A total of 10 prospects whose rights are owned by the Atlanta Thrashers played for the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators this season. The ten players played in 221 games, compared to 179 by the group of four players from last season.
The Gladiators were eliminated in the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs by the Charlotte Checkers, farm club of the New York Rangers. Below is a review of the seasons of the five Thrashers prospects who had the biggest impact on the club.
Two of Manson’s former teammates complimented the defenseman, particularly his work ethic, to Hockey’s Future in the past year. One was the goaltender he played in front of in 2003-04 with the Moose Jaw Warriors, Mike Brodeur. Manson was grateful for the respect of his peers.
“I try to take pride in working hard and I appreciate people speaking well of me. That’s always rewarding to hear after playing with somebody.”
His work ethic is a big part of the reason Manson had such a good rookie year as well.
“He’s never really content with his game, he’s always asking what more he can do to be better,” Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle said. “You can see when you’re saying things, just the attention that he pays and how he picks things up. To me, that’s the best trait you can have, to want to learn and always want to be better.”
Pyle said Manson’s work ethic will take him a long way in life, not just in hockey.
“He’s going to be successful at whatever he does.”
One big thing Manson has worked on the past few year is his skating. After practices this season, he and second-year pro Chris Durno would often skate a bit more.
“I told him the main thing, and I’m sure Atlanta wants it too, is for his skating to get better,” Pyle said. “He is mature and he’s going to grow into that body. How far he came this year, from where he started to where he finished, is a great sign for the kid. If he keeps working and progressing at that level, who knows how far he can go.
“He got stronger on his skates, stronger on speed, his balance was better. You’re a 21-year-old kid growing into a 6’9 body; it’s going to take some time playing a physical game at a pretty high speed.
Manson had 17 points in 71 regular season games, more than he had scored in junior, and was a solid +12. His penalty minutes dropped in half from 253 to 127.
“I took a lot of minors last year,” Manson explained about the decrease in penalty minutes. “I probably played a lot more, we rolled four defensemen last year. This year I tried to not take myself out of the game. Just try to play a lot. You don’t want to spend the entire season in the penalty box. I could have fought every guy every shift — maybe I should have fought some more, but whatever, the year is over. You can’t worry about stats like that.”
Coach Pyle wasn’t telling him not to fight, as much as to be smart about it.
“When you’re up, you don’t want to fight at the wrong time and have it cost you and we were up a lot this year,” Manson said.
“I wanted him to fight for the right reasons,” Pyle echoed. And though he didn’t always win them all, Pyle agreed that Manson did a good job picking his spots.
“I think it says a lot about his character too. You have to know when to fight and you have to make your fights valuable. You can’t just fight to fight and have someone take you off the ice when you’re valuable to our team. You want apples for apples. To me that’s a positive sign of a kid that is intelligent enough to understand the game and understand how valuable he is. He can fight when he needs to, and when he doesn’t need to, he doesn’t have to.”
Manson missed only one game, when he was called up to the Chicago Wolves briefly in December, but did not play. In the playoffs Manson had three assists in eight games, and was +2 with 20 penalty minutes.
Acquired by the Thrashers via trade at the draft last season to fill a spot with the Gladiators, Berkhoel spent some time with Chicago when injuries hit. He was hit by two of his own as well, a hip infection that required surgery and a cut to the neck by a skate blade. Between the two, he was held to just 25 total games in the regular season.
Coming off a year in which he won an NCAA national championship with the University of Denver, Berkhoel went 9-10-5 for the Gladiators, with a .913 save percentage and a 2.43 goals against average. He was fairly consistent, but struggled in particular in shootouts, losing five, one short of the league high.
While Berkhoel’s partner in net, Boston University alum Sean Fields, had similar numbers during the regular season, Pyle leaned on Berkhoel in the playoffs, both due to his play at the time and because of his history last year.
“Well I think it was a little bit of both, but at first I wasn’t sure what his situation was going to be with his injury,” Pyle explained. “It was phenomenal the way he came back. I didn’t think he was going to play this year. But then to come back and finish the way he did, I thought it said a lot about the character of the kid. He could easily had reasons for not playing, ‘I’ll wait til next year’, but he worked exceptionally hard to get back and healthy and that was a big part of it. At first I didn’t play him quite as much because I wanted him to get a feel [back] for the game, and get healthy again, get used to everything. Fieldsie got on a bit of a roll there too, and both guys were playing and Fieldsie was winning a bit more. But I knew that come playoff time I would need them both.
“But at the end I just decided that, you know what, Berkie won a national championship so I’ll take that chance with him early and see where it went.”
In the playoffs, Berkhoel was 4-1 with a .938 save percentage and a 1.53 goals against. Except for one game against Charlotte in which he gave up three goals on five shots, he had clearly stepped up his game.
