The ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators finished their inaugural season 42-22-8, and went all the way to the conference finals in the 31-team league.
Gladiators Head Coach Jeff Pyle reflected on the season as the ice was being taken out for the season at the Arena at Gwinnett Center on Friday. He said he was very proud of his group, “coming in and being young and finding ways to make things work. We had some ups and downs, but considering the situation of what we expected, and what we wanted to have happen and the way it worked out, I don’t think any of us could be any happier. Disappointed, yeah that we didn’t win the cup, but not disappointed in what we accomplished.”
The Atlanta Thrashers assigned three players to the Gladiators for the season in this first year of affiliation, goaltender Michael Garnett, defenseman Paul Flache, and winger Anthony Aquino.
In addition, winger David Kaczowka spent 22 games with the Gladiators before being traded to the Peoria Rivermen. Below is a review of their individual seasons.
Michael Garnett, G
In his second year, the 21-year-old Garnett was still one of the youngest players in the ECHL. Yet he was third in goals against average in the league in the regular season, and backstopped his team to the conference finals.
A technical goaltender, he’s not flashy, and makes his saves by being in the right position. His numbers are therefore very much dependent on the team he plays behind. This season he had a much better defense in front of him than he had in Greenville and in Saskatoon (WHL) before that, therefore his numbers were much improved.
This is not to say that he did not improve himself as well, he certainly did. He intended to work on puckhandling this year, which he did, coming out of the net often to try to help his defensemen.
He may have taken it a bit too far sometimes, however, leaving the net to play the puck when the better choice was to stay where he was. Rebound control remains something to work on as well.
Coach Pyle was very complementary of easy-going Garnett looking back on his season in Gwinnett.
“Garny was phenomenal. He got the opportunity to move up. Without a lockout, he’ll be the No. 1 in Chicago and get a chance in the NHL. Great kid, character guy on and off the ice. Never shies away from a challenge. And because of that, we had the opportunity to go as far as we did. He’s got a great future if he applies himself.”
Garnett was tested at the AHL level for the first time this season. He was called up to the Chicago Wolves on January 15 when Kari Lehtonen went down with injury. Garnett remained there basically until the end of the regular season (one brief return notwithstanding). He performed well in the AHL, though he didn’t tend to play against the better teams.
When Garnett returned to the Gladiators at the end of season for the playoffs, Coach Pyle had a choice of goaltenders to use. Adam Munro, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, returned from call-up, and the team still had Trevor Prior, who had helped the team during the spring when both Garnett and Munro were gone. But Garnett was Pyle’s go-to guy, resting only once in the playoffs, when the team faced back-to-back games.
“Garny deserved that opportunity. He proved he was our No. 1. He gave us the confidence we needed and I needed to give him that opportunity.”
Garnett’s consistency and numbers in the playoffs were not as good as in the regular season, but Pyle felt that was a product of the team, not him.
“When we played good in front of him, he played good. When we didn’t, he didn’t,” Pyle explained. “And that’s any goalie. When we had our best games, he had his best games. When we played well in front of Trevor (Prior), he played well, and when we didn’t, he didn’t. And that’s the way it goes. You can’t just carry the team if it’s playing bad. I told Garny early in the season ‘We’re on a winning streak, but we could hit a losing streak’. He said ‘I’m not going to let that happen.’ I told him ‘Garny, when it happens, and there’s not anything you can do about it.’ And that’s just the way it is. So he was awesome and deserves a lot of credit for our success.”
Paul Flache, D
As a rookie last season, Flache had his tonsils removed early on, was sent home to recover his strength, and struggled when he returned to the Grrrowl. He was poised for a much better year this year, and indeed had it.
The 22-year-old was a vital part of the Gladiators team, and gained confidence as the year went on. Coach Pyle described what Flache brought to the team.
“From where he started, the confidence level he showed, he was dominant defensively at times, he was dominant physically at times. He’s got to be a little more consistent that way. But when you’re growing into a 6’6” body at 22 years old, he’s got a bright future. He’s got to get hungry, he’s got to be motivated. He came huge steps from being a solid defenseman to being a really, really good defenseman for us, to adding some offense, to playing forward when we needed him to. Great, great kid, phenomenal in the lockerroom.”
