A progress report on the five rookies that have played for the Atlanta Thrashers thus far this season.
Garnet Exelby has been amazingly consistent for a rookie defenseman, rarely making mistakes in coverage as he delivers his own blend of physical play. Exelby played 15 games with the Thrashers at the end of last season, and this year he finds himself on the third defensive pairing with newcomer Ivan Majesky. “X” can throw down the gloves with the best of them, but rarely needs to. He has fought only two times this year, against Tuomo Ruutu and Chris Neil of Ottawa. Exelby’s 42 penalty minutes lead the Thrashers and rank him second in the NHL among defensemen, behind only Wade Belak. Twenty-seven of those 42 came in the game against Chicago. The 22-year-old is averaging 15:10 of icetime and is plus 3 in his first 16 games. He also has one assist.
A first year pro out of Plymouth of the OHL, Karl Stewart was the last cut out of camp, and was called back up on November 6th when Marc Savard sprained his ankle. Stewart is currently playing left wing on the fourth line with Francis Lessard and Ronald Petrovicky, bringing energy and enthusiasm to the lineup. He had an assist in his NHL debut on November 7th against Columbus when he created the turnover and made a nice pass to the crease for the goal. Stewart has played three games so far, averaging 5:08 in icetime and is even. The 20-year-old is getting extra attention from Coach Hartley in practice, who is both correcting his decision-making and helping him after drills end with things like one-timers. Hartley appears as eager to teach as Stewart does to learn from him.
Former ninth round pick Tommi Santala made the team out of camp as the third line center in his first year of North American hockey. The 24-year-old Finn is an awkward skater, but generally makes good decisions and is responsible defensively. He has played extra minutes on the power play, with the task of standing in the slot. There he has gotten his chances, but fired wide often. A leading scorer in the Finnish League, Santala is yet to score a goal in the NHL, and has only one assist. He is winning faceoffs, posting a 53.0% winning percentage thus far. He had a problem staying in the faceoff circle at first, but seems to have figured out exactly what he can and cannot get away with facing NHL linesmen. Despite the injury to Savard which gave opportunities to other centers, Santala has seen his icetime fall over the 16 games, and has been moved to the fourth line, with Karl Stewart and Francis Lessard. His highest icetime was on October 27th against Toronto with 16:49, and in the last game against Ottawa it was down to 6:44, with no time on special teams.
Skilled forward Kamil Piros made the team out of camp and played on the second line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Stefan. A more aggressive game was demanded from him, which he generally delivered. His offensive game suffered in the process though, and he wasn’t contributing on the scoreboard. Piros was down on November 1st after 11 games with only one assist and –3.
Another former ninth round pick, QMJHL standout Simon Gamache was called up from Chicago on November 1st, switching places with Kamil Piros. The 22-year-old played left wing on the fourth line with Santala and Petrovicky, scoring one assist and playing only an average of 6:38 in two games. He was then scratched for the following two games and returned to Chicago on November 10th. Gamache made his NHL debut with the Thrashers last March, playing two games. Gamache is in the last year of his rookie contract.
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