Five Atlanta Thrashers prospects have spent time with affiliate and neighbor ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators during the 2004-05 season, forwards Brad Schell and Colin Stuart, defensemen Lane Manson and Jeff Dwyer, and goaltender Adam Berkhoel. All five are rookies.
Coach Jeff Pyle, who was again voted to the league’s annual All-Star game, talked about how the prospects were progressing as the team nears the mid-point of the season.
Brad Schell is a 20-year-old centerman out of Spokane of the WHL. His 26 points place him tied for 14th on the ECHL rookie scoring list and fifth amongst Gladiators after 34 games. He was a bit slow to start scoring, but has been fairly consistent since he got going.
Pyle agreed that Schell’s play had definitely improved over the season and was getting knocked off the puck a lot less than initially, but he still has a lot of work to do.
“He’s a kid who’s got a lot of talent, but he needs to work on his intensity level and his defense. Defense is just work ethic. He’s a good kid, but to be at the next level, the intensity level has to be there, and you have to be able to play in your own zone.
Schell’s –17 rating is by far the worst on the team, with Mike Vigilante’s –8 the next closest. This statistic might make it seem that Schell pays no attention to defense, but that’s not quite the case. He’s consistently back in the defensive zone, but he’s just not as effective as he should be yet.
“Yeah, he’s getting [back],” Pyle agreed. “But you’ve got to win the battles, pick up the right guy. As a centerman your responsibility is so much more every time you come up a level. He’s a young kid, it’ll come. It will just take him time.”
On the positive side, Schell has been solid on faceoffs and does a good job controlling the power play from the half wall. His regular line has been centering captain Cam Brown and lately has included fellow rookie Adam Smyth.
“I had him with Brownie just to add some size. And I had Smitty with them to add some toughness. It went not bad at the beginning, but they’ve been struggling, Smitty is struggling a little bit. Over the last little bit everyone’s been struggling, the last two and a half, three weeks.”
Lane Manson, a month shy of 21, is a defensive defenseman out of Moose Jaw of the WHL. With 12 points last year in 72 games, he’s on pace to exceed that total with 8 points in 33 games already. He’s also a respectable +4. His calling card is his wingspan at 6’8.
“I think he’s done pretty well,” Pyle said. “He’s always so positionally sound, he does a lot of little things well. He works extremely hard, it’s just a matter of his skill and hands catching up to his body. Again, that’s going to take a little while. His skating needs to improve. He needs to work on his shot a little bit. He’s a big physical defenseman and you just wait for him to develop.”
Manson has been paired with fellow rookie Dave McCulloch for most of the season. Pyle defended the decision to put two rookies together.
“They played really well early, they were both somewhere around +12. And sometimes two young guys together – last year we had (Evan) Nielsen and (Jim) Jackson, (Tory) Milam and (Joe) Bourne. In this league I think you can get that a lot.”
Manson has dramatically cut down on his penalty minutes, going from 253 in 72 games last season to only 43 this year in 33 games. He doesn’t seem to want to take on any enforcement duties on this squad, but he does sometimes get tangled up with the opposition, not making it back in time to stop a rush. Pyle agreed that this is an area for improvement.
“Yeah, well, it’s a situation where he’s not a great skater and he’s such a big guy. He’s a good skater for his size, but he’s got to understand that if you’re going to step up and pinch in certain situations, you’ve got to be able to get back. You’ve got to really pick your spots, get your timing. That’s really important.”
Goaltender Adam Berkhoel won a national championship with the University of Denver last season and was supposed to be the Gladiators workhorse in net this year. It hasn’t turned out that way. On a call-up to Chicago early in the season, he had to have emergency surgery when the source of his hip pain was determined.
“It was called a septic hip, an infection in your hip, which is supposed to be pretty bad,” Pyle explained. “They caught it in time. He was having problems with his hip so they MRI’ed it and found it was septic hip. In the end, it was lucky they found it because it could have been a lot worse than it was.”
Berkhoel is still officially on the Chicago roster since injured players can’t be sent down, but is back with the Gladiators for his rehabilitation. His return date has not yet been set, but is in the foreseeable future.
“Yeah, I don’t want the kid to get hurt so I told him to do extra stuff after practice right now and it’s just a matter of him getting in condition,” Pyle said. “When he tells me he’s ready, he’ll be back.”
The 23-year-old Berkhoel is maintaining positive spirits through his rehab.
“Yeah, he’s fine. He had a little setback the other day, but he works hard and he’s a professional, so eventually he’ll make it back.”
Meanwhile, newcomer Sean Fields out of Boston University has taken over starter duties and is 8-6 with one shootout win.
“We haven’t been getting the big save when we need it,” Pyle commented, the game just finished being a 5-0 loss Mississippi. “At times we do and at times we don’t.”
Getting Berkhoel back healthy and playing well will be the key to the Gladiators’ playoff hopes. The team went all the way to the conference finals last year with Thrashers prospect Michael Garnett in net.
In four games this season with the team, Berkhoel is 1-0 with three shootout losses, a 2.82 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
Rookie Colin Stuart was assigned to the Gladiators on January 13th. In two games with the team, the Colorado College alum has one assist and is +1, particularly impressive given the losses he partook in.
“He’s a great skater, good skill,” Pyle said of Stuart. “He had a chance to come here, but we’re at a down [point] right now so it’s probably tough to see how good he is, but you can see he’s got good skill. Good kid, he’s just coming down to get some ice time.”
Stuart played mostly with Mike Vigilante and Adam Smyth. Pyle indicated that Stuart would play in Monday’s match-up against Texas, and likely go back to Chicago on Tuesday.
Twenty-three-year-old rookie defenseman Jeff Dwyer was with the team for a weekend in January on what was supposed to be essentially a rehab assignment, but re-injured his groin in the second game. He would have been a very welcome addition to the team, which is struggling mightily on defense of late.
“It would have been nice to have him,” Pyle said wistfully. “He was probably only going to be down for the weekend too, but it would have been nice to have him for a while.”
To be included on an ECHL playoff roster, all players must play a minimum of five games in the league. Both Stuart and Dwyer would need to make another short trip to Gwinnett to be eligible to return for the postseason.
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