Eight prospect rookies made appearances on the Thrashers roster this season, three defensemen, four forwards and one goaltender. This number is down from last season because the team was in the playoff hunt much longer this year and did not move veterans at the deadline to make room for young talent.
Garnet Exelby, D (Age 22) – Exelby was the only Thrashers prospect to make the jump to the NHL full time this season. He quickly became a top 4 defenseman, averaging 19:31 in ice time, not bad for a eighth round pick. He did make some rookie mistakes, but he wouldn’t be a rookie without making them. Known for thunderous hits, Exelby is now better about picking his spots, less prone to getting out of position to make a hit, and is generally very reliable down low. The team has a winning record when he is in the lineup: 32-28-7-4. He was second among rookies for average shifts per game with 28.4.
Exelby became more confident with his offensive game as the year went on, taking more shots, and even saw a bit of time on the power play late in the year. He scored one goal and nine assists on the season, five of the assists coming in a streak of four games in December. His first NHL goal was a long time coming, finally scored on Feb. 27 against Martin Brodeur.
Exelby was –10 on the season with 134 penalty minutes, which was second on the team. He played with many different partners throughout the year, usually Frank Kaberle, Andy Sutton, or Daniel Tjarnqvist. He was injured for eight games in late January/early February with a bruised hip, then an ankle sprain. He missed the last two games of the year with a possible concussion suffered in a fight with buddy Darcy Hordichuk.
Tommi Santala, C (Age 24) – Going into training camp, Santala’s stock was at an all-time high and he was expected to play with the Thrashers for the entire season. But his adjustment to North America proved much more difficult than expected. His fifth place in scoring last year in the Finnish Elite League, likely set expectations too high.
Santala played 23 games with the Thrashers at the beginning of the year, but saw his ice time gradually cut back and was scratched a few times before being reassigned to Chicago of the AHL to work on his game. A natural center, he was tried on the wing as well, but the result was little different. He averaged only 10:07 in ice time for the season. When he wasn’t being thrown out of the circle for cheating, he did well on faceoffs, winning 51 percent. His shooting percentage was an abysmal 4.3 percent though, as he could not find the net at all. Santala had only three points (one goal, two assists) in 33 games with Atlanta and was -7. His first NHL goal was against the Panthers on Nov. 16. In Chicago, he had 28 points in 43 games.
Santala was recalled twice later in the season, once in January when the team got into injury troubles, and again in March to measure his improvement. Unfortunately, Santala did not look dramatically better at the end of the season when he was called back up. He does look very good at the AHL level, with excellent vision and passing ability, but as a below average skater, he may not be able to convert his game to the much faster NHL pace. He’ll get another chance next season.
Zdenek Blatny, RW (Age 23) – Blatny got his first long look at the NHL level this season, and it can only be called a success, as he stuck longer than originally expected and contributed more. He played 16 games between late December and early February, scoring three goals and no assists. He averaged 10:26 in ice time, which varied widely from game to game as he played with many different linemates, both on scoring and checking lines. He did play with Kovalchuk for a good bit of time. Blatny had the highest shooting percentage on the team, at 17.6 percent, and was even for the year.
Blatny has NHL size, decent speed, and uses his body effectively, including blocking shots. He kept his penalty minute total low, at only six, and was effective at drawing penalties at the same time. He will compete for a job next year.
Derek MacKenzie, C (Age 22) – MacKenzie was called up three times this season, in November, January, and February. He played a total of 12 games with the big club, compared to one in 2001-02 and none in 2002-03. In the January call-up he saw third line action, but in February only fourth line time, with Ben Simon and Francis Lessard. In those 12 games, he had one assist and was even, averaging 6:38 in ice time.
MacKenzie made it a point to make hits, but didn’t quite have the NHL timing down, often missing and taking himself out of position. He’ll need to concentrate more on defense and positioning if he wants to stick. Known for his faceoff ability, he won only 46 percent of his draws (29 wins, 34 losses). MacKenzie will compete for a job in training camp next season, but it will be an uphill battle. He did an adequate fill-in job, but did not impress enough to pencil him in for next season and splitting time is more likely.
Karl Stewart, LW (Age 20) – Stewart was called up early in the season in November and played four games, though was scratched twice during that stay. He scored his first NHL point, an assist, in his first game on Nov. 7 against Columbus. He returned late in the season in March for one additional game. Stewart was the second youngest rookie to see time with the big club, next to Kari Lehtonen. He had the lowest average ice time of all the rookies with only 4:27, playing mostly on the fourth line.
You could almost hear the buzzing when he’s on the ice with all the energy Stewart brings to the lineup. His speed easily converts to the NHL, but the rest of his game, his playmaking and feistiness have not yet clicked at this level. He’ll need more time in the AHL before he’s ready for full time NHL action.
Kurtis Foster, D (Age 22) – Foster played three games with the big club this season in late January/early February, compared to two last season. His play was improved. Concentrating on playing defense, he took only one shot. He had one assist, his first NHL point, Feb. 3 against Boston. He was even in the three games, averaging 6:58 in ice time. Foster will compete for a spot on the team next season, particularly if fellow right-handed offensive defenseman Yannick Tremblay does not return. Splitting time between Atlanta and Chicago is more likely.
Kyle Rossiter, D (Age 23) – Rossiter was acquired at the trade deadline from the Florida Panthers for Kamil Piros, and brought up for the final two games of the season when Exelby was out of the lineup. A former second round pick of the Panthers in 1998, Rossiter had played nine NHL games coming into this season, all with Florida. He eased right into the Thrashers lineup and had his first NHL point, an assist, and was +1 with an average of 10:14 in ice time.
Kari Lehtonen, G (Age 20) – Recalled from Chicago on Mar. 12, Lehtonen made his long awaited NHL debut on Mar. 19. He did look nervous and much less under control than usual to start the game, but calmed down after that. In his three games after his debut, he looked and played much better. His numbers were a remarkable 4-0-0, 1.26 GAA, and a .953 save percentage.
Of the four games, Lehtonen was in net against Florida twice, Washington once, and Tampa once, only Tampa being a playoff team. He earned his first NHL shutout in his third game, against the Florida Panthers on Mar. 27 with 30 saves.
Lehtonen has rejoined the Chicago Wolves for the playoff run. He will be in Atlanta next year along with Pasi Nurminen if there are players to play behind, Chicago of the AHL if there is not.