The Wolves played three games last weekend, Friday in Grand Rapids, Saturday at home against Hartford, and Sunday at Milwaukee. These were games 8, 9 and 10 on the Wolves season. Thrashers editor Matt Gunning and I went on the road with the Wolves and bring you our report on how the guys are doing.
This summary will cover all the players who are property of the Thrashers, whether they are true prospects or not, in order to give a sense of who is available for call-ups. Fortunately we had seen all of these players before, either last year with the Wolves, the Grrrowl or in Thrashers training camp so we were able to focus on how they are developing over time. Players are listed by position, in rough order of how they performed.
Garnet Exelby, 21: An 8th round steal, Exelby is the Wolves most dependable defenseman. He is almost always where he should be and does a good job of clearing the crease, although he should be more careful with his stick or he’ll be called for a lot of crosschecking. He leads the team in hits, penalty minutes (32) and plus/minus (+8). Tough but poised. He’s very intense. He gets a ton of icetime, plays in all game situations, specializing in penalty kill and is usually paired with Eakins. Keeps the puck in when he should, and gets it out when necessary. There is no reason why he could not be called up to Atlanta as injuries necessitate. Thrasher fans thirsting for a nastier defense should be pleased when he finally arrives.
Joe DiPenta, 23: He’s a solid defensive defenseman. Plays the PK with Sellars or Safronov. He helps out the goaltender by using his body effectively and leads the team in blocked shots. He needs to be careful not to take unnecessary penalties. One area for improvement is for him to take a moment in the defensive zone to look for a pass instead of merely ringing the puck out of the zone around the boards. This too often leads to possession by the other team.
Kurtis Foster, 20: Offensively Foster looks great, but he has problems in his own end. His great shot is terrific on the power play and he makes decent outlet passes. He was benched for two thirds of Sunday’s game apparently for poor defensive play leading to goals. He was –3 for the game and only played one period. He is –12 for the year after 10 games, the lowest among Thrasher prospects on the Wolves. If he could just be more responsible in his coverage, he’ll go far. Foster should also use his size a bit more. For a big guy he doesn’t put a body on the opposition near enough. Usually paired with Safronov. Plays very little on the PK.
Kirill Safronov, 21: Made the Thrashers opening night roster but sent back to Chicago for poor defensive play. He looks no better in Chicago than he did in Atlanta. He’s a two-way defenseman, and plays in all game situations. One problem for him is clearing the zone, particularly on the penalty kill. He repeatedly fails to clear the zone (dumping blindly up the boards), leading to chances for the opposition. Doesn’t hit as much as he should. Paired with either Foster or DiPenta.
Dallas Eakins, 35: He’s not flashy or physical, but usually makes the smart play. Does not turn the puck over easily. Plays in all game situations and usually paired with Exelby. This veteran defenseman is now property of the Thrashers and the team shouldn’t hesitate to call upon him if injuries necessitate.
Pauli Levokari, 24: Drafted in 2002 as an overage European, he is a stay at home defenseman. He skates surprisingly well some someone his size, but no one would confuse him with Chris Pronger in that area. He’s sometimes careless with outlet passes, passing into the skates of opposing players. Plays on the PK. Don Waddell’s hope to see him in Atlanta in a year or two might not be as crazy as first thought.
Luke Sellars, 21: He has a great shot and isn’t afraid to use it. Plays on the power play. Usually paired with DiPenta. He looked much improved over last season, but he still has a long way to go if he wants to make the big show. In particular he needs practice on coverage in his own end, especially when other teams cycle the puck. Is it too late to try him at forward?
Libor Ustrnul, 20: Looks sharp—-in a suit. He had a seat on the sidelines for the entire weekend but was sporting a nice shiner from an earlier game.
Dan Snyder, 24: He looked very good with the Thrashers to start the year, but looked only average with the Wolves. He wasn’t a pain to play against like he normally is. He is asked to play more of a two way game in the AHL as opposed to just a checking game in the NHL. He’s very good on the Wolves PK unit. One area to work on is faceoffs, he only won about a third of his draws this weekend.
Kamil Piros, 24: The knock on his game used to be that he was poor defensively and bad on faceoffs. Neither were true in the games we saw. He came back to help defensively and was quite effective at it. He was exactly even on faceoffs. He played almost exclusively at even strength, with Gamache at his wing. He’s not a physical player at all, but doesn’t shy away from contact. He will go into high traffic areas and take a hit to make a play. The surprise with him was how ineffective he looked offensively. It could be a lack of chemistry with Gamache and his other winger of the minute. Last year he was one of the leading scorers for the team, this year he only has 2 points in 10 games. What happened to the flashy stickhandling?
