The ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators have six Atlanta Thrashers prospects assigned to the team, three defensemen and three forwards. It’s a fairly high number for a team at this level, especially for position players. The Gladiators, who had Michael Garnett and Adam Berkhoel in previous seasons, have not seen any goaltenders assigned to them thanks to the injury epidemic in Atlanta. At 11-5-3, they are tied for third in the tightly-backed South Division.
Below is a review of each prospect thus far this season.
Guillaume Desbiens, RW
Desbiens has played the entire year with Gwinnett, but was not added to the roster until the day of the first game. Without going through training camp, it meant there was a delayed adjustment for him as a rookie out of the QMJHL. When he first arrived, he played a weekend without any systems, then was suspended for a game (Nov. 4).
“Now you can see over the last two or three weeks that he’s found his niche and he’s just starting to go,” said Gladiators head coach Jeff Pyle. “It’s more instinct and he’s excited. You can see he’s having fun. When he got here he said ‘I’m not disappointed about being here, I just want to play’ and that’s what he’s doing. He’s making a name for himself.”
Scoreless in his first four games, the 20-year-old is now tied for eighth amongst league rookies with 18 points in 18 games, seven of them goals. Desbiens also has 48 penalty minutes, including three fighting majors.
To Desbiens, the adjustment period was more about life off the ice, adjusting to living on his own in an apartment rather than with billets. He said although this level is harder, he’s trying to play exactly the same way he did in junior: “skate, hit hard, sometimes fight and a couple of power play goals.”
He’s got more than a couple, though — three already in 18 games. His designated spot is in the high slot, and given the Gladiators power play set-up, it’s an important position.
“We’re trying to get some guys down low and then get it out to me so I can either shoot or pass it to a back door, either Lane Manson or Pascal (Pelletier) if they’re there,” Desbiens described. “That’s basically what we’re trying to do, and when that’s not open, we’re getting pucks on the point and they’re taking a shot and hoping for a deflection.”
Upon hearing Desbiens’ description of what they were trying to do, Pyle affirmed that his understanding was right on, it is exactly what they are doing.
“If there’s pressure on the wall, we get it to the guy in the slot and he’s got to dish it to the right guy. He’s kind of like the center in basketball. I don’t know if many teams do it that way, but that’s the way I do it.”
A very coachable player, Desbiens has completely bought into Pyle’s systems.
“He’s in. He’s really in. He understands, and if he doesn’t, he goes right to Pascal. Those two are a good fit for each other. I think Pascal has been a great, great mentor for him. That’s part of it. He has a guy, a confidante that he can trust and knows.”
Pelletier, 22, is not only a fellow French-Canadian friend, but also a linemate. The entire line, which also includes Jeff Campbell, has stepped up in light of the recent call-ups of Chris Durno to Milwaukee and Scott Kelman to Manitoba.
“I think he understands that we have a pretty good situation here and he’s taking advantage of it.”
Lane Manson, D
Twenty-one-year-old Manson returns to the Gladiators this season with an “A” on his jersey.
“He’s a young kid, he’s a total team guy, I just thought it would motivate him,” Pyle explained. “I love the kid, I’m behind him 100 percent. He’s a character kid. I just thought that with the fighting he does, and the team stuff he does, he deserved a letter.”
Though there was another he regretted not giving a letter to, Pyle said he thought it did have the desired effect.
“I think so, but I think as a second-year guy now he wanted an opportunity in Chicago (AHL) which he didn’t quite get. So it was probably on his mind that he had to do more. He’s doing less now, but he’s doing what he does best more, as opposed to trying to do too much and then not getting your own job done. For a while he struggled there. In the last four or five games, he’s really stepped it up.”
Stepping up in this case means that fewer opposition players are getting past him, and he controls his section of the ice with more authority than last season.
Manson said of the A, “I’m honored to have it. Coach gave it to me right out of the gate, the start of the year. It’s a privilege I had in Moose Jaw when I was 19 and it’s something to take pride in. I’m glad he respects me enough to give me a letter.”
Besides his skating, Manson does need to use his size to his advantage more. Thrashers GM Don Waddell said over the summer, “His strength is being physical and he went through some times last year where I watched him and I didn’t think he was physical enough.”
Pyle is satisfied with the amount of fighting and hitting he does.
