In the training camp preview posted 9/06/02, I posed 10 questions about things to pay attention to during camp. Let’s now revisit the questions after 12 days of camp and two preseason games and see how many can be answered.
1. Will Milan Hnilicka be signed in time for camp? Hnilicka was signed the day before camp started. The starter job remains his to lose. He has looked good in the intrasquad scrimmages, but had a poor outing against Tampa Bay in the preseason opener, giving up five goals in two periods.
2. What will this year bring in the on-going Norm Maracle soap opera? Norm showed up to camp on time, and in relatively good condition. He was reassigned to Chicago on Sept. 21. He’ll likely remain in Chicago as a back-up to Frederic Cassivi.
3. Chemistry issues. Off-ice chemistry seems fine. There have been no camp dramas this year so far. The favorites for captain at this point are newcomers Shawn McEachern and Uwe Krupp. On-ice chemistry is another story: there are certain lines who appear to be developing some, but the team as a whole is another story.
4. How well Kovalchuk and Kozlov seem to be getting along. It’s clear that Kozlov has Kovalchuk’s respect. Why? Because Kovalchuk passes to him, and he only passes to people who he thinks are worthy of the puck. GM Don Waddell used to say you weren’t getting a pass from Ilya unless you had #15 on the back of your jersey (Heatley’s number). Now it appears that a #13 jersey is OK too. Kozlov and Kovalchuk have been playing on a line together with Kamil Piros in the intrasquad scrimmages and they seem to have decent chemistry developping. They’ve largely stayed off the scoresheet, but have had numerous scoring opportunities. In the second preseason game, a Nashville player roughed up Kozlov a bit, and it was Kovalchuk who stood up for him.
5. Who will start the season in Greenville? The previously named candidates continue to be the most likely: Kaczowka, Garnett ,Sellars, Flache and Levokari. Three of these players are defensemen—this is where the surplus in the organization lies. All except Levokari have already been cut from the training camp roster as of 9/24.
6. Something NOT to pay attention to: the team’s preseason record.
So far the Thrashers are 1-1-0 with an 8-1 loss to Tampa, and a 5-4 win over Nashville. But we’re not supposed to be paying attention to this, so let’s move on quickly.
7. Will the Thrashers bite in the waiver draft? Too early to tell if the team will see any holes to fill, but unless another gift like Chris Osgood or a scoring center is available in the waiver draft, which is unlikely, the team may just stand pat. Keep in mind that the Thrashers would get the first pick due to their last place finish.
8. Will Simon Gamache prove that he is a genuine NHL prospect? He hasn’t looked out of place with the NHL guys in intrasquad scrimmages. He hasn’t gotten to play in any preseason games yet, but that’s less a reflection of him as it is a result of the fact that the coaching staff has bigger fish to fry right now than making sure all the prospects get a chance.
9. Who will play center and who will play wing? The original question was whether Kozlov or Heatley would move to center on the top line with Kovalchuk. But thus far in camp, neither has played center at all. Instead, the kids have been broken up, with Piros centering Kovalchuk and Kozlov, and Stefan centering Heatley and the winger du jour (Bartecko, usually). Using Piros at center on the top line is solving the problem temporarily, but last year Piros looked a whole lot better in camp than he did in games, so it remains to be seen if the problem is really solved. Has he improved his overall game enough to stick for this season? It appears as if he’ll at least be given a chance.
10. Is Hartigan completely healed? He may be healed, but that doesn’t mean he’s playing well right now. Not well enough to make the team at least. He was tried with Kovalchuk and Kozlov in intrasquad scrimmages, but the line didn’t click. Lately he’s been playing on checking lines. He’ll likely be sent to Chicago to start the season.
Prospect Stock Watch
Here’s a list of who is doing better than expected and worse than expected at camp.
This list is not “who is having the best and worst camps” in the sense of who is going to make the team. Rather, this is a list of who has improved or hurt their own stock in the organization, however high or low that may be, by their play in camp. They are in rough order of who has helped or hurt themselves the most.
Helping their own cause
Kamil Piros, C: Has been playing on a line with Kovalchuk and Kozlov throughout camp and seems to compliment them well. By being willing and able to play European style hockey with the two Russians, Piros is taking advantage of his opportunity. The lack of scoring centers on the team really helps his chances. To give a sense of how surprising his probable spot on the top line is, I called him a longshot in the preview, with seven guys ahead of him to make the roster. Only two or three of those will likely make it.
JP Vigier, RW: He’s been very solid all camp long, playing well with whoever he is put on a line with. While not scoring, he’s doing everything right offensively and defensively. If he doesn’t make the team, he’ll be an early call up in the event of injuries.
Kurtis Foster, D: For a guy who only played half a year of pro hockey, Foster has looked great in camp scrimmages and one preseason game. He may not see any time with the Thrashers this year, but regardless, he has raised his own stock for the future.
Karl Stewart, LW: If he wasn’t too young for it, this guy would look great on the AHL roster. He looked great all camp, but especially in the 8-1 preseason loss to Tampa which was hard to do. He was the last of the junior guys to be cut, and has set himself up well for a great first pro season next year.
Simon Gamache, LW: Doesn’t look out of place with the big boys like he did last year. He has played hard, and shown moments of promise.
Not helping their cause
Joe DiPenta, D: Has looked very ordinary and made several poor decisions in games.
Mark Hartigan, C: He was pencilled in for a roster spot before camp started, but uninspired play make it likely he’ll start in Chicago until he can get himself going.
Brad Tapper, RW: Once on the bubble, he has firmly staked out a spot in the AHL.
Kirill Safronov, D: So poised last year when called up for a few games, his play in camp has been a real step down. His coverage in the defensive zone is particularly lacking. He was pencilled in for a roster spot going in to camp, but it is now more uncertain.
Yuri Butsayev, RW/C: Granted, he arrived to camp late, but he’s been invisible in intrasquad scrimmages and has yet to play a preseason game.
Garnet Exelby, D: Aside from a few great hits, his game hasn’t been strong enough to warrant a roster spot as management hoped.
Dan Snyder, C: A tough break for him, Snyder is nursing a back injury which is keeping him from showing management why he deserves a roster spot. Fortunately for him, they can’t send him down injured so he’ll stick around for a while.
Here were the line-ups for the two preseason games thus far. While Curt Fraser normally is a line juggler, he’s been fairly consistent with combinations this year in camp.
Preseason vs. Tampa 9/20/02
The lines started out this way, but given the poor play, just about everything was tried at some point. About the only constant in the lines was that Kovalchuk and Piros stayed together. This gives you an idea what coach wanted to work out though.
Goal: Hnilicka for two periods, Cassivi for one.
Preseason vs. Nashville 9/24/02
Goal: Nurminen for 3 periods
There are three who were on the training camp roster but didn’t play in either of the first two preseason games: Yuri Butsayev, Mike Weaver, and Simon Gamache. Butsayev not playing is especially puzzling because he is supposedly competing for a roster spot.
Comments and questions are welcomed on the Thrashers Message Board.