Thrashers: Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

The new Thrashers Top 20 welcomes 2003 draftees Braydon Coburn, Jimmy Sharrow and Tobias Enstrom, as well as recent acquisition Anthony Aquino.

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
Age: 19
Drafted: Atlanta’s 1st choice, 2nd overall, in the 2002 Entry Draft
Type of player: Franchise goaltender
Comment: Lehtonen will eventually be the man, but not this year. He has signed to a rookie contract, and will likely spend most of the year with Chicago of the AHL. There is no need to rush him into anything, when the team has two capable starters in Nurminen and Dafoe.

2. Braydon Coburn, D
Age: 18
Drafted: Atlanta’s 1st choice, 8th overall, in the 2003 Entry Draft
Type of player: Two-way defenseman
Comment: Coburn is a well rounded defenseman who does everything well. There is no doubt he can be the Top 2 defenseman that the team needs. That’s some time in the future though, he will almost certainly go back to juniors in the fall.

3. Jim Slater, C
Age: 20
Drafted: Atlanta’s 2nd choice, 30th overall, 2002 Entry Draft
Type of player: Two-way center
Comment: Slater is much closer to being NHL-ready this year, which moved him up the rankings. Good eye by the Thrashers scouts to target him in the 2002 draft. He scored over a point a game in 2002-03, demonstrating his offensive potential. A real competitor, Slater will return to Michigan State for his junior year as captain in the fall.

4. Garnet Exelby, D
Age: 22 (in August)
Drafted: Atlanta’s 9th choice, 217th overall, 1999 Entry Draft
Type of player: Tough defensive defenseman
Comment: Second year pro who hits and will drop the gloves. He will likely make the Thrashers roster for most of the year, where he needs to concentrate on playing solid defense.

5. Tommi Santala, C
Age: 24
Drafted: Atlanta’s 10th choice, 245th overall, 1999 Entry Draft
Type of player: Two-way center
Comment: The third highest scorer in the Finnish Elite League last year, Santala is signed and will be making his North American debut in the fall. He will compete for a spot on the Thrashers, at third line center or maybe wing. He has a good chance of making the team. At age 24, he should be ready for the NHL.

6. Kirill Safronov, D
Age: 22
Acquired: Traded from Phoenix in March 2002 along with Ruslan Zainullan for Darcy Hordichuk and a 5th round pick in 2002 and swap of 4th round picks in 2002.
Type of player: Defensive defenseman
Comment: Safronov is the highest ranked player who wasn’t originally drafted by the Thrashers. He can move the puck well, and is generally solid defensively, but his play is inconsistent. He gets focused too much on the puck and his reactions suffer. This year is very important for him. He will see some time with the Thrashers, the amount is dependent on his play.

7. Michael Garnett, G
Age: 20
Drafted: Atlanta’s 3rd pick, 80th overall, 2001 Entry Draft
Comment: Garnett is solid though unspectacular, with some lingering questions about his quickness. In his second year pro, Garnett might be ready for the AHL this year, but the Thrashers continued overabundance of goaltenders means that he may have to remain in the ECHL another year.

8. Ilja Nikulin, D
Age: 21
Drafted: Atlanta’s 2nd choice, 31st overall in 2000 Entry Draft
Type of player: Defensive defenseman
Comment: One of the biggest enigmas on the list. Will remain in Russia again this year. The longer it takes him to make the transition to North America, the less assured his stock becomes.

9. Karl Stewart, LW
Age: 20
Acquired: Signed as a free agent in September 2001
Type of player: Second or third line winger
Comment: Thirteenth in the OHL in scoring last year, Stewart is a heart and soul player with deceptive speed and good hands, but lacks size. Will join the Chicago Wolves in the fall for his first year pro.

10. Kurtis Foster, D
Age: 21
Acquired: Traded from Calgary in December 2001 along with Jeff Cowan for Petr Buzek and a conditional draft pick.
Type of player: Offensive defenseman
Comment: Has great size and a terrific shot, but is held back by defensive lapses and mental errors. He was –15 during the regular season, but a much improved +2 in the playoffs (second on the team). He’s pretty far away from making the NHL, which keeps his rating low. He will spend the majority of the year with the Chicago Wolves.

