Thrashers Top 20 prospects

By Holly Gunning

The Atlanta Thrashers Top 20 prospects list has become a lot more competitive as a good 2005 draft class is performing very well this season. A few from the 2004 class have come on strong lately as well. Older draft picks are being overtaken by talented youngsters, though one pick from 2000 returns to the list.

Virtually none of the Thrashers top prospects are playing in the minor leagues, most are in Canadian juniors or the NCAA. Only six of the Top 20 are currently playing professionally, including two NHL rookies. There will be a big rookie class this fall, however, as a good number of the team’s most talented will move out of college or juniors at the end of this season.

Defense and goaltending are the strength of the organization — nine of the Atlanta Thrashers top 20 prospects are defenseman and four are goaltenders. Six of the Top 20 are picks from the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
2. Braydon Coburn, D
3. Alex Bourret, RW
4. Ondrej Pavelec, G
5. Jim Slater, C
6. Mark Popovic, D
7. Boris Valabik, D
8. Dan Turple, G
9. Grant Lewis, D
10. Tomas Pospisil, RW
11. Nathan Oystrick, D
12. Andrei Zubarev, D
13. Ilja Nikulin, D
14. Chad Painchaud, RW
15. Jordan LaVallee, LW
16. Guillaume Desbiens, RW
17. Brett Sterling, LW
18. Chad Denny, D
19. Michael Garnett, G
20. Mike Vannelli, D

1. Kari Lehtonen, G
Atlanta Thrashers (NHL), Age: 22
1st round, 2nd overall, 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Suffering a groin injury on opening night, Kari Lehtonen spent most of this season discovering an underlying hip issue and rehabbing. He was invited to play for Finland in the Olympics, but instead opted to continue his rehab. The 22-year-old NHL rookie has played in all but one game for the Thrashers since his return. Though he gave up more goals than he would have liked at first, he’s won five of his last six games.

Now back in top form, his short and long-term outlook remain stellar. Fighting for the last playoff spot in the East, the Thrashers will go exactly as far as Lehtonen will take them this year.

2. Braydon Coburn, D
Chicago Wolves (AHL), Age: 21
1st round, 8th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

For the first time perhaps ever in Braydon Coburn’s life, he got in over his head early this season. He had made a smooth transition from the WHL to the AHL at the end of last season on a strong Chicago Wolves club, and was expected to make the NHL roster in the fall. His defensive play, however, proved not to be up to snuff.

Frustrated by not sticking with the NHL club, he has not stood out on the now struggling Wolves team either. Overall, Coburn has been a mild disappointment this season, but he’s still loaded with all the right raw materials and his long-term outlook remains good. Neither offensive gifted nor a physical force, Coburn’s career hinges on him being very solidly defensively, and that’s where the recently-turned 21-year-old needs to improve. He has 24 points in 52 games for the Wolves this season.

3. Alex Bourret, LW
Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL), Age: 19
1st round, 16th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

The most offensively talented Thrashers prospect, Alex Bourret is tied for seventh in scoring in the QMJHL with 41 goals and 66 assists in 61 games with the Shawinigan Cataractes.

Invited to Team Canada WJC camp in the summer but not selected for the team, his snub acted as a motivation. Bourret started tearing it up in December and he hasn’t let up since, earning an offensive player of the week honor most recently for the week ending Feb. 19.

Drafted for his physicality as well as his offense, the 5’10 Bourret has improved his renowned poor conditioning and will have a decent chance at making the Thrashers roster in the fall. With a fall birthday, he would also be eligible to play in the AHL.

4. Ondrej Pavelec, G
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL), Age: 18
2nd round, 41st overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

A rookie coming over from the Czech junior league, Ondrej Pavelec has been stellar in the QMJHL. He leads the league with a .928 save percentage and his 2.56 GAA is second overall. He has a 26-16 record for the Screaming Eagles who sit sixth out of 16 teams.

He has not slowed down at all with all the work — if anything, he’s getting better. Pavelec was Rookie of the Month for February and was named QMJHL Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season for Feb. 20 – Mar. 2 after registering a 2-1-0 record, one shutout, 1.34 GAA and .963 save percentage in three games during that span.

5. Jim Slater, C
Atlanta Thrashers (NHL), Age: 23
1st round, 30th overall, 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Jim Slater was the only rookie skater to stick with the much improved NHL club this season. The former first round draft pick out of Michigan State has very good speed, decent hands, and is strong on faceoffs at 57.7 percent. An extremely versatile player, he can play on a scoring or a checking line. Either way, his energy is infectious, which makes him a leader even at a young age.