Derek MacKenzie, 21: One of the Wolves’ best defensive forwards, MacKenzie plays a lot of time on the PK, the lone forward on 5 on 3s. He is extremely effective at clearing the puck out of the defensive zone on the penalty kill. He’s adequate on faceoffs, hovering near 50%. He looks promising, the problem for him being that there are many good checking centers in the organization and it will be hard to find a spot for him. He’s young though, so he’s got time.
Andy Karlsson, 27: He’s a good all around player capable of playing in any situation. Anderson sometimes uses him at the point on the power play. One of his biggest strengths is faceoffs, he won about two thirds of his draws this weekend.
Mark Hartigan, 25: A prolific scorer in college, he’s struggling with the transition to the AHL. He played the point on the power play Friday night, but saw very little time otherwise and had very few offensive opportunities when he was out. Two of his attempted shots missed the net. He sat out both Saturday and Sunday serving a 3-game suspension for an earlier incident. Hartigan was supposed to be one of the few offensive prospects for the organization—if he doesn’t pan out it will be disappointing.
JP Vigier, 26: Probably the best player on the Wolves roster, and not just because he currently leads the team in scoring. He works hard every shift, handles the puck with confidence and puts himself in good position to score. He goes to the net well and gets open for scoring chances. Naturally plays the power play. If one of the wingers on the Thrashers top two lines are struck by injuries, the Thrashers should not hesitate to bring up Vigier again.
Zdenek Blatny, 21: Drafted as a scorer, Coach Anderson is using him on a checking line and in penalty kill situations and Blatny is succeeding there. Developing his checking game is likely the only ticket upward at this point, since his offensive instincts don’t appear nearly strong enough to lean on.
Ben Simon, 24: He’s a checker and penalty killer who works hard and gets the job done. He’s a +3 for the year. He’s aggressive and effective on the forecheck. Hitting used to be a big part of his game, but we didn’t see that out of him this weekend. Simon has very little in the form of offensive instincts. He gets scoring opportunities but doesn’t do much with them. Simon used to center the checking line, but now that is Derek MacKenzie’s spot. While good for the organization that a younger player with more upside is fulfilling that role, it’s not good for Ben Simon.
Brad Tapper, 24: At his age he should be making some kind of impact in the minors, but he’s not. Resigning him to a contract extension this summer was probably not a good decision since the team has numerous players who can fill the exact role he can, and do it better. For the Wolves he is a utility player, plays on whatever line he’s needed and kills penalties. He had a four game suspension, which you should keep in mind when looking at his statistics.
Simon Gamache, 21: A prolific scorer in junior, Gamache continues to struggle to get icetime and to score in the AHL. He plays mostly at even strength with Piros, who is an excellent set-up man and should give Gamache plenty of opportunity to score. But he’s not scoring. One of the biggest problems in Gamache’s game is that he is continually out of position–zigging when he should be zagging. He’s in constant motion, but his skating angles don’t necessarily create passing lanes. Often he’s so far up the ice that he isn’t where his teammates expect him to be. He’s also often cherry-picking, which takes him out of the play. One strength is that he’s effective on the forecheck, very aggressive.
Fred Cassivi, 27: Looked very shaky in the game he started, gave up soft goals along the post and 5-hole. He would likely be the first call-up to Atlanta in the case of injury, but right now he does not look ready to go. Stats: 4.53 GAA and .847 SPCT for a 1-3-0-0 record.
Norm Maracle, 28: He wasn’t great, gave up two stoppable goals in both starts. But he battles and made a few nice saves as well. One of his biggest problems was rebound control. Stats: 3.19 GAA and .893 SPCT for a 1-4-1-0 record.
Summary of strength of positions:
Defense remains the strong point of the Thrashers organization as far as prospects go. Exelby, Foster, DiPenta, and Safronov all look poised to make it to the NHL. Levokari may or may not. At center, there are a lot of question marks. Snyder will eventually stick in the NHL, but Piros and Hartigan may not. MacKenzie looks good for his age but has some development to do. Karlsson is merely serving out the rest of his contract and will not be resigned. Wing is even weaker: Vigier is a good depth player but is too old to ever make an impact in the NHL. Simon and Tapper may not play another game in the NHL. Blatny and Gamache may never get a taste of the big show. The lack of depth at wing on one hand is OK, since Kovalchuk and Heatley are going nowhere. But the Thrashers second line is a veteran line and will eventually need to be replaced. The Thrashers need to try to pick up more scorers to stock the system. The goaltenders in Chicago are depth players only, neither are ever going to make an impact. The Thrashers stud goaltending prospect, Lehtonen, is of course playing in Finland this season.
The team went 1-2 for the weekend, beating only Milwaukee, falling to 2-6-1-1 for the season. Their special teams play was good, and they played smart games, but they suffered from defensive breakdowns and erratic goaltending.
The team leaders in each statistical category are highlighted. The players in grey are not property of the Thrashers.
Comments and questions are welcomed on the HF Thrashers Board. Matt Gunning contributed to this report.