11. Libor Ustrnul, D
Age: 21
Drafted: Atlanta’s 2nd round pick, 42nd overall, in the 2000 Entry Draft
Type of player: Defensive defenseman
Comment: Ustrnul has good size, but needs to polish his game in all areas. A second year pro, he will remain with the Chicago Wolves. Ustrnul played in only 40 games last year, his ice time can only increase.

12. Jimmy Sharrow, D
Age: 18
Drafted: Atlanta’s 4th round pick, 116th overall, in the 2003 Entry Draft
Type of player: Defensive defenseman
Comment: Sharrow is a good skating defender, though not physical. He needs to work on strength and defense, but should contribute in a couple years. The rarity of very mobile defensemen increases his stock. Sharrow will return to juniors in the fall.

13. Colin Stuart, LW/C
Age: 21
Drafted: Atlanta’s 5th round choice, 135th overall in the 2001 Entry Draft
Type of player: Third line center/wing.
Comment: Good skating, well-rounded player with good hands and good defensive play is sure to be a part of the future. Stuart will return to Colorado College for his senior year as captain in 2003-04.

14. Pat Dwyer, RW
Age: 20
Drafted: Atlanta’s 4th round pick, 116th overall in the 2002 Entry Draft
Type of player: Second or third line winger
Comment: Pat Dwyer is a partial answer to the lack of offensive depth in the organization. He has good offensive talent, but doesn’t score as much as he is probably capable of. Will return to Western Michigan for his junior year this fall.

15. Stephen Baby, RW
Age: 23
Drafted: Atlanta’s 8th round pick, 188th overall in 1999 Entry Draft
Type of player: Offensive winger
Comment: Baby was a prolific scorer with Cornell, sixth in ECAC scoring. He has a good hard shot. The team will likely try to sign him for this fall, and if so, he will spend time in Chicago.

16. Jeff Dwyer, D
Age: 21
Drafted: Atlanta’s 8th round pick, 178th overall, in the 2000 Entry Draft
Type of player: Two-way defenseman
Comment: Dwyer looks like he has all the skills for putting up numbers, good passing, good shot, but lacks the size of most NHL defensemen. The lack of other quality offensive defensemen increases his stock. Dwyer will return to Yale for his senior season in the fall, and may or may not be signed next summer.

17. Derek MacKenzie, C
Age: 22
Drafted: Atlanta’s 6th choice, 128th overall, 1999 Entry Draft
Type of player: Third line center
Comment: The comment from the last ranking is still true this time: “MacKenzie gives it all, all the time, and is very effective in his role. Unfortunately for him, there are a lot of guys like him, most of whom have more size and more offensive upside.”

18. Anthony Aquino, RW
Age: 21 (in August)
Acquired: From Dallas in March 2003 for a 6th round pick.
Type of player: Two-way winger
Comment: Aquino lost most of the 2002-03 season due to eligibility issues. It’s hard to tell if it hurt his development in any way. Lots of speed, but may not have the offensive talent for the top 2 lines, or the defense for a checking role. He will spend most of the year with Chicago.

19. Tobias Enstrom, D
Age: 18
Drafted: Atlanta’s 8th round choice, 239th overall, in the 2003 Entry Draft.
Type of player: Offensive defenseman
Comment: Enstrom has a very high upside. The only question is whether his exceptional game in the SEL will translate to the NHL due to his small size of 5’9”. He is already succeeding in a top men’s league at age 18.

20. Simon Gamache, LW
Age: 22
Drafted: Atlanta’s 9th round choice, 290th overall, in the 2000 Entry Draft
Comment: Finished fifth in the AHL in scoring, and third in the league in goals in 2002-03. He was held scoreless in two NHL games. In the last year of his rookie contract, this is an important year for Gamache to demonstrate whether he can overcome his size and footspeed and score at the NHL level. He will spend most of the year in Chicago, with some call up time in Atlanta.

Missing the cut: Colton Fretter, Yuri Dobryshkin, Zdenek Blatny.

The Top 20 by position:
Defensemen: 9
Forwards: 9
Goalies: 2

Link to previous Top 20 article.

Comments and questions are welcomed on the HF Thrashers board.