Having played only 41 games in college last year, Slater has struggled with the compacted NHL season. He had slowed down considerably in the second half, but being scratched for two games prior to the Olympics, and then the Olympic break itself helped him recharge. He’s since come back flying and has even found himself on the top line with Marian Hossa.

Slater has seven goals and seven assists in 51 games.

6. Mark Popovic, D
Chicago Wolves (AHL), Age: 23
Acquired via trade from Anaheim in 2005

Mark Popovic has done everything his new club asked of him this year, and maintained a positive attitude throughout. He’s the most NHL-ready prospect in Chicago, and is just waiting for an opportunity. He played five games with the Thrashers in two callups due to sickness and a suspension, and the rest of the year the 23-year-old has spent teaching rookies how to play the game.

Popovic is very calm with the puck and makes a good outlet pass. The fourth-year pro is on pace to surpass by far his career high in points with 29 points already in 56 games.

7. Boris Valabik, D
Kitchener Rangers (OHL), Age: 20
1st round, 10th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Boris Valabik had a very good WJC tournament with Slovakia, but has made only adequate progression the rest of the season with Kitchener. He’s gotten a lot of ice time, in part due to an injury to Matt Lashoff (BOS), and is part of the Rangers top-ranked penalty-killing unit.

Known to be somewhat of a loose cannon, Valabik brought his penalty minute rate per game down from 5.37 last year to 4.11 this year. But he showed he has another kind of cannon he rarely uses, winning the hardest shot competition in OHL All-Star Skills Competition at the end of January with a 96.3 miles per hour blast. If he used the shot more often, he might have more than the one goal on the season.

Valabik has little offensive upside, but you can’t teach size, nor can you teach nasty. Valabik has both.

8. Dan Turple, G
Kitchener Rangers (OHL), Age: 21
6th round, 186th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Turple is the second Thrashers goaltender leading one of the Canadian major junior leagues. His .924 save percentage with the Kitchener Rangers leads the OHL as does his 2.26 GAA. He is also tied for first in shutouts in the league with five.

Steve Spott, Kitchener’s Assistant General Manager and Associate Head Coach, told Hockey’s Future in January that “[Turple] is very quick and his ability to make the big saves at crucial times in the game is what separates Dan from other goaltenders at this level.”

The 6’6 Turple was named the OHL goaltender of the Month for both January and February. Over that span he had a record of 17-3-1-0. It’s hard to argue with numbers like those.

Turple must be signed this summer and there’s little question it will happen. The best destination for him is to start at the ECHL level with the Gwinnett Gladiators, where he can get a lot of ice time. The now 21-year-old could have turned pro last season if not for shoulder surgery over the summer.

9. Grant Lewis, D
Dartmouth (ECACHL), junior, Age: 21
2nd round, 40th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

A two-way defenseman, Lewis is second in defensive scoring on Dartmouth behind Ben Lovejoy with 14 points in 25 games with three power-play goals and two game-winners. This pace is down from his sophomore year when he scored 22 points in 33 games.

The 6’3 Lewis was one of three Dartmouth players named to the 2005-06 All-Ivy League team at the end of the regular season. Dartmouth has picked it up late in the year, becoming ECACHL Co-Champions heading into the postseason

The Thrashers may entice Lewis to leave college a year early, either later this season or over the summer.

10. Tomas Pospisil, RW
Sarnia Sting (OHL), Age: 18
5th round, 135th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Tomas Pospisil is having a terrific rookie season with the OHL Sarnia Sting. The right wing is fourth in rookie scoring in the league with 50 points in 56 games. His 24 goals place him tied for second amongst rookies in that category.

It’s been a surprisingly easy adjustment for the 18-year-old Czech native, who spent last year with both the junior and men’s teams for Trinec.

“He’s a skill player and a smart player and he’s made the adjustment very nicely,” Sarnia Head Coach Shawn Camp told Hockey’s Future in February. “The physical aspect of the game in North American with the smaller rinks, he seems to be OK with the body contact. He doesn’t seem to get flustered by it at all, in fact he tries to be physical at times himself.”

Pospisil will almost certainly return to Sarnia next season.