“He played well against Mississippi, and I thought Fieldsie played well too. This round [against Charlotte] I just didn’t think we finished. We had the chances to win it. You can look at some of the goals against, but if we just could have finished, it wouldn’t have mattered. When you’re not scoring a lot of goals, it magnifies that.”
While Berkhoel did manage to have a good season this year despite his injuries, the 5’11 netminder still has some things to prove at the pro level.
“I would have liked to have seen Berkie had he been healthy all year long,” Pyle said of the soon to be 24-year-old. “I don’t think I’ve seen Berkie at his best.”
Berkhoel will be joining the Chicago Wolves as they continue their run at the AHL Calder Cup.
Brad Schell finished the regular season with 53 points, playing in all 72 games, which put him tied for ninth on the rookie scoring list. At 20, he was the youngest player to appear on the list dominated by 23 and 24-year-olds. Schell improved his plus/minus from –18 at one point to finish at –8 for the regular season.
The former Spokane Chief was moved from center to left wing in February, and though he didn’t seem crazy about the move at the time, saying that long-term he saw himself as a centerman, the move looked good on him.
“That’s what I thought,” Pyle agreed. “It was tough because when [Kevin] Doell came I was trying to find guys to put together for the right chemistry. When Doeller came, he and [Mike Vigilante] and Scheller just kind of hit it off well.”
“I liked it,” Schell said after the season was over of playing wing. “It’s a little easier I think, but it was fun. When I got to play with Doeller and Vig we had it going so I didn’t care where I was playing.
As to why he thought the line had so much success, Schell said, “We worked hard. Doeller is a great guy to play with and he’s skilled. And Vigi, sometimes you just give Vigi the puck and let him go. But I think we all blended well together and knew where each other was going to be and that was part of our success.”
Doell, the 2003-04 Rookie of the Year, also under Thrasher contract, opened up space for the rest of the line.
“Yeah he did,” Schell said. “He’s in there and gets his nose dirty and obviously when he’s out there, teams are trying to shut him down, which gives me and Vigi a little more room to play so that works well.”
Was the move so successful that Schell should keep playing wing?
“He can play both, he can play all three, right, left, center, if he wants,” Pyle said. “I just tried it for something different. We were struggling on faceoffs as a whole at times, and you just change things up. I think he can play anywhere really, it’s just a matter of wherever he goes, taking a spot. If he wants to be a centerman, he can be a centerman.”
In the post season Schell continued playing well with Doell and Vigilante and had six points in eight games and was +1.
“Scheller has a lot of talent, when his feistiness comes out a little bit, plays a physical game, he steps right up,” Pyle said. “He has skill, has vision, he can battle, that’s what he needs to do. He’s young too, just like Mike Stathopoulos and Manson, they saw the pro level, they were smart enough to work at it and adjust and their games got better.
“Schell has enormous potential. He’s one of those guys who was one of our better goal scorers. When he got opportunities, he only needed a couple and he was going to score.”
After yet another in a long string of injuries with the Wolves, Ustrnul was assigned to the Gladiators in March, where he would remain for the rest of the season. He had six points in 17 regular season games with the team, was an impressive +9, and had 34 penalty minutes.
After sitting out seven games for a suspension, Ustrnul returned for two playoff games before he tore his meniscus in the final series. It will require surgery to repair.
“Ustie was a great kid in the locker room,” Pyle said. “I know he was disappointed to be sent down, but he came in here and did a perfect job for us. [He’s] 6’5, 250 pounds, plays solid defense. Learned the systems, got along with the guys. I know he was disappointed because if this was his last season in the states, he wanted to finish on a high note. I know he had a tough season with injuries and I know he was disappointed.”
At the end of his three-year of his contract with the Thrashers, Pyle postulated that Ustrnul would probably play next year in Europe.
“He’ll go over there for a year or two and make some good money and be closer to home. I think he got injured a lot here and has been away from home for a long time. I think he’ll go home for a year, be healthy, maybe have a good season and be able to come back the next year. He’s still only 23.”
Pat Dwyer was the only Thrashers prospect to play for the team who wasn’t under Thrashers contract. He was still in school when the CBA expired, so he signed directly with the team after finishing his senior season with Western Michigan.
Dwyer had five assists in 14 games with the Gladiators during the regular season. He played two playoff games before an injury to the finger put him out of the line-up. Dwyer would have been just about ready to come back when the team was knocked out.
“I thought he was great for us,” Pyle said of Dwyer. “Energy guy, picked up the systems real quick. Real intelligent. Extremely hard worker. He struggled finishing, which I think is his M.O. But he creates a lot and just plays hard.
“Right when he started getting more comfortable he got hurt. But he played some really good games for us. I think to come in and get a sniff of the pro game, to come back knowing what it’s going to be like will really help him.”
Beyond Manson, Schell, Berkhoel, Dwyer and Ustrnul, the other Thrashers prospects passing through were Doell (11 games), Colin Stuart (5), Paul Flache (3), Brian Sipotz (2), and Jeff Dwyer (2).
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