Thrashers AHL prospect season review 2003-04

By Brent Gade

The Chicago Wolves had a very successful 2003-04 regular season. Led by the second-ranked offense and top-scoring
power play, the Wolves finished third in the tough West Division,
recording
96 points (42-26-9-3). The Wolves roster contained only three AHL rookies,
but each prospect improved his game in some way this season. Below is a look at each of the 12 prospects who spent a large part of the season with the team.


Forwards

Stephen Baby

Right wing Stephen Baby had
an up-and-down first professional season. The 24-year-old struggled to consistently
make the lineup
early in the season and was scratched
in 11 of the first 27 games. Baby started the season on the fourth line with
prospect Brian
Maloney. Learning to use his size along the boards,
Baby started to gain the coaching staff’s trust and earned a second scoring
line opportunity with Brian Swanson and Eric Healey. The Illinois native responded
with a productive second half, recording 19 of his 27 points (11 goals, 8 assists)
over the final 40 games. He
led Chicago Wolves rookies this season with 14 goals, and he enjoyed back-to-back
two-goal
games
on March
14
against
Utah
and March 17 against Cincinnati.

In the postseason, Baby
continued his steady play. Relegated back to fourth line duty, he was able
to record 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists) in the 10 playoff
games and played on the second power play unit.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
68
14
12
26
72
0
2004 Playoffs
10
1
4
5
6
4

Zdenek Blatny

Left wing Zdenek Blatny continued his development this season.
Playing on the second scoring line with
center Swanson and left wing Healey, Blatny started the season
strong, scoring 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in his first 30 games. The
fast start
offensively
earned the 23-year-old winger his first extended call-up
to the
Atlanta Thrashers
on
December
26, 2003 due to injuries. Upon his return from
Atlanta, Blatny was placed on the third line with fellow prospects Derek
MacKenzie and Karl Stewart. Blatny
played a sporadic role on the power play, playing the left point when defenseman
Shawn Heins was in Atlanta. Despite playing in only 61 AHL games this season,
Blatny notched a career-high 34
points (11 goals, 23 assists), tied for second on the team
with four game-winning
tallies, and finished fourth on the club with 115 penalty minutes.

Playing on the third line throughout
the playoffs, Blatny had a quiet post season. Although he registered four playoff
assists, three of them came in
Game 4 of the West Division Semifinal against Grand Rapids. His contract is up for renewal this offseason.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
61 
11
23
34
115
6
2004 Playoffs
10 
0
4
4
24
0

Derek MacKenzie

No Atlanta Thrashers
AHL prospect progressed more this season than 22-year-old Derek MacKenzie.
MacKenzie played
well as the Wolves third-line center, top
penalty killer, and key faceoff man. Playing between hard-working players
Brendan Yarema and Stewart, the Ontario born
center enjoyed a breakout season
offensively.
He notched
career-highs with 19 goals and 35 points in 63 AHL games this season. He also
recorded his first professional hat trick on March 27 against the Milwaukee
Admirals. MacKenzie’s strong play was rewarded this season with three
separate call-ups to Atlanta. He was recalled on November 21, 2003 but did
not play for Atlanta and was reassigned on November 23. Again, MacKenzie
was recalled to the NHL on January 6, 2004 but did not see any game action
and was reassigned to Chicago on January 14. He was recalled on February 20,
2004 and stayed until March 16. Playing in 12 games with Atlanta, MacKenzie
registered one assist and 10 penalty minutes.

MacKenzie continued his strong
play throughout the postseason. He scored the shorthanded game-winning tally
58 seconds into overtime in Game 1 of the West Division Semifinal on April
16. He led the team in goals (7) and registered a hat trick in Game 4 of
the West
Division Semifinal against Grand Rapids. His contract is up for renewal this offseason.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
63 
19
16
35
67
8
2004 Playoffs
10
7
1
8
13
2

Brian Maloney

Left wing Maloney spent much of the year on the fourth
line.
Teaming with linemate Baby, Maloney was an effective forechecker.
Routinely pressuring the opposing defensemen, he was a good complement to
Baby’s strength along the boards. The Alberta native provided few highlights
in his first full season, but he was
a contributor
to the
season’s
improved penalty-killing unit. Maloney, 25 years old, did not contribute much
offensively, although he did show some flashes of offensive ability. He
tallied a season
and professional best three points (1 goal, 2 assists), including the game-winning
marker on March 13 against Utah.