11. Nathan Oystrick, D
Northern Michigan (CCHA), senior, Age: 23
7th round, 198th overall, 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Nathan Oystrick has a very high point production rate for Northern Michigan, but don’t let it fool you into projecting him as an offensive defenseman at the pro level. He’s getting power play time at Northern that he won’t get as a pro, in particular a spot down low.

The 6’0 blueliner has a big transition to make to the pro game, which will include playing within his position. He simply doesn’t have the speed to run around at the pro level as he sometimes does in college. He’ll also need to get his stick off of bodies and not stand still in front of his own net.

Oystrick is already 23 years old, which gives him a relatively short window in which to improve and make an impact. Life was a little too easy for him at Northern this year as a senior, and the pro game could be a rude awakening.

Look for Oystrick to turn pro when Northern’s season is complete. The team had a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs this past weekend, so the weekend of Mar. 10 will be the one to watch.

12. Andrei Zubarev, D
Kazan Ak-Bars (Russia), Age: 19
6th round, 187th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Andrei Zubarev tore up the Russian Super League this season as an 18-year-old. Just turned 19, the 6’1 defenseman has 12 points in 40 games, but has recently broken his wrist and is most likely out for the remainder of the season.

Zubarev’s English is on par with Alexander Ovechkin’s at the start of the season, that is to say good. His contract in Russia goes for one more year. He’ll almost certainly be signed and brought to North American in 2007.

13. Ilja Nikulin, D
Kazan Ak-Bars (Russia), Age: 23
2nd round, 31st overall, 2000 NHL Entry Draft

If Ilja Nikulin plays just two games for the Thrashers, he will be the first of the team’s second round picks ever to do so, though, to be fair, the team did not pick in the second round in 2001, 2002, or 2003.

Nikulin has some decent skill with nine goals and nine assists in 47 games in the Russian Super League. Players generally score at similar rates between the RSL and NHL, so not much dropoff should be expected in production coming across the pond. Nikulin recently got a new agent and the Thrashers are very hopeful that he can be signed this summer and brought over.

The question on Nikulin will be how well and quickly he adjusts to the North American game. A bit of time in the AHL might be appropriate. But as he turns 24 next week, he shouldn’t need a lot of seasoning.

14. Chad Painchaud, RW
Sarnia Sting (OHL), Age: 19
4th round, 106th overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Chad Painchaud set career highs in all offensive categories playing on the same team as Pospisil this season before being sidelined with a torn knee ligament on Feb. 7 as the result of a knee on knee collision.

The 19-year-old finished with 31 goals and 34 assists in 49 games, which lead the Sting.
As Coach Camp succinctly put it, “Chad’s really figured out what it takes to be a player.”

One of his best attributes is great wheels, putting in the best lap time and earned the Western Conference another point when he completed a fast lap in 14.255 seconds in the OHL All-Star Skills Competition at the end of January.

Drafted in 2004, Painchaud must be signed over the summer. There’s no reason to think he won’t be, and begin in the ECHL, where the organization likes to start rookies. But right now, getting his knee healed up is priority No. 1.

15. Jordan LaVallee, LW
Quebec Remparts (QMJHL), Age: 19
4th round, 116th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

After scoring an impressive 40 goals in 2004-05, Jordan LaVallee has just 10 on the season, in a year shortened by a nagging back injury. Overall he has 20 points in 22 games. LaVallee’s penalty minutes have dropped significantly as well, from 1.69 per game last season to 1.03 this year, vividly showing how the injury may have taken away the critical edge in the power forward’s game.

LaVallee needs to show that his 2004-05 season was more than just a flash in the pan. Drafted at 19, he does not have to be signed until June 1, 2007, but will more than likely be signed this summer in order to move him on to higher competition.

16. Guillaume Desbiens, RW
Gwinnett Gladiators (ECHL), Age: 20
4th round, 116th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

Guillaume Desbiens is the elusive power forward teams crave. The 6’2 215-pounder played this role in the QMJHL last year, and he’s showing he can bring that game to the pro level as well. In fact, Desbiens has even better numbers playing professionally than he did in junior, scoring 47 points in 49 ECHL games, compared to 43 points in 56 games for Rouyn-Noranda. His 140 penalty minutes are down from the year before as the Gladiators look to him more for scoring than enforcement. He is eighth among league rookies in scoring and was a representative to the ECHL All-Star game.

Desbiens hit a short slump a few weeks ago, scoring only four points in 10 games. Coach Jeff Pyle speculated that maybe he had gotten into a comfort zone, no longer trying so hard to prove himself, or perhaps was tired from so much ice time. But he thought he was still working hard, and getting opportunities.