“You don’t want him running around because that’s not his game. Know who his people are, eliminate those guys and when he has a good chance to hit, he hits, but in control. I think he’s done exactly what I want him to do. He leads in plus/minus so he’s done a good job.”
Manson lead the team in plus/minus on Friday, but is now third on the team at +10. He’s been paired mostly with either Steve Slaton or rookie Mike York and has three points in 18 games and 64 penalty minutes. His defense on the rush is very good, but could improve on the cycle where quick acceleration is necessary.
Jim Sharrow, D
The only other rookie sent by the Thrashers besides Desbiens, Sharrow was assigned to Gwinnett on Nov. 23 after recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in Chicago. He played one game in Chicago after healing, but it was clear he was not ready for that level.
“I’m not sure how he felt he fit in when he got here,” Pyle said. “I’m sure he wanted to play here, but he’s got to be disappointed that he’s not there too. You get that first week or two where you’re not sure, and then how do I fit him in, and now he’s starting to fit in more and more and better and better. I think again it takes a while for me to earn their trust and I’m going through that with Jimmy now. He’s got great skill, great vision, he’s understanding more my systems and he’s starting to like them, I can see that. I’ve got to try and get him more ice time, but the way things have been going, the way we’ve been playing, it’s tough to change. Our power play has been really good.”
Sharrow has been played with Danny Eberly, a 24-year-old third-year pro, which is probably the team’s third pairing. An offensive defenseman, there’s been very little scoring thus far from Sharrow, just three points in nine games. Pyle explained that this was by design.
“It’s more me. I tell them ‘You guys chose to play defense. Five on five in this league you’re going to get a lot of opportunities anyway, but if we’re up in the play all the time, we’ll be in trouble. I tell them ‘If you want to play forward, tell me, I’ll put you at forward.’ But right now he needs to learn defense and to move the puck up, and he needs to learn when to jump in and when not to. It’s a big difference from the Quebec League to here. He’s a good player, he’s going to be a great player. But he needs to learn the little things. Once you learn the little things, everything will get easier.”
Little things to eliminate would include not making dangerous passes that may be picked off by the opposition, and completely eliminating his man down low. Sharrow is +4 on the year.
Jeff Dwyer, D
Dwyer played two games for Gwinnett last season on a conditioning stint as he tried to return from a groin injury. He re-injured himself while with the team, however, and never played another game in 2004-05. He had just 11 total between Chicago and Gwinnett.
Waddell said of Dwyer in August, “He’ll be coming to camp. He’s got to make up for a year though.”
Assigned to the Gladiators on Nov. 3, Dwyer is playing well, but it would be hard to argue he’s playing so well as to make up for his lost year. That said, Pyle is very satisfied with his play at this level.
“Jeff’s a solid two-way defenseman, could bring a little more offense, but he understands when he’s back there with [Troy Milam] that he may be the role guy. Jeff’s accepted the role I need him here for.”
Along with Milam, who is on a Chicago Wolves contract, Dwyer gets top pairing minutes and time on the power play.
Any bitterness Dwyer has towards his situation at the AA level this season should be tempered by coming to terms with the poor training camp he had with Atlanta. He started very slowly in September, but has played better as the season has gone on. He’s done it without breaking a nail or taking a single penalty. The appearance of a lack of edge doesn’t concern Pyle.
“I don’t think that’s his game. I think he’s just a solid two-way defenseman. Sometimes you don’t see him doing extra, but he battles and he’s been great since he’s been here. He’s never once complained about ‘I don’t want to listen to your systems.’”
Dwyer, at 25 the oldest Thrashers prospect in Gwinnett, has five assists in 16 games and is +6.
Brad Schell, C
To the casual observer, Schell is playing adequately this season for the Gladiators. He has six goals and 10 assists in 18 games playing on a line with talented rookies Derek Nesbitt and Scott Mifsud. His plus/minus, a concern last season, is +9, which ties him for fourth on the team. But, with the most natural talent amongst forwards, the fact that Schell has not stepped up his game over his rookie season has been a disappointment.
“I had a talk with Scheller,” Pyle revealed. “I knew he was bitter about the situation, but I told him, I said ‘You know you need to be more physical, it doesn’t matter where you go, what team you play for, what league you play in.’ He’s got good skills, he’s been good for us. But since we had that talk, I sat him out one game (Nov. 25), and I told him why. ‘Scheller, you could be a difference-maker. I need you to be Kris Goodjohn (last year’s scoring leader). I don’t need you to be tough, but I need you to get involved a little more.’”
