Thrashers affiliates win AHL and ECHL championships

By Holly Gunning

The 2001-02 season was literally a banner year for Thrasher affiliates. The AHL Chicago Wolves and the ECHL Greenville Grrrowl both won championships in their respective leagues.

In their first year in the AHL, the Chicago Wolves won the Calder Cup championship in dramatic fashion, in double overtime at home in Game 5 of the series against Bridgeport. The Wolves were not considered strong contenders for the cup, after a less than stellar regular season. They had only the sixteenth best record entering the playoffs. On their way to the Calder Cup, the Wolves defeated the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks (Anaheim affiliate), the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit), the Syracuse Crunch (Columbus), the Houston Aeros (Wild), and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (Islanders).

The 2001-02 season was the Thrashers first year of affiliation with the Chicago Wolves, as the team moved from the IHL to the AHL. Last year the Thrashers were affiliated with the IHL Turner Cup champion Orlando Solar Bears, who ironically defeated the Chicago Wolves in the 2001finals. Thus the Thrashers primary affiliate has won its respective championship for two years running.

Thrasher prospects Dan Snyder and Pasi Nurminen were particularly key to the playoff success of the Wolves. Snyder scored five playoff game winning goals, tying an AHL record. Goaltender Nurminen was named playoff MVP, with a goals against average of 1.94 and a save percentage of .936. He is the first goaltender to win the award since 1995. Both Nurminen and Snyder spent part of the year with the Thrashers and were already expected to make the Thrashers roster full time in 2002-03.

Chicago Statistics

 
Pos
GP
G
A
PTS
+/-
PIM
GW
Karlsson
C
22
7
14
21
11
6
1
Snyder
C
21
7
10
17
10
25
5
Piros
C
24
6
11
17
0
6
0
Vigier
RW
20
7
7
14
7
20
2
Butsayev
LW
21
7
4
11
2
20
2
Safronov
D
24
2
6
8
7
8
0
Tapper
RW
18
3
4
7
0
42
1
MacKenzie
C
24
4
2
6
-3
20
0
Simon
C
24
2
3
5
0
24
1
DiPenta
D
24
1
3
4
8
22
0
Weaver
D
24
1
3
4
6
21
1
Exelby
D
24
0
4
4
9
49
0
Blatny
LW
3
2
0
2
1
0
2
Foster
D
14
1
1
2
-2
21
0
Lessard
D
14
0
1
1
4
40
0
Ustrnul
D
1
0
0
0
0
5
0
Adams
LW
5
0
0
0
1
2
0

 GPIMINAVGWLENSOGASAVESSPCT
Nurminen
21
1267
1.94
15
5
2
2
41
587
.935
Cassivi
5
264
2.50
2
2
0
0
11
132
.923
Maracle
2
55
4.36
0
1
0
0
4
18
.818

Twenty out of the twenty-six players on the Wolves playoff roster are property of the Atlanta Thrashers, including all three goaltenders. Leading all Thrasher prospects in scoring in the playoffs was Andreas Karlsson, who spent most of the year with the Thrashers, getting sent down near the trade deadline. He also lead prospects in plus/minus. Leading the team in penalty minutes was Exelby with 49, Tapper with 42 and Lessard with 40. Blatny, who was key to the Grrrowl playoff run, played only three games for the Wolves, but scored 2 game winning goals.

Wolves Coach John Anderson deserves a lot of credit for the success of the Wolves. He led the team to the Turner Cup finals last year, and to a Calder Cup championship this year. With his excellent resume, don’t be surprised to see him offered an assistant position in the NHL.

Greenville Grrrowl

The Thrashers secondary affiliate, the ECHL Greenville Grrrowl, swept the Dayton Bombers on their way to their first ever Kelly Cup Championship. Along the way, they defeated the Florida Everblades, the PeeDee Pride, and the Mississippi Sea Wolves. Their playoff success came after a solid regular season, in which they won the Southeast division. Four Thrasher prospects played for the Grrrowl in the playoffs.

