Training camp has been a challenge this season for the Atlanta Thrashers top two prospects, 2002 first rounder Kari Lehtonen and 2003 first rounder Braydon Coburn. Lehtonen’s injured groin has not only kept him from playing any preseason games, but has drawn criticism for his conditioning from Coach Bob Hartley. Coburn, thought to have an inside track of making the team, showed that while he is physically ready for the NHL, he has some learning still to do. The ability of the team to power into the season without depending on them, however, has been a testament to its vastly improved depth.
Yet another cut came down yesterday, with Karl Stewart assigned to AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves. Lehtonen, Coburn, Jim Slater and Adam Berkhoel are the four prospects remaining in camp.
Karl Stewart, LW
The first few days of camp were concentrated on conditioning, and this is somewhere Stewart performed very well. He ‘climbed the mountain,’ in an impressive 43 seconds and did not know of anyone who had beaten that time in camp.
“Karl showed up to camp in great shape,” Hartley echoed. “We know he brings lots of speed, lots of energy, and that’s what players his size usually do.”
Stewart has described himself as a sandpaper guy, and Hartley agreed on this job description.
“Oh yeah, he ‘s a guy that brings grit, and he needs to bring energy at every shift. He needs to be ready and an agitator out there that keeps the other team on its toes. If he’s capable of doing this, he’s going to improve his chances of being an NHL player.”
The 5’11 winger came in at 180 pounds, five pounds lighter than to last year’s Wolves camp. He said it was a more natural weight for him, joking that at 22 he was just starting to develop “old man strength.”
But while he came to camp in great shape, Stewart failed to stand out from the pack in other ways, perhaps still finding a way to play his sandpaper game within the new rules.
“Right now it’s finding ways to do it,” he said. “I learned how to do it in the American League, now with no hooking and holding, two referees, I have to find it [in the NHL].”
Hartley offered that it was Derek MacKenzie who “has been the most impressive player coming out of Chicago. Big improvement. I think he matured around the game – he’s in control. He’s still using his speed, but he’s using his speed to get to the right spots. I saw a big change in his control in the game.”
If Stewart can agitate within the rules and focus his speed the way Hartley feels MacKenzie has, he’ll likely get chance with the team later in the year. Stewart played five games with the Thrashers at the beginning of the 2003-04 season. His cut from camp was not unexpected, a sign both of the difficulty of making an improved team and of a need for some adjustment in his game.
Kari Lehtonen, G
Lehtonen suffered a pulled groin on Sept. 16 on the first day of intrasquad scimmages. Groin injuries are fast becoming his Achilles heel, having suffered several in the past couple of years.
Hartley was not pleased with the injury, saying, “there was no need for this,” and indicating a direct relationship between groin pulls and being in better shape. He praised his former starter in Colorado, Patrick Roy, for the shape he was in. “I’m not very happy about that one,” Hartley said.
Lehtonen resumed skating on Friday, Sept. 23, but has yet to play in any preseason games. In his absense, veteran Mike Dunham has played most of the time in net, blurring the lines between No. 1 and No. 2 on the team.
The Thrashers next preseason game is Thursday, in Nashville, and then home against Nashville the following night. It’s uncertain if Lehtonen will be ready by that time. The uber-prospect has no questions surrounding his talent, only his conditioning, preparation and health.
After an injury-plagued rookie season, Berkhoel is getting a prime development opportunity in camp due to Lehtonen’s groin injury. He played in just one preseason game, but importantly, is simply seeing a lot of NHL shots in practice.
Slated to return to the Gwinnett Gladiators for another year, his time in camp has given the organization some relief in knowing the 24-year-old is able to fill in where needed.
Michael Garnett, the heir apparent for the Wolves, was assigned there on Sept. 22. Berkhoel will remain with the Thrashers to serve as the backup to Dunham until Lehtonen is healthy.
Jim Slater, C
It’s a rare thing that a player comes straight out of college to make the NHL in his first camp, but Jim Slater naturally plays Hartley’s style of game — hard-working, physical, and smart. Because of that, he just may find a spot in the opening night line-up.
In practice last week, Hartley asked Dunham if he saw a shot from the point that had just beaten him. Dunham said no. Why, Hartley asked? Dunham pointed to Slater, who was standing right in front of him. Hartley praised Slater for his positioning in front of the net, an example for others to follow.
In the preseason, Slater has been playing on the third line with players like J.P. Vigier and MacKenzie, and on the power play. If he makes the final cut, Slater would be somewhat of a power play specialist, stationed down low. He had 4:42 of power play time on Saturday against Carolina, out of a total of 12:27.
Slater did not join the Wolves at the end of his senior year at Michigan State this spring, opting for safety’s sake not to sign a non-NHL contract. He had surgery on his wrist right away instead. This lack of a taste for the pro game does not seem to have hurt his preparation, however.
If Slater doesn’t make the team, it will be for salary cap and contract reasons, not for lack of NHL readiness. This potential future captain will be a part of the team, it’s only a question of when.
Braydon Coburn, D
Coburn arrived in camp in tip-top shape, stealing the show in a skating endurance test. He was part of a lead group with veterans Bobby Holik and Peter Bondra, but in the last lap, pushed ahead for a strong win. His fitness is very clearly one of his best assets.
The 6’5 defenseman couldn’t wait to get started throwing checks on the first day of camp, and was probably the most physical player on the ice. The determination to do so faded, however, and he didn’t consistently bring that element past that point.
In practice last week, Hartley stopped Coburn during a drill and asked him, “Where are we in the season?” The rookie answered factually that they were in the preseason. Wrong answer. Andy Sutton helped him with the right answer: “Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.” The point, notably made, was that Coburn needed to considerably ramp up the intensity and practice how he intended to play.
The 20-year-old struggled with his decision-making with the puck as well as positioning in preseason games. He has played mostly at even strength, paired mostly with Tomas Kloucek with some work on the penalty kill. Coburn played just 12:14 total minutes on Saturday, with 4:19 of them coming short-handed.
The decision on whether to keep Coburn to start the season will be a tough one, but in the end the blue line is probably too deep and Coburn’s greenness too visible to warrant him beginning the year with the Thrashers. With a bit more experience in the pro game, he’ll be back up with the team and a steady fixture on the blue line for years to come.
The Thrashers now have 27 players in training camp, including 16 forwards, eight defensemen and three goaltenders, not counting the unsigned Ilya Kovalchuk. The maximum number a team can carry is 23, but the team has indicated a preference to carry 21 or 22.
Steffon Walby, who was to be a first-year Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations for the ECHL Mississippi Sea Wolves this season, remains with the team in an unofficial coaching capacity. The Sea Wolves were forced to suspend operations for one year following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on their Biloxi community.
Walby played for Hartley in Hershey of the AHL, helping win the league championship in 1997. Hartley has served as a mentor to Walby since he turned to coaching, last year as associate coach and three seasons as a player/assistant coach for Mississippi.
Walby has been helping with drills in practice and is an eye in the sky during games, alongside Thrashers assistant coach Steve Weeks.
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