Quebec, the recent knee injuries seem to have damaged his ability to create and finish against minor pro defenses. Entering his third year of an entry-level contract, Esposito must show some improvement or be consigned to the dustbin of prospect history.

Michael Forney, LW, 23

The former third rounder seems to be always on the verge of proving himself a decent scoring prospect and had a strong season in the ECHL this year. Scoring 21 goals and 66 points in the same number of games, Forney had previously struggled to put his game together well enough to win a regular spot in the AHL. A choppy skater, Formey has good size and a heavy shot but has been unable to generate any offense from his limited speed at the AHL level to date. Posting only two assists in nine games at the AHL level, Forney might be one of those Thrashers prospects to benefit from a change of affiliation.

Danick Paquette, RW, 20

A big tough winger who likes to play an agitating style, Paquette spent too much time in the penalty box to generate much offense in his rookie season. Known to be a player on the edge of hurting his team as much as inspiring them, Paquette seemed to be well over the line for most of his first year in the ECHL. With just 13 goals and 20 points in 59 games, Paquette served 179 minutes in penalties and was a minus-20 on the year. He needs to play smarter if he is going to avoid being a liability for his team and be able to push for a promotion to the next level.

Defensemen

Paul Postma, D, 22

Granted his first taste of the NHL, Postma recorded only a shot in his limited ice time with Atlanta but there is no doubt this former seventh round pick is taking his shot at the big time. One of the top scoring defensemen in the AHL this season, Postma continues to work on the other elements of his game while producing consistent offence from the point. The 6’3 rearguard fired home 12 goals and laid on 33 assists in 69 games with the Wolves and is beginning to show an improved ability to read the game in all three zones. Without an improvement in lateral movement and better positioning Postma will be a liability when not on the power play and the Thrashers are beginning to get a comfort level for his abilities as an all-rounder. The coming season is a very important one for this project defender.


Arturs Kulda, D, 22

The stocky Latvian blueliner came up for just two games with the Thrashers this year and must be bitterly disappointed with the way things have worked out. Penciled in for a place in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season, Kulda was coming off a breakout year where he led the AHL in plus/minus and had made a promising debut in the NHL. After losing out to free agent Freddie Meyer and returning to the AHL, Kulda has played a consistent defense first game with a hard-hitting style. As the depth chart opens up for him this coming pre-season, Kulda may yet make good on his ability to take a regular shift at the NHL level.

Andrey Zubarev, D, 24

Brought over from Russia on a two-year deal, the gifted defender struggled to adapt to life in the AHL at times. A smooth skater who plays a heads up game, Zubarev was tentative in his play and seemed to have too much of a laid-back attitude early in the season. As he worked his way into the lineup he began to assert himself offensively and play with a bit more jam to his game. Picking up an assist in his four game stint with the Thrashers, Zubarev is a smart player who may leap ahead several places on the depth chart next season.


Goaltenders

Edward Pasquale, G, 20

After a strong start to his AHL career Pasquale faltered and was reassigned to the ECHL, where he was regularly shelled. With the trade of Drew MacIntyre to Montreal, Pasquale returned to Chicago and played well enough to give Peter Mannino a challenge for the starter’s job. A big goalies who plays an aggressive style, Pasquale has to work on his lateral movement and puck control especially but has the technique and reflexes to become a good goalie. He posted a decent 2.93 GAA in his first AHL season and will get a chance to improve on this numbers with a greater workload next year.


Chris Carrozzi, G, 21

Holding down the starting job in his rookie season, Carrozzi saw a lot of action in the Gladiators goal. Appearing in 47 games, the former OHL standout struggled at times in a league where defense is not a priority and posted a fairly weak 3.23 goals against average and a .894 save percentage. Carrozzi is similar in size and style to Pasquale and one of the two will need to establish themselves as a contender for an NHL spot in the coming season. With Alex Kangas set to turn pro and Frederik Petterson-Wentzel dazzling in Sweden, the Thrashers depth chart in goal is becoming crowded.