Flache was partnered often with rookie Evan Nielsen, and some with veteran Rick Emmett. He played at even strength and penalty kill situations.
Leaving Thrashers training camp, Thrashers Head Coach Bob Hartley told Flache he needed to work on being more nasty. One of the most polite people you’ll ever meet, nasty is not Flache’s natural personality. But he knows it is his job to play that way, so he works to develop his nasty side.
Coach Pyle talked about Flache bringing that into his game.
“That’s a decision you make: how nasty do you want to be. If he gets a little bit stronger and he keeps developing himself, he can be quite effective out there. And he’ll learn that as he hits another level, he’ll realize what he needs to do, what he can get away with and what he can’t.”
Flache got a taste of the AHL level this year and succeeded at that level immediately. He was called up on February 28, and returned on March 23, having played 10 games. He scored at a higher clip in the AHL than in the ECHL, and was even tried on the power play.
In the playoffs, Flache suffered a broken cheekbone and a mild concussion due to a crosscheck to the face during the Mississippi series. He sat out three games and came back wearing a cage.
Flache has some good offensive ability, but doesn’t get to use it much. His strengths are more in carrying and handling the puck than say in shooting, like most defensemen, a result of playing forward growing up. Coach Pyle switched him to forward for a few games in the playoffs, a result of having seven defensemen who were better than his forward options. He described why he picked Flache as the one he would move up.
“You have a big guy, a physical presence, with some speed and some skill. He energized us up front and gave us a few things that we didn’t have with that type of size. That’s why I moved him up.”
Flache was the only one of the three Thrashers contracted players to elevate his game in the playoffs. It was an even greater accomplishment that he did it being switched back and forth between positions, twice.
A stay-at-home guy most of the time, Flache doesn’t score much. It’s a real joy for him when it does happen, as was evident when he scored the overtime game-winning goal in the fifth and final game of the Louisiana series playing forward, sending the team to the conference finals.
“Confidence-wise there’s nothing better,” Pyle said. “He scored a huge goal, probably the biggest goal of his career.”
Anthony Aquino, RW
Aquino finished the regular sesaon tied for 12th on the rookie scoring list, behind teammates Kevin Doell and Kris Goodjohn.
The 22-year-old played most of the season on a line with Phil Lewandowski and Brandon Dietrich. Lewandowski was traded at the deadline and Tyler Deis moved onto that line.
He was recalled to Chicago on three separate occasions, but played in only two games.
Aquino is quick and sees offensive opportunities very well. His hands don’t quite match his feet though, as he can’t cash in on his opportunities as often as most. Most of all, his defensive interest and awareness leave a lot to be desired.
Towards the end of the year, when teams started tightening up defensively gearing up for the playoffs, the high-strung Aquino had trouble staying in the Gladiators’ lineup. He was put back into the lineup during the Idaho series when the team faced a very quick Steelheads team, but in all, played only eight of the 13 playoff games.
Coach Pyle explained Aquino’s situation.
“Anthony has enormous potential. I think he struggled here because he didn’t know where he fit in or how to fit in. I think he grew a lot towards the end. I sat him out at times because I think he needed to learn a lesson. I think he needed to the lesson of commitment a little bit more, and I think somewhere down the line it’s going to open his eyes. It was a growing year for him. He had last year off, now he’s got a full year under his belt. He sees what a whole year takes and the responsibility. So I think it will be a good eye-opener for him.”
With the Gladiators’ season finally over, all three players will be joining the Chicago Wolves for their playoff run. Their individual futures next year depend in large part on the NHL labor situation.
Garnett should play at the AHL level next year, but if there’s a lockout in the NHL, then the organization might feel it is better to give Garnett his own net in Gwinnett, rather than have to share Chicago’s with Kari Lehtonen.
A spot in Chicago for Paul Flache will be easier to come by. Without question he can play at the AHL level next year. It will be a contract year for him, as well as for Garnett.
Next season could bring any number of outcomes for Aquino. He has two years remaining on his rookie contract.
Pyle was philosophic about seeing these three players back on his bench, whatever the circumstances.
“If you get them back, you’re happy, and if you don’t, you’re even happier because you know they’re moving on and getting an opportunity that you hope they all get.”
The newest crop of Thrasher-sent Gladiators will start to take shape on June 1, the deadline to sign junior players drafted in 2002.