Desbiens was called up to Chicago in February, but didn’t see much playing time. He’s now back with the Gladiators and is expected to finish the season with the team, who lead their division heading into the playoffs.

17. Brett Sterling, LW
Colorado College (WCHA), senior, Age: 21
5th round, 145th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

Sterling’s scoring prowess cannot be argued. The pint-sized scoring machine has 51 points in 37 games for Colorado College and his 28 goals are second nationally. Fifteen of those goals have come on the power play, which is tied for the most in the country and seven have been game winners. While still excellent, Sterling’s 1.38 point per game pace is off his 1.50 pace from 2004-05, when he was a top-three finalist for the 2005 Hobey Baker Award, given yearly to college hockey’s top performer.

Looking towards the pro game, Sterling needs to work harder away from the puck and avoid simply floating, awaiting offensive opportunities. It will be more difficult to remain elusive on a smaller ice surface amongst bigger players. His speed is adequate, but not a true strength.

Sterling did not play on Mar. 3 due to a leg injury suffered on Mar. 2, but is probable to return next weekend. A graduating senior, he will likely be signed soon by the Thrashers. He’ll bring some much-needed scoring punch to the farm club either later this season or next.

18. Chad Denny, D
Lewiston MAINEiacs (QMJHL), Age: 18
2nd round, 49th overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Not projected as a scoring defenseman, 6’2 210-pound Chad Denny has a powerful slapshot and it has allowed him to put up 16 goals in 54 games for Lewiston.

Denny plays on both special teams and leads his team in plus/minus with +12. The recent second round pick will be 19 later this month and will return to play junior next season as well.

19. Michael Garnett, G
Chicago Wolves (AHL), Age: 23
3rd round, 80th overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft

Pushed into starting duty this year during a rash of injuries, Garnett became a temporary hero for the Thrashers, playing in 23 games and winning 10 of them. His moment in the spotlight is over, however, and now comes the difficult part of proving he can get back to the NHL.

Lehtonen’s Achilles’ heel has been his fragile body. Garnett is nearly the picture of health, but he has some big flaws of his own – he’s highly inconsistent, and that includes his mental game. The best goaltenders are often silent and grumpy, and maybe there’s a lesson in focus in there, in contrast to the very relaxed Garnett.

Don’t expect him to be able to coach himself out of a bad patch. When asked by Hockey’s Future in October what goes wrong for him when he has a bad game, Garnett didn’t have a good answer.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Just games that sometimes…they’re out of my control. I wouldn’t really say that it’s a personal thing, just that sometimes the team struggles defensively, and you feed off the team. They just bury their chances. Usually I go out and feel pretty much the same every time.”

Reassigned to Chicago when Mike Dunham returned from IR, Garnett has recently been sitting in Chicago in favor of the Wolves-contracted Tuomas Tarkki due to poor play.

20. Mike Vannelli, D
Minnesota (WCHA), junior, Age: 22
4th round, 136th overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

As well as Vannelli handles and moves the puck, you’d expect him to have even more assists than he does. He has nine on the year to go along with seven goals in 35 games for Minnesota. Four of his goals have come on the power play, where he is a fixture. He’s getting plenty of ice time paired with Derek Peltier (COL), his partner since last year.

Excellent defensively, Vannelli holds an impressive +15 on the year. He plays the penalty kill equally well as the power play. Sufficiently physical and looking like he has filled out some this year, he is able to eliminate the opposition cleanly, taking only 38 minutes in penalties. His skating has only gotten better, playing on the Olympic-sized ice for the Golden Gophers.

Two sets of father-son duos in Gophers men’s hockey history have captured WCHA championships, Mike and his father, Tom. While he looks like he could have a good professional career, there’s no reason to think he won’t finish out his time at Minnesota first.

Missing the cut

Andrew Kozek, F
University North Dakota (WCHA), freshman, Age: 19
2nd round, 53rd overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Kozek is off to a slow start with North Dakota. The scoring prowess he displayed in the BCHL has not yet translated to the NCAA.

Karl Stewart, LW
Chicago Wolves (AHL), Age: 22
Free agent signee

Stewart has played more NHL games than the second rounder he was discovered while viewing, Libor Ustrnul, but his top end is as a fourth line energy player. He could still eventually make it, but his potential is not as high as others on the list.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.