Thrashers Training Camp Preview

By Holly Gunning

The Thrashers open their 2002 training camp with on-ice workouts on Friday, September 13th at the Duluth IceForum in suburban Atlanta. The team has a total of 47 players under contract (not counting Yuri Butsayev, who will likely play in Russia this year or Milan Hnilicka, who has yet to sign a contract). To make the competition even more intense, everyone is coming in healthy–there are no injury holdovers from last season or the summertime.

Fifty-three players are on the official camp roster, including four junior players. Unlike last year, there are no rookie headliners like Kovalchuk and Heatley. Neither 2002 first round pick, Kari Lehtonen nor Jim Slater, will be attending. Lehtonen is staying in Finland for the season, and Slater will continue playing at Michigan State.

No one, not even the coaching staff, can predict how things will shake out at camp, so instead of predictions, here¡¦s a list of the ten things to pay attention to at training camp and into the preseason– essentially between now and opening night.

1. Will Milan Hnilicka be signed in time for camp? This may be the most important question of all for the Thrashers season. The Thrashers starting netminder is looking for a substantial raise from his $650,000 salary. The two sides are about $1 million apart. If Hnilicka remains unsigned at the beginning of camp, the thing to watch will be how quickly Byron Dafoe can be brought into the fold.

2. What will this year bring in the on-going Norm Maracle soap opera?
In the past two years, Maracle has shown up to training camp overweight in 2000, and then not at all in 2001. He’s listed on the training camp roster for 2002, but what his future holds is anyone’s guess. The Thrashers do not really need his services this year, and they would be happier to give AHL icetime to prospect Michael Garnett rather than Maracle.

3. Chemistry issues. The Thrashers lockerroom is divided between North Americans and Europeans. In the off season, a Russian, a Czech, a German and two North Americans were added to the team, tilting the balance more towards the Europeans. Here’s the breakdown of nationalities on a projected 23-man roster.

– 8 Canadians (Heatley, Tremblay, Odgers, Cowan, Snyder, Sutton, Hartigan and Hrkac)
– 2 Americans (Tamer and McEachern)
– 4 Czechs (Stefan, Kaberle, Smehlik and Hnilicka)
– 3 Russians (Kova, Kozlov and maybe Safronov)
– 2 Swedes (Tjarnqvist and Svartvadet)
– 2 Finns (Nurminen and Kallio)
– 1 Slovak (Bartecko)
– 1 German (Krupp)

The team will again be majority Europeans (using the above list, 57%, vs 43% North Americans), although less heavily Czech than in the past.

In 2001-02, Per Svartvadet wore an A, the lone European in an official leadership position in Thrashers history. It’s possible that his A could be handed over to Slava Kozlov or Uwe Krupp this year out of deference to their veteran status.

4. How well Kovalchuk and Kozlov seem to be getting along. Slava Kozlov was brought in not only to help the Thrashers offense, but also to be a mentor to the teenaged Ilya Kovalchuk. Watch for a good relationship developing between them.

5. Who will start the season in Greenville? The high number of players under contract means that there will be about 3-4 players likely starting in the ECHL with the affiliated Greenville Grrrowl. The likely candidates are Paul Flache (coming out of juniors), Pauli Levokari, (coming over from Finland), David Kaczowka (played in Greenville part of last year), and Michael Garnett (coming out of juniors). The organization is better stocked at D than the other positions, so is more likely to send defensemen to Greenville. Winger Zdenik Blatny and defenseman Luke Sellars could be back in Greenville as well if they don¡¦t demonstrate a good work ethic in camp.

6. Something NOT to pay attention to: the team’s preseason record. Trophies aren’t awarded in October–preseason games are a great chance to get a look at line combinations and give the guys on the bubble lots of icetime to show their worth. But don’t read too much into the team results. Last year the Thrashers went 4-2-1 in preseason and went on to last place in the regular season. Individual performances mean a lot more than team performance in the preseason.

7. Will the Thrashers bite in the waiver draft? The waiver draft takes place between preseason and regular season (likely Oct 9th). As the last place finishing team, the Thrashers have first pick in this year’s waiver draft. Whether or not the team selects someone will become clearer once it can clearly see its needs.

8. Will Simon Gamache prove that he is a genuine NHL prospect? QMJHL scoring sensation Simon Gamache is the Thrashers prospect who causes the most controversy regarding talent. He looked bad in NHL preseason last year, but went on to have a very successful stint in the ECHL. If he looks like he belongs during preseason this year, it will do a lot to quiet doubters that he could potentially make the jump to the NHL in the future. Two bad camps in a row will likely send him off management’s radar screen.

9. Who will play center and who will play wing? Among those who could be playing either one this season: Patrik Stefan, Dany Heatley, and Slava Kozlov. This will likely require some experimentation. It’s interesting to note that on the preseason roster, Stefan is listed at center, and both Heatley and Kozlov are listed as RW. If Heatley and Kozlov are going to play on a line together, something’s got to give. On a related note, will changing from a #13 jersey to a #27 jersey improve Stefan’s rotten luck?

10. Is Hartigan completely healed? Mark Hartigan had a severe hamstring injury at the end of last year and spent the summer rehabbing. He participated in light contact at prospect camp with no problems, but real games are a different animal. The rookie tournament in Traverse City will be the test for him. How Hartigan looks in camp will also determine where will he start the year, either in Atlanta or Chicago (AHL).

Prospects who have a legitimate chance at NHL jobs

Pasi Nurminen, G: All but assured the back-up role in Atlanta this year, although Cassivi will provide some competition. The team will not start the season with only Nurminen if Hnilicka does not sign, since Pasi Nurminen has only played nine NHL games.
Dan Snyder, C: A spark plug, Snyder will likely to pick up a spot on the 4th line.
Kirill Safronov, D: A favorite of the coaching staff, he can do it all, but he may get squeezed out of a spot by the additions of Krupp and Smehlik.
Garnet Exelby, D: Is he really ready for the bigs as management claims? If any of the physical defensemen dissapoint in camp, Exelby will be there.
Mark Hartigan, C: The plan was for him to get his feet wet in the NHL at the end of last season, but he got hurt after only two games. They may send him to Chicago until they can figure out where he belongs.
JP Vigier, RW: Good in the first few games he was up last year, he tailed off quickly. Vigier is too old to still be considered a prospect, so what you see is pretty much what you get. He’s a depth guy in the organization, may see time in case of injuries.
Joe DiPenta, D: Looks ready to make the jump, but will have to wait in line.

Longshots: Kamil Piros, C and Brad Tapper, RW. Piros needs to work a lot harder to be worthy of an NHL job. Tapper, like Vigier, is no longer a prospect, more of a depth guy, but with less scoring prowess than Vigier.

If these prospects can make it, they will be stealing jobs from guys on the bubble: guys like Pascal Rheaume and Tomi Kallio. Rheaume was picked up off waivers last year and performed well for a while, but tailed off. Kallio had a horrible sophomore season in 2001-02 and will have a lot to prove this year. But if he looks like he doesn’t have it together in camp, someone could take his job.

Comments and questions are welcomed on the Thrashers Message Board.