Greenville Statistics

 
Pos
GP
G
A
PTS
+/-
PIM
GW
Gamache
LW
17
15
9
24
8
22
3
Sellars
D
17
7
6
13
4
44
1
Blatny
LW
9
2
8
10
4
14
0
Dessner
D
13
3
5
8
9
10
0

Thrasher prospect Simon Gamache shared playoff MVP honors with Grrrowl goaltender Tyrone Garner. Gamache scored 24 points in only 17 games, 3 of the goals game winners. Leading Thrasher prospects in plus/minus was Dessner, at +9. Sellars led the group in penalty minutes with 44.

Impact for the Thrashers

The Thrashers enjoy two main benefits from the success of the Wolves and Grrrowl: winning environments and increased exposure for their prospects. GM Don Waddell has been concerned since the inaugural season that the Thrashers prospects should be developing in a winning atmosphere, that they are learning how to win, not just how to play. He used this as the reasoning for not letting them spend too much time up with the big club when it was in a losing streak. He has also used this logic when deciding to sign or not sign junior players. For example, this is his reasoning for signing Michael Garnett this year, despite the fact that he has junior eligibility left — he wants to get Garnett out of his current losing environment. Waddell is very pleased about the winning environments that the Wolves and the Grrrowl have provided Thrashers prospects. The long runs in the playoffs have given other NHL clubs the opportunity to take closer looks at Thrasher prospects. Their solid play will only make them more valuable on the trading block, should that be the plan. Also a long trip to the finals allows the players to play more games, a benefit certainly to players like Pasi Nurminen, who was injured to start the year. And last but not lesat, the challenge of playing for a championship tests the players in pressure situations to see how they will respond.

The State of Affiliation

With the seasons of all three teams finally complete, it is a good time to examine the state of the Thrashers affiliations.

The first year of the Wolves-Thrashers affiliation had its ups and downs, but was ultimately a good one. When it mattered, there was good cooperation between the teams. After the trading deadline, the Thrashers did not have enough players on the roster without calling up some of the players the Wolves were relying on for the playoffs. But in order to put the Wolves playoffs first, the Thrashers shuttled these players up and down between Chicago and Atlanta so that they could continue to play in as many Wolves games as possible. The Thrashers used a different back-up goalie for the last three NHL games, based on who would disrupt the Wolves roster the least. They even had a guy just out of juniors dressed in the last game. At one point, the Thrashers played one man short in a game rather than call up another player from Chicago. It’s obvious how important it was to them to see Chicago succeed in the playoffs.

There were some issues regarding icetime for particular players. The biggest problem was that the Thrashers simply had too many players under contract — 49 out of the maximum 50 at one point. The Wolves were not able to provide quality icetime to all of these players, which caused some to be sent to Greenville.

Another minor problem in the affiliation is that the Wolves play in the Western conference, while the Thrashers play in the Eastern. The distance between Atlanta and Chicago themselves is not prohibitive, but the fact that the travel destinations of the two team are so disparate that causes problems. The Thrashers were on the road in Ottawa in March and needed a defenseman, but the Wolves were in Salt Lake City and there were no flights out available. The Thrashers solved the problem by calling up Luke Sellars out of Greenville.

The Thrashers affiliation with Greenville is now three years old. This relationship is very healthy, and closer than most NHL/ECHL teams, based not only on geography (Greenville is only 2.5 hours from Atlanta), but also on the fact that the Thrashers have used the ECHL as a place for player development to a greater extent than other NHL teams. In 2001-02, the Thrashers sent five prospects to play in Greenville for a portion of the year: Simon Gamache, Luke Sellars, Zdenek Blatny, David Kaczowka, and Jeff Dessner.

The biggest question mark in the Thrashers affiliation with the Grrrowl is the fact that there will be a new ECHL team in the Atlanta metropolitan area beginning in 2003-04. The former Mobile Mysticks franchise which is moving to Gwinnett County, Georgia, just down the road from the Thrashers practice facility. The GM of the Gwinnett franchise has already expressed interest in affiliation with the Thrashers, and while the Thrashers have made no comment on the matter, the marketing and other benefits to the arrangement make it likely to happen.