Over the last couple weeks, Schell has been a bit more involved. He’ll never be one to line guys up for big hits, but he can let them know he’s there and be more willing to go into traffic. Four of his six goals have been scored in the past seven games, since the sit-down.
“It was really good, he came in to me when we talked. I didn’t have to call him in,” Pyle said. “And I wasn’t pissed at him because he wasn’t playing good, but it bothers me when I care more about his game than he does.
“He said ‘When was the last time I got rocked?’ I said ‘I’ll do you one more, when was the last time you rocked somebody?’ It’s more fun to rock than to get rocked (laughing). I was always told ‘first shift, either hit or get hit.’ When you do, your game and intensity level has to go up. I said Scheller, if your intensity level goes up, your game will go up. If it doesn’t, I will quit my job. Because I know.”
There’s nothing wrong with Schell’s game that hard work won’t cure.
“He got stronger on the weights. I think his conditioning is fine, but some guys just don’t know how hard they can work. They don’t know what their limits are. I think he doesn’t know how far his body can go. If he ever figures it out, he could be scary.”
Adam Smyth, RW
Smyth, signed as a free agent by the Thrashers this summer, had a chance to stick with Chicago this season, but played only two games with them before being reassigned on Nov. 18. He played 49 games with the Gladiators last year, then on a Chicago contract.
Pyle was angry with Smyth after his first game back for taking penalties that cost the team the game.
“We work too hard, we take control, we have the momentum, 2-2 game,” Pyle said at the time. “And then Smitty, for whatever reason, just decides he needs to take a penalty. He’s got to understand he’s got to learn to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played or he won’t play.”
He seemed to have gotten the message.
“Yeah, he’s been much better,” Pyle said this weekend. “The thing is for Smitty, and I told him, the game’s changed for him and [Manson]. And it’s not a positive thing for them. So they’ve got to adjust their game to the way it’s being played now. Otherwise, you get eliminated from the picture. Smitty’s tough, no one will ever question that. He’s got a heart as big as his head. He’s a team guy. He’s got everything you want. One thing he’s got to understand is self-discipline to work hard offensively – he can score. He’s got to learn to play the game more, to be better in systems, and to work harder offensively. That’s just skating, driving the net, doing little things well. Picking up the right guy.
“We know he’s tough, everyone knows he’s tough, they don’t question that. Can he play the game at the next level. He can fight, but he needs to bring something else to the table.”
Smyth’s fighting skills are indeed impressive to the point of being worth the price of admission. He has four fighting majors and 63 penalty minutes along with five points in 11 games.
A willing and effective hitter, lately Smyth has been on a line with captain Cam Brown and converted defenseman Steve Slaton. His +1 rating is not necessarily a good evaluation of his defensive efforts, as he does a good job coming back and covering for pinching defensemen.
While Desbiens and Smyth accomplish many of the same things on any given shift, there are some key differences. Pyle agreed that Desbiens is more of a power forward, with a knack for offense, and called the tougher Smyth an “old-school junkyard dog.”
“Smitty can be [a power forward], but I don’t think he believes it as much as we believe it. That’s my job. I’ve got to get it in his head that he can be that 20-goal scorer.”
With neither Atlanta nor Chicago doing well in the standings, opportunities are sure to open up for these players. It’s up to them to be mentally prepared when that happens.
“I tell the guys, you can piss and moan about everything if you want, we’ve all got a gripe in life,” Pyle said. “But I don’t think Gwinnett should be paying for you guys being bitter at Atlanta or Chicago or whoever. Bottom line, I’ll do anything I can do to help you, but while they’re here, I need them to help us as an organization. They’ve all done that. Yeah, they all want to play up top, and they all want to move up.
“I told them if you’re bitching, pissing and moaning, that report goes to Chicago and Atlanta. I don’t candy coat it. You guys are either going to be here and be professional about it, and you’re playing to move up to Chicago or Atlanta, or there’s 26 other teams in the American League that you could be in. As much as you don’t like the situation you’re in, your attitude can be positive about it, and work for yourself as a professional, or you can turn it the other way.”
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.