Maloney played on the fourth line
for much of the playoffs and played well in limited action. He notched his
first professional playoff points with
a goal and an assist in Game 4 of the West Division Semifinal against Grand
Rapids.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
69
9
11
20
56
-8
2004 Playoffs
10
1
1
2
17
1

Tommi Santala

Finnish import Tommi
Santala, playing for the first time in North America, split his
season between the NHL and
the AHL. In the AHL, the 24-year-old displayed
the playmaking ability and offensive flair that helped him finish third in
scoring in the 2002-03 Finnish Elite League season. Despite playing in only
50 American Hockey League games, he was among team leaders in goals (15), points
(37), and game-winning goals (4). Santala’s versatility was a key contributor
to his improved second half. Moving from his natural center position to right
wing to play with center Daniel Corso and left wing Steve Maltais, he recorded
10 goals and 19 assists in 35 games. Throughout the season, Santala was part
of a rotation taking extra shifts with the fourth line centering Baby
and Maloney.

Santala provided much of the Wolves
postseason offense. He tallied back-to-back two-point efforts
in Game 3 and Game 4 of the West Division Semifinal
against Grand Rapids. He also recorded three assists in the six game West
Division Final against the Milwaukee Admirals. Proving he has a bit of a mean
streak, Santala tallied a postseason-high 17 penalty minutes in Game 2 of
the West Division Final
against
Milwaukee.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
50
15
22
37
34
1
2004 Playoffs
10
1
6
7
31
2

Karl Stewart

The aggressive and hard-working
Stewart, 21, had a magnificent rookie season as a solid two-way forward. Displaying a unique blend of offensive
ability, defensive responsibility, and physical play, the Ontario left wing
finished among the top five league rookies in three key statistical categories:
assists (32), plus/minus (24), and penalty minutes (186). Spending most of
the season on the defensive checking line with prospect MacKenzie and a combination
of Yarema and Blatny, Stewart recorded a plus or even
rating
in 61
of his 72 AHL games. He played with an aggressive edge all season.
At
times,
the young rookie would go over the edge as evidenced by his team season-high
31 penalty minutes in a February 11th game against the Houston Aeros.

Stewart continued
his hard work and forechecking in the postseason. Playing on the second scoring
line with Swanson and Healey, his hard work was rewarded with his first professional
playoff goal in Game 1 of
the West Division Final against the Milwaukee Admirals.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
72
10
32
42
186
24
2004 Playoffs
10
2
3
5
29
0


Defensemen

Kurtis Foster

Kurtis Foster,
22, was hoping to build on his strong sophomore season and continue developing
into
a solid
offensive defenseman.
Spending the season with veteran defense partner Greg Hawgood, the Ontario
native’s
offensive numbers dipped slightly and lacked consistency. Foster was able to
register
point streaks
of six games
(December
26-January
3) and four games (January 14-January 18). However, he recorded scoreless
streaks of eight games (October 29-November 20) and nine games (December
3-December 20). Defensively, he finished -2 while playing for the league’s
second best offense, which was a large improvement from last season (-15).
Foster missed 12 games late in the season with a separated
shoulder.

Foster’s
offensive inconsistency carried through the postseason. The defenseman did
not register
a goal during the 2004 postseason and he recorded
two of his three postseason assists in Game 2 of the West Division Final against
Milwaukee. His contract is up for renewal this offseason.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
67
11
19
30
95
-2
2004 Playoffs
10
0
3
3
12
1

Kyle Rossiter

Kyle Rossiter,
acquired for the underachieving Kamil Piros, was a late season addition.
He was added to provide a physical presence to the Wolves blue
line. Rossiter shared the blueline with various partners in the Wolves seven
defenseman rotation, but he spent many of his shifts with Joe DiPenta. The
Alberta native did provide some physical play in his brief time with the
Wolves,
as he accrued
25 penalty
minutes
in 12
games.
Near
the end
of the season, the 23-year-old defenseman injured his shoulder and did not
play the final two regular season games.

Rossiter did not
play in the West Division Semifinal against Grand Rapids due to injury. The
defenseman wasn’t
a factor in the West Division Final, but he did register a postseason-high
17 penalty minutes in Game 2.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 San Antonio
51
5
7
12
70
-6
2003-04 Chicago
12
0
1
1
25
2
2004 Playoffs
6
0
0
0
19
0

Luke Sellars

After two disappointing
seasons, defenseman Luke Sellars, 23, started the
season slowly, scratched in 13 of the first
20 regular season games. Once the disappointing defenseman earned a lineup spot,
he played his best professional hockey and started showing the promise that
made him
the
30th
overall choice in the 1999 draft. Unfortunately, Sellars’ season was
derailed by injury after playing in only 32 games. The Ontario native did not
post strong offensive numbers in his limited games, but his defensive numbers
were much improved. Sellars played well in the defensive zone and ranked fourth
on the team in plus/minus recording a +9 rating. This was the last year of Sellars’ rookie contract.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
32
2
6
8
72
9
2004 Playoffs
DNP
DNP
DNP
DNP
DNP
DNP

Libor Ustrnul

Libor Ustrnul made
modest improvements in his second full professional season. A defensive
defenseman, the 22-year-old
matched his career high in points this
season with 2 (1 goal, 1 assist). When Ustrnul was in the lineup, he provided
some physical play and steady defensive positioning playing with AHL veteran
Mike Weaver. He registered a season-high +2 plus/minus rating twice this
Season, on October
26 against
Toronto and
January 18 against Houston. His brief career has been plagued by injury
and this season was no different. Overall,
the Czech Republic native missed 28 games due to injury this season, including
19 with a concussion.

Ustrnul played in a limited
role in the four game sweep of Grand Rapids in the West Division Semifinal.
Continuing
his strong defensive play, the defenseman
registered a postseason-high +4 plus/minus rating in Game 4 of the series.
Ustrnul did not play in the West Division Final due to a death in the family.

 
GP
G
A
PTS
PIM
+/-
2003-04 Regular Season
46
1
1
2
68
-2
2004 Playoffs
4
0
1
1
13
3


Goaltenders

Kari Lehtonen

Kari Lehtonen came
to North America with great expectations and responded with a magnificent
rookie season. The 20-year-old quickly adjusted to the
smaller ice surface and increased net traffic. A sign of things to come, Lehtonen
stopped a season-high 41 of 43 shots to win his North American debut on October
18 against Utah. Overall, the Finnish phenom posted 20 wins, 2.41 goals against
average, a .926 save percentage, and three shutouts. He was named the
starting goaltender for the PlanetUSA All-Star team; however, he did not play
in the game due to injury.

Lehtonen took his game to a new
level in the postseason. He was dominant through most
of the postseason and made several incredible
acrobatic saves. The young goaltender posted a 1.50
goals-against average and a .951 save percentage in the West Division Semifinal
against
Grand Rapids, sweeping the series.
The
only reason
the West Division Final lasted six games was the outstanding goaltending by Lehtonen, who made 40 saves or more five
times.

 
GPI
AVG
W
L
T
SO
GA
Save Pct
2003-04 Regular Season
39 
2.41
20
14
2
3
88
.926
2004 Playoffs
10
2.08
6
4
 
1
23
.942

Michael Garnett

Michael
Garnett played well filling in for injuries to Lehtonen and during call-ups
of Fredric Cassivi and Lehtonen. Garnett, 21, was recalled to the Wolves
from the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators on January 15, 2004. He
recorded 19 saves on 20 shots to earn his first AHL victory in his first
AHL start on January 17 against the Manitoba Moose (5-1 win). The goaltender
recorded a four-game unbeaten streak (January 17 to February 11), notching
three wins and one tie during that stretch. Garnett matched his season-high
37 saves on a season-most 39 shots in his seventh win of the season on
April 4 against San Antonio. He was reassigned to Gwinnett on April 5.

 
GPI
AVG
W
L
T
SO
GA
Save
Pct
2003-04 Regular Season
13 
2.63
7
3
2
0
32
.914

Notes: Other prospects
played very limited roles with the Chicago Wolves this season. Defenseman Paul
Flache
, 22, played well in his brief
nine
game stint recording four points (2 goals, 2 assists). Speedy right wing
Anthony Aquino, 21, did not register a point in two games
with the Wolves. Defenseman
Evan Nielsen, 22, played in 17 contests, recording one
goal and six penalty minutes. Center Kevin Doell, 24, scored
a goal and added an assist in eight AHL games this
season. After his
Yale University season ended, defenseman Jeff Dwyer, 23, played
11
regular season games going scoreless.